Abzal Saparbekuly, Ambassador of the Republic of Kazakhstan to Ankara: “Our cooperation in the Turkish World will continue in its dynamic process.”

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The demonstrations in Kazakhstan, which started with the price hikes in the first week of the year, has turned into acts of violence, dragging the country into a political crisis that is unprecedented in its 30-year history. Peaceful protests which swung to a different process, and led to the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev calling for assistance by The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Peace-keeping Forces began to withdraw after the situation in the country stabilized. Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Ankara, Abzal Saparbekuly, has evaluated the background of the developments in Kazakhstan and the current situation for the Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM).

1. What is the current situation in Kazakhstan?

Kazakhstan has overcome a great disaster, a tragedy. Currently, the state of emergency has been lifted in many parts of the country. Only Almaty, Almaty province and Zhambyl province are still red zones. Terrorist operations to find the perpetrators involved in the community continue in these regions where there are no hot conflicts. While these events, there was also a marauding section of the community that took part in attacks. There is an ongoing process of identifying these criminals. Also, many high-ranking government officials are being dismissed and subject to investigation. In general, I would like to state that public order has been provided in Kazakhstan, and the steps to heal our wounds have been carefully taken by the state. For the restoration of our cities, repayment and damage assessment operation is progressing.

2. Has the balance sheet of the damage done in the country due to the protests been announced?

The balance sheet determination process of the damages continues. According to the latest information I have received, even the loss of business only in Almaty is approximately 400 million dollars. The total loss across the country is currently 3 billion dollars due to the internet connection cut off in the events and the failure of banks and certain trade centres.

3. You said that the legal process to find criminals continues. How many people have been detained so far, how will this process work?

Detentions against those who are involved in these events by some means or other are to be continued. More than 12,000 people have been arrested so far. I would like to express this in particular; The Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Kazakhstan announced that every case will be investigated juristically with due exactingly. According to the latest figures, 6,976 administrative investigations were opened. Administrative investigations were launched against 4,918 people at various levels, administrative fines were imposed on 791 people, and warnings were imposed on 2,149 people. 494 criminal cases were opened, 44 for acts of terrorism, 34 for mass destruction, and 15 for murder. Other crimes are also prosecuted. In the process where every incident was investigated and questioned with great care, 412 people were arrested by the court decision, while 524 people are still in custody.

4. President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that there will be a comprehensive reform in the country. What will these reforms be, can you explain?

We believe that all the events that have taken place since the new year, are part of a broader game, a dark plan. Yes, the events literally began in a peaceful means, but the provocateurs got involved in these amicable actions, and thereafter, the events that we all witnessed took place with the involvement of looters and armed terrorist groups who has a desire to the operation of this plan. Henceforth, President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that the government will implement a set of actions. There is a necessity for the relief of wounds and catching criminals in the aftermath of protests. This experience demonstrates that we have a weakness in intelligence and security. So, what is lying behind these weaknesses is going to investigate comprehensively. Concerning this investigation, many instructions were given to the authorities by the government. Especially in the intervention against events, in other words, emerging security vulnerabilities must be urgently identified and straightened. The first priority in this regard will be the urgent implementation of law enforcement system reforms. Then, our national guard and armed forces are on the line, in here the task forces that can respond to such terrorist incidents will be professionalized. The other is to implement reforms related to the reorganization of foreign military, criminal, and financial intelligence. One of the significant instructions was to take a series of systematic measures against religious extremism. In decisions except for the security, measures will be taken specially to increase the welfare of the people. Among these, steps will be taken to eliminate excessive property stratification, excessive income injustice particularly within the society and to create a mechanism for this.  There are acute difficulties in our country. Our state needs to raise the standards of quality of life and welfare. In recent years, Kazakhstan’s national income has increased, its economy has strengthened, but events have indicated that there is an injustice in income distribution and there are deficiencies in the state system to resolve it.

