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Kazakhstan: President Outlines Policy Priorities

Prague, 11 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- President Nursultan Nazarbayev has outlined his vision of Kazakhstan's future domestic political development as well as its relations with its two powerful neighbors, Russia and China.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Astana bureau last week (May 4), Nazarbayev singled out the preservation of Kazakhstan's independence as the most important priority both for himself personally and for the entire Kazakh nation. He warned that the country's independent status could be jeopardized by internal political dissent, in particular by attempts -- he did not specify by whom -- to exploit its present economic problems in order to score political points. He also expressed concerns that some may seek to stir up tensions among the nation's three main so-called "hordes," or clans.

Nazarbayev conceded that the world economic crisis had not spared Kazakhstan.

"Timely salary payments, pensions and stipends payments, those are the most important tasks to be made. This is not easy. Last year and this year the prices of Kazakh oil and gas on the international market fell 30 per cent. The price of non-ferrous metals fell 15 per cent. It means that the funds in the state treasury fell too. That is why we have to take that into consideration. All countries face the same problems. Russia, other countries, South East Asia, all of them are facing the economic crisis now. We have to do everything we can to give Kazakhstan a chance to overcome the current economic hardships successfully. That is our task."

Nazarbayev claimed that his country had overcome the adverse effects of the world economic crisis more easily and smoothly than neighboring states. He said that today all the nation's most important economic decisions, including state budget allocations and new legislation, are based on the main premises of the Kazakhstan-2030 program of long-term economic and social development that he introduced 20 months ago.

Nazarbayev cited as two key economic priorities the development and widening of Kazakhstan's industrial base and the encouragement of the growth of small and medium businesses. He said that both developments would create a more diversified economy to replace the current almost exclusive reliance on the export of oil or other mineral resources.

Turning to foreign policy, Nazarbayev stressed that Kazakhstan's independent status does not mean that the country should close its borders or retreat into isolationism. On the contrary, he said, the country must pursue a policy of open doors and, in his phrase, "increase our relations with our neighboring countries in all the possible spheres." He called Kazakhstan's foreign policy "multi-vectoral," but allowed that it is determined, first and foremost, by the country's geographic location between two major powers.

"God Almighty gave us such a giant neighbor as Russia, we have a 7,000 km-long border with Russia. We have a 1,700 km-long border with China. It is not possible to go ahead without relations with them. They are our main partners in economic development, in market relations and political life. We don't have any sort of demands, neither economic nor political ones to our two giant neighbors. We have very good and friendly relations with Russia and China. For many years we have been with Russia together. We used to be a colony, but one thing is true, Russians helped us a lot in terms of economic and social growth. This is a historic fact. We also have to remember the results of the census held this year, which said that ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan are 30 per cent of the whole Kazakhstani population. All these are important facts to be taken into account while defining our foreign policy."

Nazarbayev said: "If Russia is able to overcome its economic and other hardships, if it manages to establish a real democratic society with a market economy and freedoms, for us in Kazakhstan this will be a real advantage."

He added: "To live in peace with such a great neighbor is very important for us....Without Russia, further Kazakh cultural development is not possible.... In the last several hundred years we have got used to this nation." He conceded that Kazakhstan still has differences with Russia -- although he did not describe them in detail -- and stressed that the differences must be resolved exclusively by peaceful means.

Nazarbayev emphasized in particular his country's current unprecedentedly harmonious relations with China. He said these relations were reflected in what he described as his own "personal good relations" with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, with whom he signed a landmark treaty last year demarcating the frontier between the two countries.

Nazarbayev added that Kazakhstan also enjoys what he called "very good" relations with the Islamic world, with other Turkophone countries, as well as with India and Pakistan. Asked about the rationale for Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev's recent meeting with representatives of Afghanistan's Islamist Taliban militia, Nazarbayev said that it should not be construed either as a gesture of support or an attempt to exclude Russia from the Afghan peace process. He explained: "We need peace in Afghanistan. If there is peace ....we shall be able to transport our oil to India by the shortest route."

Nazarbayev's remarks on Kazakhstan's domestic politics were ambivalent. On the one hand, he welcomed recent amendments to the country's constitution, in particular a decision by the Kazakh parliament that 10 seats in the next parliament should be allocated to representatives of political parties under a proportional representational system. He called that act the fulfillment of a personal "dream." And Nazarbayev also said he considers it his duty as president to foster political tolerance and the development of democracy. But on the other hand, Nazarbayev noted that, until eight years ago, Kazakhs had always lived under a totalitarian system, implying that democratization should not be rushed. He said: "Our main goal now is to give our people roofs above their heads, to give them their jobs and salaries. Those are the main three tasks with which to begin democracy." An imitation of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of open criticism of all weaknesses could, Nazarbayev argued, culminate in the loss of Kazakhstan's statehood.

In this context, Nazarbayev made it clear that he envisages very strict constraints on the activities of political parties, which he said have "rights, but also responsibilities and obligations." He warned that any party that proved "not able to continue its activities," or whose activities could pose a danger to the country's independence, would immediately be banned.

Nazarbayev also made it clear that in his view such constraints and obligations should extend also to the media. Asked to comment on Kazakh journalists' recent complaints that the country's new draft media law restricts press freedom, Nazarbayev said journalists would not be forbidden to criticize either the president or the government. But, he added, in doing so they should "bear in mind the norms and standards recognized elsewhere in the world."