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Heads up – Embassy 8 – May 2008

Kazakhstan – Steppe change

There's more to Kazakhstan than oil and gas, says Kairat Abusseitov, the new Kazakh Ambassador to London, who thinks it's time to start changing the British public's perception of his country.

Starting with Borat, the fictional character who put Kazakhstan on the map – for all the wrong reasons.

"People joke that our Tourism Agency should pay Borat part of its revenues because after the release of the movie, many tourists visited Kazakhstan to check if this movie was true," he quips.

Jokes aside, he says now that he has their attention, he plans to show the pubic the real spirit of Kazakhstan.

"Creating a country's image is like playing puzzle game," he says. "You need to collect piece by piece in order compose a full picture."

In particular, he wants to present Kazakhstan as more than a land of oil and gas. Britain is the third largest investor in Kazakhstan, mainly in the areas of energy, utilities, mining and finance, but the Ambassador wants to encourage small and medium firms to open for business in his country.

Kazakhstan's break-neck growth rates of 10% are unlikely in the current climate, he says, but sustainable growth and investment in infrastructure, healthcare and high-tech industries will now be a priority.

Kazakhstan's strategic partnership with Britain extends right back to the early days of statehood when the UK was among the first countries to recognise Kazakhstan's independence.

With the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal based in Kazakhstan, non-proliferation was an early priority both for Kazakhstan and Britain, which offered security guarantees to recognise newly independent state's decision to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and military infrastructure.

Abusseitov was involved in formulating this policy as head of the national security department at Kazakhstan's centre for strategic studies.

Joining the Foreign Ministry in 1993, he was put in charge of the international security and arms control division. In 1996 he headed to Washington as DCM - his PhD in American history must have earned him some approving nods in Pennsylvania Avenue.

Returning to Astana in 1998, the Ambassador headed up the multilateral department before being appointed deputy foreign minister and then first deputy foreign minister.

Multilateral diplomacy, international security, boundary demarcation, carving up the Caspian between its littoral states and human rights were all part of his brief - not to mention deputising for the foreign minister.

With his experience in multilateral diplomacy, Abusseitov was posted as Kazakhstan's Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, where he juggled several briefs, from disarmament, to reforming the UN High Commission on Human Rights, to Kazakhstan's preparations to join the WTO.

But if he had to pick a career highlight, it would be his role in developing the initiative of the President Nursultan Nazarbayev to convene the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a sort of OSCE for Asia at which even Israel and Iran sit together around the same table. Small wonder it was ten years in the making.

Regional cooperation and initiatives such as interfaith dialogue are important to Kazakhstan, situated as it is at the crossroads between east and west, with its diverse mix of cultures and religions. 

A Central Asian Union might be overly ambitious for now, admits the Ambassador, but he believes other mechanisms could be created for collective cooperation on trans-border issues. "We are convinced that the five Central Asian countries could be much stronger if they act together," he says.

For now, Kazakhstan's focus is on preparations for their chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010. As the organisation that habitually criticises Kazakhstan for the conduct of its elections, the irony is not lost on the Ambassador, who used to look after OSCE observers during election time.

"In the first elections, they said we 'fell far short' of their standards; in the second, we 'fell short' of their standards; and in the most recent, they said we had 'improved'. So there's progress!"

Kazakhstan hopes to dispense with the authoritarian post-soviet stereotype. Abusseitov admits that in the immediate post-independence era, there was stronger political control for the sake of stability, but now the country wants a stronger civil society and democratic traditions which he says are tools for creating a successful welfare state.

Recent constitutional amendments go some way to achieving that: more power has been transferred from the presidency to the parliament, and down to local government level, and public administration watchdogs have been set up to ensure accountability.

But the Ambassador admits that with the ruling party so dominant, a strong opposition with good alternatives is still a missing ingredient.

Britain might be a good place to pick up ideas and the Ambassador is looking forward to bilateral diplomacy. And like his country, he is not short of energy!
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HE Mr Kairat Abusseitov

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