Decisions were taken to strengthen Kazakhstan’s free-market economy. Especially the development of small-scale SMEs; In other words, it was said that a road map in the socio-economic field should be drawn to the government within 3 weeks regarding the development of their business in a real competitive environment among our businessmen who want to serve their country. Also, there will be arrangements such as eliminating bureaucratic problems, notedly reviewing public-tender contracts, revising purchasing procedures, restructuring the cartel order in the market in this process. In addition, the reform process initiated to diversify the economy and industry will continue, for instance, Kazakhstan has rich mineral deposits; We have rich underground treasures such as aluminium and copper, but these need to be brought into the economy as value-added products. We also have a rapidly developing economy in the oil and gas sector, but despite this, according to 2020 figures, only oil, gas, mining and machinery, tools, and products have been imported. In the future, steps will be taken to overcome such import gaps. A program that focused on generally making deep analyzes in the entire industry, in which sector we can be stronger to take concrete steps in this regard, will be implemented. Also, our president emphasized the increase in food prices based on inflation. As you know, we are experiencing a crisis during the epidemic. For this purpose, instructions to prepare a concrete program and action plan on food security in the following 3 years were given to the government. Furthermore, our president expressed that state officials and local commissioners were insufficient to solve the real problems of the Kazakh people. About this insufficiency, it was instructed to constitute a program for the professionalization of civil servants and managers found upon qualification. To stabilize our economy and increase the welfare of the people, salaries have been raised however, high inflation anywise neutralizes them. Therefore, instructions were given from the Central Bank to achieve the inflation targeting around 3-4% by 2025. Also, the significant initiative will begin to ensure imperative conditions for attracting domestic and direct investments to Kazakhstan. Another issue is the analysis of internal migration issues and finding solutions. In general, our president stated that there is a need for public administration reform. Presenting opportunities for young people… As you know, when our president came to the power, he had announced the president’s staff of young experts. The policy of assigning a young staff of 300 people, who have passed through a 5-6 stage process, to a higher level, will persistence. In this context, efforts to reduce youth unemployment will be accelerated.

Another substantial subject will be realizing actions about the educational qualification. Regulations will be made regarding the status of teachers. Also, efforts to increase the competitiveness of our universities in the world and relation with this, to open 5 branches in Kazakhstan until 2022 will be accelerated. In vocational education, especially the programs for the training of engineers and industrialists will be revisioned.  we can say that the instructions given by our president to the authorities were related to the creation of a social state and competitive economic conditions. In a broader sense, we can say that the instructions given by our president to the authorities were related to the creation of a social state and competitive economic conditions.

There are also political reforms. There are also reforms to be made in the political field. Many reforms have been made in the past years. To give an example; the social cohesion council was established. Members of NGOs and parliament, state officials, and our president were in the chair by himself of this council. On the other hand, within the scope of the election law, the election threshold was reduced from 7% to 5%. Apart from this, in the law on the amendment made about political parties, the concept of an opposition party was introduced in the parliament. Although there were not enough seats, the right to preside over the commissions was recognized. Changes were made regarding the nomination process in political parties and an arrangement was made for the party quota to consist of at least 30% youth and women. In parliamentary elections, the option to vote against everyone was introduced on the voting papers. Party formation has been facilitated. You know an important thing about these protests about public meetings which when the president came, a law change was made about it. Applications that were previously subject to 15 days of leave for this law change were reduced to 3 days. Therefore, if there is no objection within 3 days, the applications made according to the regulation are considered as permission. Further, elections for mukhtar and district governor were held in rural areas for the first time in our history. Significant changes were made in the protection of human rights. Some articles of the penal code were decriminalized and humanized, for instance, and the death penalty was abolished, too. To protect human rights; that is, a law on the ombudsman’s jurisdiction has passed on parliament. Previously, our ombudsman had been operated with a small team of 10-15 people; now its team has been expanded both on a regional basis and its jurisdictions have been escalated. Thusly, as I said, there was an ongoing process in both socio-economic and political fields in Kazakhstan as of January 13, 2022, this process will be carried out in a more determined and comprehensive way. Regarding this, our president said that without rushing political reforms, he will carry out the process within the framework of the previous harmonization council, in which NGOs, human rights activists, and he will take part. We are expecting this comprehensive political reform package to be announced at the parliamentary opening next September.

Kazakhstan has set foot in a new era. There is a meaningful proverb in Turkey, “One misfortune is better than a thousand pieces of advice.” Not as an ambassador; as a citizen, I believe that Kazakhstan will be disparate in the new period. We have seen that all our people have great confidence in our state and our president. Indeed, the people of Kazakhstan have a great belief in the strengthening of our state, and I believe that we will do this by assuming more responsibility as a union.

5. The Collective Security Treaty Organization Peacekeeping forces began to withdraw from Kazakhstan. How is the process is going now?

