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from issue no. 10 - 2003

Interview with the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev

Nursultan, the multilateral

by Gianni Valente

The Kazak President during a press conference

The Kazak President during a press conference

The finest praise offered him during the Congress of Astana came from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, when he called him «a practical man». If there is any feature that has marked the career of 63 year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, enduring political leader of the country of the steppes, it is the pragmatic realism of those who take account of and respect the various factors in the great game of politics. Secretary of the Kazak Communist Party at the time of Gorbacev’s ‘perestroika’, in the dying years of the USSR, President since 1991 of the Independent Republic of Kazakhstan, he is shunting his country onto the track of modernization and openness to the global market, trying to capitalize to the maximum the potential benefits for Kazakhstan of its being “border country”, a melting-pot of peoples and civilizations.
In the geopolitical sphere this approach entails the attempt to set up constructive and fruitful relations at every point of the compass. The exit from the orbit of the Soviet empire was less dramatic than elsewhere. The loss of power by the Russian minority has not compromised relations with Moscow, while in recent years economic and cultural relations with China, and above all with the countries of the Arabian Gulf, have been strengthened, with a highpoint of Saudi investment in the former Soviet Republic with its Islamic majority.
After the Soviet breakup Kazakhstan was the first country to rid itself of a nuclear arsenal, the fourth largest in the world, situated on its soil. Nazarbayev shows considerable interest in intensifying relations of partnership with the western countries and in particular with the European Union, without putting at risk the national interest, a policy seen in the “distributive” management of contracts agreed with multinational companies for the exploitation of fuel deposits and in the shrewd strategy of not involving the country and its structures in the military campaign against Iraq.
And the originality with which Nazarbayev has woven direct relations with the whole gamut of religions has to do with his “multi-polar” vision of geopolitical relations. «I am convinced», explains the Kazak President, «that no single system can ensure equilibrium, stability and development for mankind, and not even for a single part of it. The only right formula is unity in diversity, in multi-nationality, in multi-confessionality. Because mankind in this historical moment, and it will remains true for the future also, does not have a sole model of religious and cultural civilization that could be imposed throughout the world as the exclusive basis of co-existence».

President Nazarbayev, could you comment on the inter-religious Congress that you invited to Astana?
NURSULTAN NAZARBAYEV: We have been witnesses to a unique event. It is the first time that a gathering of the kind has occurred in an Asian country such as Kazakhstan, where 70 per cent of the inhabitants adhere to Sunni Islam. In these years when the whole world has seen the increase in terrorism, conflicts between religions and in drug traffic, we have seen here the most important leaders of Islam and of Judaism sit at the same table and live together in the same hotel. And Indians religious leaders meet with Pakistani leaders.
Are you happy with the result?
NAZARBAYEV: The multi-national people of Kazakhstan, after achieving independence, have demonstrated in a short time to all the world that a country can flourish and succeed if the state guarantees stability in tolerance. Here 120 nationalities and more than forty different religious denominations co-exist. We had good reason for organizing a conference of this kind here. And I am happy that the delegates have chosen to entrust Kazakhstan with the organization of a second Congress. A permanent Secretariat for the forum of religions will be set up that will work on the model of the large international organizations.
Why do you, a political leader, attribute so much importance to harmony among the religious confessions?
NAZARBAYEV: The tradition of mutual comprehension and respect among peoples, deeply rooted in Kazakhstan, is the main “spendable capital” we possess. While there are people who speak of the clash of civilizations, we feel that inter-religious dialogue is one of the key factors for the social development and the promotion of the well-being of peoples. All the heads of religious confessions registered in Kazakhstan can confirm that their respective communities are experiencing a moment of spiritual growth. Our ancestors and other peoples of this area have never been aggressive toward the religions of others. This lesson of history should be kept in mind, instead of giving inappropriate judgments on the “negative role of Islam in Central Asia”.
In your speeches you often refer to Eurasia as a potentially single geopolitical subject. To what prospects are you referring when you speak of “Eurasianship”?
NAZARBAYEV: When in debates on globalization I speak of Eurasia, I refer to the possibility of ever better integration of the European Continent with the Asian one. That as future prospect. For the present, we as former Soviet Republics are interested in increasing economic cooperation. The first step to encourage integration is to mutually open markets. And have free trading between countries. United Europe needs the resources of the Asian Continent. Starting from there a policy of mutual help and presence in future development can develop between Europe and Asia.
You, the leader of a country with an Islamic majority, have shown many signs of friendship towards the Christians.
NAZARBAYEV: Christianity, in its various denominations, is the second religion in the country. Listening to many speeches at the Congress, it was quite clear that each religion prays to the one God, that they are different ways of reaching the one God. In this sense, I shall continue to demonstrate respect for every religious body genuinely present in Kazakhstan. Naturally a democratic country cannot force people to follow one dogma or another. My only worry are those pseudo-religious groups, present throughout the world, that spread negative ideas and whose doings constitute a risk not only to faith, but also to civil society and States.
G. V.

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