Opening Remarks at Nazarbayev University

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

It’s a pleasure to be here, and I appreciate this opportunity to speak with you all this morning. I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to all the faculty and administration of Nazarbayev University and especially to you, its student body, for your warm hospitality. I had an opportunity to speak here over two years ago, and it is amazing to see how the campus has changed and to hear about how the University has grown and developed. I am also happy to note that the weather here is much warmer than my last visit to Astana in December 2010!

In many ways, Nazarbayev University embodies the hope and promise of Kazakhstan's future. When the university was founded in 2010, President Nazarbayev envisioned that it would prepare the best and brightest of future generations in technology and the sciences to assist in the development of Kazakhstan. Although very young, the University is well on its way to doing just that.

The university is becoming a world-class institution that combines the advantages of Kazakhstan’s national education system with the best of international research and education. Nazarbayev University has established cooperative programs with nine world-class institutions, many of them U.S. universities, and counts 182 foreign professors on its faculty. And we were pleased to learn the University expanded its cooperation with U.S. institutions this past January by signing a memorandum of cooperation with the Colorado School of Mines.

The numerous interactions with international professors, either in classrooms or virtual seminars, enrich the academic experience for students and faculty on both sides of the exchange. And I am sure that the foreign faculty here learn just as much from the bright Kazakh young people with whom they work with every day. The University stands as a model in the region for educating global citizens in an increasingly interconnected world economy.

We attach a great deal of importance to expanding our educational ties, our exchanges and our dialogue with Kazakhstan's young people. In the past academic year alone, 1,859 Kazakh students studied in the United States. Some of these young people have participated in exchanges such as the Fulbright, Humphrey, and UGrad programs. Others are part of the prestigious Bolashak program sponsored by the Government of Kazakhstan. We are pleased to count them among the over 720,000 international students studying in the U.S. annually.

Our cooperation in this field is not limited to students traveling abroad for study. U.S. universities are research partners here as well. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is a partner in the Center for Life Sciences, the Center for Energy Research partners with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Center for Educational Policy has a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania.

This dynamic, growing relationship in education is part of a broader partnership between our countries. The U.S. partnership with Kazakhstan has grown dramatically over the last 20 years, as Kazakhstan has become a regional and increasingly global leader. Kazakhstan served as Chair of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation in 2012, was Chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for 2010, is on the cusp of joining the World Trade Organization, and has taken the lead in Central Asia in embracing the vision of regional integration.

Nonproliferation is perhaps the most stellar example of what we can achieve together. On nonproliferation cooperation and nuclear security, Kazakhstan’s record stands second to none. In the 20 years since the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was closed, Kazakhstan has established itself as a world leader in the fight against the threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Kazakhstan has eliminated or removed from its territory all nuclear warheads, completely dismantled the infrastructure of the Semipalatinsk test site, and destroyed or removed hundreds of missiles, bombers, and tactical nuclear warheads. The United States has been proud to support these efforts through the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

We are keen to recognize Kazakhstan’s efforts as we deepen our bilateral relationship. In 2012, we upgraded our relationship with Kazakhstan to a Strategic Partnership Dialogue. President Obama personally expressed his appreciation and support for Kazakhstan during his meetings with President Nazarbayev at the Nuclear Security Summits in Washington in April 2010 and in Seoul in March 2012.

Indeed, Kazakhstan has displayed extraordinary leadership in curbing nuclear proliferation in the region and around the globe. Kazakhstan stands as a powerful counterexample to Iran, where the international community has serious and legitimate concerns about the nature of the regime’s nuclear activities. We are serious about our efforts to seek a diplomatic resolution, and our Government has made clear publicly and privately that we believe there is time and space for diplomacy, and that is why, with Kazakhstan as a gracious host, we continued our engagement with Iran in two rounds of P5+1 talks in Almaty.

Let me now turn to Afghanistan, a topic that is increasingly salient as I will join Deputy Secretary of State Burns to attend the Heart of Asia ministerial in Almaty in two days’ time. Afghanistan is a country that faces many challenges, but where there is also room for cooperation and regional dialogue. As we go forward with transition in Afghanistan, I know the end of the current ISAF mission in 2014 has created unease in Kazakhstan and the region. I want to reiterate that despite the challenges - no one doubts the importance of our mission and what is at stake. The United States will remain committed to Afghanistan and the region through 2014 and beyond.

At the NATO summit in Chicago in May, the international community and the Government of Afghanistan agreed to fund the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) at a level of about $4 billion per year, in the period after 2014. In July, international leaders met again in Tokyo and pledged over $16 billion in civilian aid from more than 70 international donors. We will closely consult with regional partners like Kazakhstan at every step of the transition process to maintain unity of effort and transparency.

Kazakhstan plays an indispensible role in supporting coalition efforts and building a brighter future for the people of Afghanistan. We welcomed Kazakhstan’s decision to contribute $2 million per year to the sustainment of the ANSF, to fund infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, and to extend until 2018 its $50 million program to educate Afghan students in Kazakhstan.

These are significant contributions that demonstrate how Kazakhstan and other important donor nations have rallied to support Afghanistan and the region. Kazakhstan is playing a critical role in the Istanbul “Heart of Asia” Process and will host the next Istanbul Process ministerial in Almaty in a matter of days. The Istanbul Process calls for ongoing political dialogue between regional actors, the implementation of Confidence Building Measures, and fostering synergy among regional organizations with the goal of increasing regional cooperation to encourage greater peace and stability in Afghanistan. The ministerial in Almaty will be a key step forward in ensuring a prosperous future for Afghanistan. We are grateful for Kazakhstan’s continuing dedication to Afghanistan, and its leadership, demonstrated by its decision to host the ministerial.

