Nazarbayev University Q&A

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Astana, Kazakhstan
April 23, 2013

Question: You mentioned press freedom. I think Kazakhstan has a quite poor record on press freedom. I think in press freedom we are the 176th country and the press is actually being increasingly limited and restricted.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you. First of all, I agree with your assessment. We do see that press freedoms are being more constrained now so this is something that I’ll be talking about today with our friends in the government and with civil society with whom I’ll be meeting later.

I see this as part of a wider trend, not just in Kazakhstan but in the broader region. I think there’s more constrained space for civil society as a whole. We see that as quite risky. At this sensitive time in the history of Central Asia and in the history of what’s going on in Afghanistan and what’s going on in Russia, we think it’s very very important to reverse that trend and to provide more opportunities, to provide more space for civil society, and that that in itself is going to be more stabilizing by helping people to voice their grievances in a peaceful way, to allow for peaceful religious worship, to allow for a more open press, and to allow for a more open civil society. So that’s a message that I convey both privately and publicly, not just here in Kazakhstan but in other parts of Central Asia. But thank you very much for raising that.

Question: I have a question. You mentioned the challenge between liberalizing trade between countries in Central Asia and also, on the one hand. On the other hand is the problem of trafficking of narcotics. So would you say something more specifically about how does this cooperation support combating and preventing drug trade and trafficking narcotics, what are the efforts, what are the specific efforts being done in terms of improving the capacity of the law enforcement agencies or other business actors in fighting this evil? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: There are actually several parallel lines of effort that are underway. First is the one you referred to which is the imperative to provide for more open trade regimes and the first line of effort there is to encourage all of the countries to accede to the World Trade Organization. As I mentioned in my remarks there’s been quite good progress on that and we hope that Kazakhstan will be able to accede later this year.

A second very important part of that is all the practical work that needs to be done for example at the border areas to allow for customs harmonization, to reduce the delays that trucks, for example, have to face at every border crossing, to reduce corruption. In many states in Central Asia truckers have to pay various kinds of informal taxes and other things on a very frequent basis to continue to move their goods through these countries. Obviously that is a barrier to trade in these countries.

So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on that.

We’re also very conscious of the fact that as we provide more opportunities for trade, that also gives opportunities for criminals and for terrorists to take advantage of that as well. So that’s why it’s critically important to increase our work with governments and with regional organizations like CAREC to help provide information exchange, but even more critically, for us to build up our law enforcement cooperation and ideally intelligence cooperation as well, so that we can share information not only bilaterally, but across borders as well so that, for example, if we hear about a big drug shipment that’s coming from Afghanistan, that people all along the projected route can be aware of that and try to interdict it and also obviously take steps to shut down the network that is running that.

So there are both tremendous opportunities but also still tremendous challenges that need to be undertaken. Again, I think we really want to continue to increase our cooperation in Kazakhstan on these because again, many of these international organizations are based here in Almaty, things like CAREC where a lot of this information exchange has to take place.

Question: There is concern for the United States in different journals about the universities that have a partnership with Nazarbayev University. Because as recent magazines, the United States as a democracy cannot have its universities making partnerships with authoritarian governments. What do you think about the attitude of these magazines, and how it affects upon the two countries?

Moreover, I am concerned about the statistics. By statistics Kazakhstan is not so far in addressing personal freedoms Iran and Iraq. Is it true? How do you think? How we can change the attitudes?

Assistant Secretary Blake: That’s a great question.

For those who didn’t hear, the first question was about what is the attitude of, I guess a magazine of some sort has raised some questions about whether the United States should be partnering with universities like Nazarbayev in foreign countries. I’m not familiar with the magazine you talked about. But I can speak for the U.S. government in saying that we strongly support efforts by various American universities to establish more partnerships with organizations and universities like Nazarbayev University.

As I said in my remarks, already there are about 8 American universities that have partnerships of one sort or another. We would like to see that number increase and we’d like to see the quality increase as well so that more kinds of twinning programs and joint degrees and various other programs would be possible in the longer term.

Again, we’re really supporting the interests of our universities who themselves I think increasingly are interested in attracting not only students from Kazakhstan but also a very wide range of students from around the world. They want to have a diverse student body in the United States, wonderful students like all of you who speak such good English bring such a new perspective to students in the United States, many of whom have never had the chance to travel overseas before and don’t understand a lot about regions like Central Asia.

So you are not only ambassadors, but in a way professors to teach about your country and about Central Asia. That’s such a valuable part of the university experience for people.

When I went to Harvard and went to SAIS, some of my best friends were people from all over the world that I met and many of whom I still keep in touch with. So for that reason we strongly support these kinds of exchange programs and these kinds of partnerships that American universities are building up.

What was the second question?

