Opening Remarks at Nazarbayev University

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Astana, Kazakhstan
March 25, 2011

Thank you for that very kind introduction. Let me say that I’m delighted to be here today at Nazarbayev University. I’ve been hearing about the university for a while, so it’s a real pleasure to finally have a chance to come to sit and talk with you.

I thought I would just say a few very brief opening remarks, and then I hope to have a conversation with all of you and hear what all of you have to say.

I’m responsible for a region that goes all the way from Kazakhstan in the north all the way to Sri Lanka and the Maldives in South Asia. And one of our most important objectives is to reach out to young people because half
of the population in the South and Central Asian region that I’m responsible for is under the age of 25. So it’s really important to talk to the young people and to get a real sense of what all of you are thinking and how we can interact with you more.

I think the Kazakhstan statistic is about 44 percent under the age of 25, so you also have a very young population. I think all of you represent the future of Kazakhstan so it’s particularly important to listen to you and to hear what you have to say.

I’m really happy to be here at this university in particular. Higher education in the United States has really been one of the foundations of America’s success and one of the foundations of our ability to reinvent ourselves. We’ve gone through a number of crises in our time. For example in the late 1980s when we had a terrible recession and a lot of people were worried about the future of the United States. Instead we had the greatest period probably ever in terms of prosperity in the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton was in office. A very important part of that success was innovation.

A very important part of that innovation is our university system. Our university system is constantly reinventing itself, reaching out to find new partners such as your university, and most importantly, involved in high end research. I see a lot of those very same attributes when I hear about the partners and plans here at Nazarbayev University. Eight of your ten international partners are American universities, and they’re some of the best universities in the United States which is a real tribute to the confidence they have in the future of this university.

I’m proud to see that Harvard and Wisconsin and Carnegie Mellon and all of the universities are really synonymous with excellence in the United States and synonymous with leading edge technology, are here and partnering with your university. I think that bodes very well for the future of the university. It bodes very well for your future, and also I think for the future of your country.

We’ve just finished two days of talks with your government on a wide range of issues. Kazakhstan is probably one of the most important countries in the entire South and Central Asian region for us. We have not only very encouraging cooperation and bilateral development, but also we see Kazakhstan as a growing global and regional leader. Kazakhstan was most recently the Chairman in Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and this year is also the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and will be chairing an upcoming summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. So these are all extremely important regional organizations and it’s an extremely important time. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Just to underline some of the things that we’re working on with your government, to give you a sense of the kinds of things that your government is working on: we had talks over the last two days that covered a huge, wide range of issues. One of the big topics was where your government is doing a great deal of help with the stabilization of Afghanistan. Your government is going to be sending some advisors who will be part of the international security force there as part of the stabilization of Afghanistan. You have provided a lot of assistance in educating and providing training to young Afghans that are so important to the future of Afghanistan. Also the non-lethal supplies for our troops and for a lot of the other international troops come through Kazakhstan and then go on to Uzbekistan and others and then into Afghanistan. So it’s a very important role that your government plays, and we very deeply appreciate it. It’s also a role that is in their interest as well. None of us want to see the further destabilization of Afghanistan. I’d be very glad to come back to that.

We also talked a lot about commercial and trade investment, how you develop that. There’s already $20 billion of U.S. investment here. Most of it is in the oil and gas sector and the private sector. But we’d like to explore what more we can do in the non-oil and gas sector because I think your President and your government want to diversify and I think there will be a lot of opportunities. One of the things we discussed is your plan to accede to the World Trade Organization which will, again, open up your economy and allow for companies to come in and take advantage of the market here in Kazakhstan and also gain access to the Russian market which is an important opportunity.

We talked a lot about transnational priorities that we are working on together: terrorism, narcotics, all of these are things that originate in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and we’re cooperating very closely with your government to address and to help it to protect itself.

We’re working on non-proliferation. Since your country’s independence 20 years ago, your country has really been a leader in the area of non-proliferation and sustained progress over that entire period, and it was one of the major topics of discussion over the last two days, how we’re going to sustain that progress further and continue to benefit from the experience that your country’s had and also the leadership that it has provided to the region.