Beyond hosting this very important meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan has been the strongest advocate in this region of the New Silk Road, of strengthening economic and commercial linkages across South and Central Asia to connect the region more closely with the rest of Asia and Europe. A secure, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan can only exist in a secure, stable, and prosperous region. The more Afghanistan is integrated economically into its regional neighborhood, the more it will be able to attract private investment, benefit from its vast mineral resources, and provide economic opportunity for its citizens. But the New Silk Road Vision is not just about Afghanistan. It is about building opportunities throughout the region from Astana to Amritsar and beyond.

We see this vision becoming reality first through trade liberalization – as governments reduce non-tariff trade barriers, improve regulatory regimes, introduce transparent border clearance procedures, and coordinated policies. And second, through investments in energy, transport, communications, and other infrastructure to connect goods, services, and people.

For instance, Kazakhstan is playing a lead role in promoting greater regional economic integration with particular emphasis on economically empowering women. Led by Kazakhstani businesswomen and parliamentarians, a regional Women’s Business Association for Central Asian and Afghan women entrepreneurs was recently launched in Astana in December 2012. With branches in all six countries, it will link women’s business organizations across borders to build skills, improve access to finance, boost intergovernmental cooperation, and develop business and trade opportunities. Organizers are now reaching out to engage governments and business networks in each country.

We also see the New Silk Road vision being realized through forums like CAREC, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program. Again, Kazakhstan has played a great leadership role in advancing CAREC initiatives to transform the region through robust transport corridors, energy infrastructure, and liberalized trade to drive economic growth. By 2020, the CAREC Program will have mobilized more than $20 billion to improve six transport corridors traversing Central Asia that will link the economic hubs of Europe and the Russian Federation with East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.

We are also working to increase regional integration through the WTO accession process. As you are no doubt aware, your country is hard at work on its accession process, and we are hopeful that Kazakhstan can join its neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the WTO in the near future. Afghanistan is also making progress toward becoming a member, and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have shown interest in the WTO. We strongly support the WTO aspirations of Kazakhstan and countries in the region for a very simple reason: The interest of all the countries of Central Asia, of the wider region, and of the United States are served by open, inclusive, and transparent trade regimes.

Kazakhstan’s efforts to join the WTO attest to the extraordinary economic progress it has made in the last two decades, but our relationship includes other important areas. As the breadth and candor of our relationship with Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries has expanded, so have opportunities for greater dialogue on human rights and democracy. It is our hope that Kazakhstan and all Central Asian states will put into practice the values enshrined in their OSCE commitments, in the UN human rights treaties to which they have acceded, and in their own domestic laws.

We continue to use diplomatic engagements to urge the government of Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states to address human rights and democracy concerns and to ensure space for peaceful exercise of fundamental rights, including those of assembly, expression, association, religious belief, and respect for ethnic minorities and fundamental worker rights.

We also continue to emphasize that respect for the right to free speech, free media and peaceful worship reduces the appeal of violent extremism and contributes to sustainable and effective governance over the long-term.

Institutions like a free press and an active civil society, far from being threats, are valuable feedback mechanisms that can help governments be more responsive to the wishes of their citizens. Likewise, strengthening the rule of law and democratic institutions will help build transparent and predictable political and investment climates that can promote economic growth benefiting all the citizens of these countries.

We are also exploring ways to increase our people-to people ties with Central Asia and among Central Asians. Over 40,000 Americans and Kazakhstanis have participated in State Department-sponsored bilateral exchanges in the last 20 years. These people-to-people ties represent one of the most powerful mechanisms we have to build a more peaceful and prosperous future.

As we encourage a freer flow of goods, ideas, and people across the borders of Central and South Asia, we are mindful of the need to address pressing problems at those borders. One is the flow of narcotics. A substantial portion of the opium and heroin produced in Afghanistan flows northward through the porous borders of Central Asia to Russia and beyond. While we are working hard with Afghanistan to deal with its domestic production problem, we are also increasing our cooperation with partners in Central Asia in a multi-pronged reinforcing approach to strengthen border security, reduce corruption, and share information in order to stem the flow of narcotics.

And we are working with Kazakhstan and other partners in Central Asia to address the threat of global terrorism. Our bilateral engagement in this area includes efforts to build the capacity of governments in the region through programs such as the Anti-Terrorism Assistance program, which provides technical assistance, training and equipment designed to help boost the counterterrorism capacity of law enforcement bodies in partner nations, and the Central Asia Regional Initiative, through which we are seeking to address cross-border security and terrorism-related issues by engaging the local community, including police, youth, and community leaders.

As I look ahead, I am optimistic about the future of the region and confident the United States will continue its commitment to the stability and growth of Central Asia. Today we enjoy regular, sustained contacts with Kazakhstan and all the Central Asian states on a broad and deep range of issues. The agenda and candor of our dialogue increase every year. Our cooperation in the region in the areas of economic development, health and education, women’s empowerment, border security, counter-narcotics, democratic reform, and strengthening civil society will continue to play an important part in advancing our mutual objectives.

You represent the future leaders of Kazakhstan and as we look ahead, I envision that cooperation growing and evolving. As members of the first generation of an independent Kazakhstan, you will shape your country, the region and the world. I look around me and have a great hope for what is to come.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I would be delighted to take a few questions