Question: Is there really so much violations of human rights in Kazakhstan like in Iraq or Iran, even the CIA says so.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Obviously it’s a very different situation here and what’s taking place in Iran. But in a way we have high expectations of Kazakhstan because, precisely because your country has come so far in 20 years. And precisely because your country does seek to be now not only a regional leader but a global leader. So it’s important that your country therefore set an example and that political progress keep pace with economic progress that you’ve made. That will ensure continued stability in your country and it will ensure that, again, your country will continue to be able to grow. That’s why I think we’ve put such an emphasis on this.

But I will say we have a very positive and open dialogue with the government about this, and I’m pleased that the government also has a very good dialogue with Kazakhstani civil society as well. That’s something that we attach a lot of importance to.

Question: As you probably know, the trade union with Kazakhstan and Russia and Belarus is fairly new and fairly strong. And while automobiles, for example, produced within this trade union can be purchased at a reasonable price here, you’re hard pressed to find a Ford here you can buy for any kind of reasonable dollar.

So I’m wondering what the introduction of Kazakhstan into the WTO would have on the import of such gods as Western cars and so forth which are currently imposed with customs duties that are quite severe.

Assistant Secretary Blake: We have several strategic interests here. One of our strategic interests is to support this economic transition in Afghanistan that I talked about. To do that we really need to see much greater open trading regimes so that Afghanistan can be kind of more integrated into its regional neighborhood.

But we also want to make sure that in the wider region there’s also opportunities for greater trade and investment. And many have expressed concern about the customs union that you mentioned. So we’ve expressed our interest to our friends in Russia that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a customs union, but we don’t want to have it exclude American companies. So as long as there are open trading regimes, then we will support that kind of thing.

For the record, they say that their objective is not to exclude the United States or other countries. But nonetheless, the WTO is an insurance policy in a way, to ensure that should there not be such restrictive trade practices; the obligations under the WTO would always trump obligations under a customs union.

So that’s a second strong reason why we support this in particular, the WTO accession.

We’ll continue to work on this and my hope is that over time we will be able to encourage more American investment in this part of the world and we’ll be able to see a diversification of the kinds of investments that Kazakhstan is able to attract from the United States. Now it’s mostly in the oil and gas sector. Over time there’s a possibility of developing more in the transport sector, in various kinds of manufacturing. But it’s also incumbent upon the government to create the most open investment regime possible as well so that governments will have the incentive and companies will have the incentives to invest here. That’s another very important part of our dialogue.

Question: Thank you very much for such an informative lecture. My name is Maris, I’m working here. I have a question about bank of nuclear fuel. This initiative was discussed in Afghanistan. What do you think we need to do to prevent a situation that in five or ten years we will need some Russian or Chinese troops to make it secure and safe? Is the region safe enough to establish that kind of bank? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think your region is safe enough. I think there’s quite a lot of progress that’s already been made with the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to establish a nuclear fuel bank here in Kazakhstan. Obviously some things still need to be resolved, but I think quite a lot of progress has been made and the United States certainly supports the establishment of the fuel bank here.

With respect to security, that’s one of the things that have to be agreed on in advance, what kind of security arrangements will be established to ensure that there security for that particular facility. But again, I’m confident in the ability of the Kazakhstani authorities to provide the necessary security. I don’t think the threat comes from Russia or China. It would be more from a terrorist organization or something like that.

Ambassador Fairfax: If I can just add something. I know this is sometimes not terribly accurately presented. The LEU Fuel Bank is going at a facility that already processes uranium. In fact Kazakhstan is the world’s largest supplier of uranium. They do it safely and they do it reliably.

The total size of the LEU Fuel Bank is equal to about one percent of the amount of Kazakhstani fuel that’s already there. So how much does it change the security profile? Basically nothing. This is not a huge difference. This is an enormous facility that will be able to house this important international nonproliferation effort that will just take up a tiny corner. It’s really not a huge difference in already existing operations.

Question: Good morning. Thank you for your lecture. We really appreciate it.

My question is in this globalization it is good that countries help each other to prosper, and I really appreciate this process. Nevertheless, I just wanted to clarify one question in my mind. Would you agree that when a particular country has some policy about emphasizing control of some domestic issues of another country, would you agree that somehow it violates the United Nations charter involving conventions of domestic policy? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I’m sorry, is that a question about human rights and to what extent countries have a right to talk to other countries about human rights issues? You can be straight. [Laughter].

Question: Just about, well, about the interest and control of governmental issues of another country.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I’ll just say the United States has always strongly upheld the values of democracy and human rights around the world. These are the principles on which our own nation was founded. But we also think that this is an important part of, you mentioned the UN, of preserving peace and security, is to uphold very high standards for human rights and democracy.