We talked about science and technology. An important part of the science and technology future will be here at the university because a lot of the most important research that takes place in science and technology is taking place at the university level. A lot of those American partners will be coming in and will help to really catalyze some of the research that’s going to take place, and all of you will be the beneficiary of that.

We also talked about human rights and about democratization. You have very important elections coming up: first in early April for the presidential elections, then parliamentary elections next year. We talked a lot about how this is a very important time. For the last four or five years or so organizations like Freedom House have documented that freedom is on the decline in many parts of the world. You’ve seen that in, for example, the Middle East where there’s been a reaction to that decline, there’s been a reaction to the fact that many students, many young people feel frustrated that they don’t have jobs, they don’t have various kind of political freedoms, and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

I said to our friends in your government, that democratization is not only important for Kazakhstan but it’s important for Kazakhstan to show and itself be a model for other countries in Central Asia and the wider region. Again, I’ll be glad to talk more about that.

As I said earlier, this is a really important and exciting time as we watch the situation in the Middle East unfold. I spent the early part of my career, about ten years, in the Middle East in Tunisia, in Egypt, Algeria. In retrospect it’s easy to see that those changes were going to take place. I think many of us believed those leaders would somehow find a way to hang on, and they did find a way to hang on for many years. But in the end, it came down to the fact that they were unresponsive governments. Governments that were not responsive to the needs of their people, particularly to their young people, in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and unemployed people, relatively well educated and were not able to find jobs, and they were very frustrated about that. Part of the problem was that the governments hadn’t focused sufficiently on developing market economies. Part of the problem was that in places like Tunisia they had had very very strict control on political parties, on the media, on every form of political participation. Then there was a lot of corruption, a lot of very obvious corruption. So that of course led to a lot of anger on the part of many people. That was reflected in the streets. The sort of revolution that you saw that started in Tunisia and then quickly spread to Egypt and beyond.

This is a very profound change that is now taking place in the Middle East. One of the messages that the United States has had for other countries around the world is that they need to pay attention. They need to really watch what’s going on, to learn from mistakes of those governments in the Middle East, and try to get out in front of change and the need for change. I think your government is doing that. More needs to be done. But many other governments in Central Asia are not doing that. They have gone the other direction. They’ve actually tightened up a little bit on political liberalization. They fear that process. So that’s something that we talk about with our friends in Central Asia.

One of the most important things that we’ve been working on is social media. Social media played an incredibly important role both in Tunisia and Egypt, and it’s something that Secretary Clinton and the State Department have become very very active in trying to use as a method to connect with the people. For example we have a Facebook page in my bureau. The State Department has a Facebook page. We’ve got various blogs. We have one called DipNote. The Secretary was talking to us about blogging in many other languages now. We’re really making active use of the social media, to try to reach out to people that before we really didn’t have the chance to talk to. I hope that all of you can be friends of ours as well. We have our own Facebook page, we’d love to have you be part of the conversation and listen again to what all of you think and what kind of programs we can pursue that will be of interest to you.

We are going to give a lot of web chats and things like that. But again, it would be terrific to hear from you today and in the future.

I’d also like to tell you briefly about an important thing that we’re going to be doing later this year probably in July. We’re going to have a special conference to promote women’s empowerment here in Central Asia. We believe, not just because we have a woman Secretary of State, but we believe strongly in the importance of women’s empowerment. Study after study has shown that if you educate women that will have a profound multiplier effect on society. Women who have been educated tend to have fewer children; women who have been educated tend to provide much more of their income to their families; and women who have been educated are such a big component of improved governance and so many other positive trends. So we are strongly in favor of women’s empowerment.

This conference that we’re going to host in July in Bishkek will bring together mostly women business leaders, others as well, NGOs for instance, to talk about lessons learned, best practices, and how they can not only get together in one big network, share ideas, and share best practices, but how we can start to use micro-finance and other forms of empowerment tools to better help them to create jobs and to again to get them mobilized at the local level for women in Central Asia.

I’ve thrown out some of the things that we’re doing. And again, let me just say how happy I am to be here today to talk to all of you and hear from all of you.

I’d be glad to take your questions or your comments on any subject that I’ve raised or any other subject because again, I’m here to hear what’s on your mind.

So thank you again for the opportunity.