This New Year marks the start of a fresh chapter in the relationship between the European Union and Kazakhstan and on 20 January, the EU-Kazakhstan Cooperation Council will discuss the state of play, writes Mukhtar Tileuberdi.
Mukhtar Tileuberdi is the minister of foreign affairs of Kazakhstan
The new Enhanced Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (ECPA), which is coming into force, opens the way to both a deepening and expansion of many ties between us at an important moment in Kazakhstan’s economic, social and political development.
It is why it is an exciting time to be making my first visit to Brussels as Foreign Minister this week. I am determined to do all I can to build on the already strong partnership between Kazakhstan and the EU and ensure new opportunities for increased co-operation are taken.
There is a strong platform to build on. The warm relationship between Europe and Kazakhstan now stretches back nearly three decades. EU members were among the first to recognize our country when we gained independence.
The EU as an organisation has had formal representation in Kazakhstan, its first in Central Asia, since 1994. European businesses and investors helped our First President Nursultan Nazarbayev to rebuild our economy by creating free market conditions.
Europe remains our main economic partner. Over 50% of our foreign trade is with the EU which, in turn, accounts for 48% of our inward investment. There are now over 4,000 companies with European participation and 2,000 joint ventures operating in Kazakhstan.
At the same time, Kazakh gas and oil exports are helping meet Europe’s energy security challenge while modern transport links across our country are enhancing trade with China.
The ECPA provides a positive framework to strengthen these ties. Among the priority areas for increased co-operation are innovation and green technologies, transport, logistics, education, energy and environmental protection.
Relaxing visa requirements to make travel easier, as Kazakhstan has already done unilaterally, will help ensure these opportunities are taken.
But it is not just in the economic sphere that Europe has played an invaluable role in Kazakhstan’s development and where co-operation can again be strengthened.
While ties may have been initially economically focused, they have quickly expanded to include collaboration across a whole range of social and political issues. Here, too, there are now major opportunities for increased engagement.
It is accelerating progress in political and social reform which President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has made a priority for his new government. Indeed, he has argued that sustained economic success and stability depends on social and political progress.
His goal is a modern Hearing Government which understands and responds to the needs, concerns and ambitions of its citizens. Among the steps he has already taken to strengthen national dialogue was the creation of a National Council of Public Trust, in which all voices are represented, to encourage a frank conversation about priorities and solutions.
Last month saw the first fruits of this dialogue with the announcement of a raft of significant political reforms. Regulations over organising and attending peaceful rallies are being relaxed and made clearer.
To ensure more diverse voices in national and regional politics, women and younger people are in future to make up 30% of party candidates and the membership threshold for registering new political parties is being halved to 20,000.
President Tokayev has also announced he wants to see the defamation decriminalised and the laws on sowing national, social or religious discord softened.
These reforms are aimed at protecting human rights in Kazakhstan and supporting our citizens.
This is a key promise of the President, who has been quick to implement his ideas. In his first few months in office, he has shown his commitment to promoting the development of a multi-party system, increased political competition, and pluralism of opinions in the country.
But while encouraging political debate and diversity, he is rightly doing so at a sensible pace while taking no risks with the security of our citizens.
The last few weeks have also seen major steps to modernise the criminal justice system. The moratorium on the death penalty is to be made permanent. Tougher penalties have been introduced for sexual and domestic violence to increase protection for women and bring Kazakhstan into line with other developed nations.
It is in these important areas, too that the EU’s advice and guidance has been important and is needed in the years ahead. The experience of the EU and its institutions in strengthening the rule of law and promoting democracy and the rule of law is invaluable. We recognize we have some distance to go but we are, I believe, moving in the right direction.
There are, of course, other vital areas for co-operation. Kazakhstan and Europe share common ground on many areas of foreign policy. In a world of sadly increased divisions and suspicions, we remain powerful and much-needed voices for international dialogue and the peaceful resolution of tensions.
We welcome as well the new EU Strategy for Central Asia and look forward to remaining your main partner in the region.
There will be no shortage of important areas to discuss. But in this important year for strengthening Kazakhstan-EU relations, I am confident that we will see even more effective and diverse co-operation to the benefits of our citizens and the wider world.