In addition, you have in Central Asia the OSCE principles that Central Asian countries have signed themselves up to, to uphold. So I don’t think that we’re interfering in the domestic affairs of countries. We’re, on the contrary, seeking to strengthen their societies and thereby strengthen our own partnerships and strengthen the sustainability of your countries. We try to do this in a very respectful way, but in a way also that preserves our own values and our own interests.

Question: Mr. Blake, it’s such a great pleasure to meet you. My name is [inaudible], I am Department of States Affairs. And as you mentioned, illegal drugs, I have just one question. For a long period of time many countries were involved in drug traffic. Are there any real solutions that can be there in this problem?

Assistant Secretary Blake: You’re right. This is a problem that we in the United States have faced for so many years. There’s no magic solution. There continues to be a very substantial demand for various kinds of drugs in the United States and as long as there’s that demand, criminals are going to find a way to make money, to circumvent whatever controls we have put in place to try to prevent the import of drugs. It’s the same way here or in any other country.

It requires a very comprehensive solution, both on the demand side but also on the supply side with respect to law enforcement cooperation and it’s particularly challenging in a country like Afghanistan that is so poor to begin with where many farmers don’t have too many alternatives. We’ve made a great effort to try to provide alternatives particularly in the agricultural sector which is one of the largest sectors in Afghanistan so that farmers, for example, have incentives to produce food crops instead of heroin. I think we’ve enjoyed some success. But there’s still a very long way to go. But I think that the goal here with respect to Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian countries is again to work on these border controls, to work on a greater transparency, to make sure that there’s good information flow within countries between our respective law enforcement agencies but also between those. And I’d say that’s where there’s still much more that needs to be done so that there’s good cooperation between Central Asian countries and between countries like the United States and Russia who have an interest in this so really a comprehensive effort can be forged to address this problem. But you’re right, it’s a very very complicated problem and one that we’ve had I’d say modest success so far in addressing.

Question: Good morning, thank you. I have a question. You have already said that Kazakhstan shows interest to join the WTO. What are the final steps that Kazakhstan, particularly we citizens of Kazakhstan should provide in order to join this organization as early as possible. Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Your Trade Minister, Ms. Aitzhanova, is very diligently and energetically pursuing your interest. It’s a very complicated process because there are these bilateral agreements that have to be signed with every country. But I think you’ve made a lot of progress. I think the sticking points now are the kind of phase-in procedures and various, there’s still some sectoral disagreements as well. But overall I think your country has made a lot of progress. Again, the hope is that Kazakhstan will be able to accede by later this year or early next year. That’s something, again, that the United States strongly supports and has supported for many years.

Question: Mr. Blake I would like to ask you about this very important act, Freedom Support Act, which was initiated by Senator Bradley in 1991 and in 1992 under which really thousands of young people from the Soviet Bloc including Kazakhstan, former Soviet Bloc and Eastern Bloc actually participated in all kinds of exchange programs. Not only students, but also other people as you already mentioned.

But of course it has been already more than 20 years. What do you think about the position of the government of the United States? Are you interested in continuing these programs? Because I would like to say that we have more than 40 [inaudible] students studying here as Nazarbayev students and we can see that they have better English, of course, and they are more open and they have their own club. We have Flex Club at the university. So I would appreciate if you comment.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Speaking personally, I think these programs are among the most successful and important programs we have in the world, various kinds of exchange programs. And they continue to enjoy very strong support in the State Department and I think on Capitol Hill as well, because people very well understand the importance of having these kinds of exchanges. It helps us so much to have people come and spend serious amounts of time in the United States and really understand the United States and then to be able to come back to their countries and help us to explain our country and our values to others.

So in many ways the people who are on these exchange programs are such valuable bridges between our two societies. Just as students are as well.

My sense is that we will continue to strongly support these. I will say that in Central Asia we have seen efforts not in Kazakhstan but in other parts of Central Asia to actually restrict many of these exchange programs. I think that’s a great shame. Because in some cases governments are worried about what kind of ideas, what kinds of freedoms these students are going to be exposed to when they go to the United States. Are they then going to try to bring back those ideas to try to change your own societies? I think that’s a misplaced fear. So again, even though there are now some restrictions in some of these countries, we will continue to strongly support and advocate for these programs and encourage wide participation from Central Asians.

One of the reasons that I’m so optimistic about the future of Kazakhstan and about the future of relations between the United States and Kazakhstan is the openness that I do see in institutions like Nazarbayev University. It gives one great hope for the future. So again, I congratulate all of you faculty and students who are here as part of this great institution. I know all of our American educational establishments that are partnering with you are very pleased to have those partnerships and I just look forward again to my next visit where we’ll see even more progress. But well done, and again, thank you so much for your hospitality.