CSTO is an organization in which we are founding members and cooperate. A decision was taken at a very critical time. We called for support for this organization, and the call for peacekeeping support was a turning point to provide moral superiority against these armed and terrorist groups. Because the terrorist groups that carried out attacks on the ground had a joint decision-making and orientation centre either in Kazakhstan or abroad. With the arrival of the peacekeepers, they realized that they could not achieve their goals; this means that psychological superiority was suddenly passed to the stateside. If the call for peacekeeping had not been made, our city, which is one of the most important trade centres and cultural centers of Kazakhstan with a population of more than 2 million, would have turned into a stronghold of armed terrorists and provocateurs, and our citizens there would have been imprisoned. Still, the Kazakh Armed Forces would continue to fight about it, but a major disaster was prohibited in terms of civilian-military casualties. There was even such a risk. If Almaty fell into their hands, then there was a risk that all the southern regions would fall into them; Because you know, these protests took place in 11 regions of Kazakhstan and important buildings of the state were looted in 9 regions. Of course, looting has mostly happened in Almaty. Considering that the events were managed from a single centre, the arrival of the peacekeeping force had such an effect. The area of responsibility of the peacekeeping force was also clear; that is, both state institutions and economic and industrial centres were taken under protection one by one. For example, there is a power station centre in Almaty. There was also an attack. We gave protection to the peace force. With the arrival of the peacekeeping force, we sent our troops to the capital and other locations against the attacks. However, we have seen that there is a lot of misinformation in this process. We expressed this idea against the misinformation in the Turkish public: The state of Kazakhstan and the constitutionally entitled president who took this decision. It is the legitimate right of Kazakhstan to make this decision. You may criticize this, you may not like it, but if we are brothers, if there is a public that cares about each other’s problems, you should respect it. There is no need to discuss the decision of the President of Kazakhstan, its legitimacy, and there is no need to use expressions that will sabotage his decision. There is no need to come to the tricks of the Westerners. So-called The Russian soldier would never come out of the place they came from. You see, the first troops to come out were Russian soldiers. I’m asking these people, where are your predictions that you have caused so much apocalypse? Let them come and apologize, let them say we respect them, let them take back all the accusations. By creating such discussions here, the risk of creating an atmosphere of Kazakh-Russian conflict arose. All your statements will be reflected in Kazakhstan. The people of Kazakhstan said, “We were not aware of something. The international community was more aware.” they will say. So, in such cases, it is necessary to act more prudently. Unfortunately, this kind of perception has been created both in the eyes of our own citizens, in the Turkish public and in other countries. We said that the peacekeeping force will withdraw in two days, there were still countries that did not believe. There were those who said we will see. As of January 13, 2022, peacekeeping forces of the Russian Federation began to withdraw firstly. On January 14, 2022, 10 planes left the country together with the Belarusian military units. Apart from this, the military units of Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan completed their mission and returned to their countries. Completion of all withdrawal process will end on January 19, 2022.

6. What can you say about the future relations between the Organization of Turkic States and Kazakhstan aftermath of this crisis?

Our relations and cooperation with the Organization of Turkish States are the results of a long period. After this process, our relationship with the organization will not be interrupted. On the contrary, the organization will play an important role in diversifying our economy and developing trade, especially as our president said. It is time to benefit from each other’s experiences and support each other in making reforms in the socio-economic field. As the Organization of Turkish States, the more we cooperate to remove the barriers related to trade and investment between us and accelerate them, the more we will benefit each other. The Organization of Turkish States will turn to more concrete projects. It has to prove that it is a truly working organization. As Kazakhstan, we are ready to contribute to this in every way possible.

7. What kind of political developments do you think can be experienced in Kazakhstan in the short and medium-term? Can we get your views and calculations on this matter?

There will be no dramatic developments in Kazakhstan’s domestic and foreign policy; but as our president said, Kazakhstan’s national interests will be our priority. We will cooperate decisively according to Kazakhstan’s national interests. From our point of view, our national interests in foreign policy are to further strengthen our relations with neighbouring countries. In line with the win-win approach, we aim to strengthen our cooperation by protecting our equal sovereignty rights. Of course, our neighbours should be friendly toward us. Our existing partnership relations also need to be strengthened. First of all, our brother republics in the Russian Federation, China and Central Asia come to mind for this aim. In addition, with the countries on the Caspian; We will need to improve our relations with our neighbours such as Azerbaijan and Iran. Our cooperation in the Turkish World will continue in its dynamic process. That’s why I don’t think there will be a big change in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. However, the reforms carried out in the field of democracy and human rights in Kazakhstan will strengthen our relations with Western countries and some international organizations that criticize us at certain points. However, as I said, all of these are based on Kazakhstan’s internal priorities, and democracy, human rights and freedom of expression, which we can see now, … our dynamism will automatically reflect on the world and our region. In domestic politics, I have said many points before. The process that started with political reforms will continue. We await the announcement of new political reforms. The balances in domestic politics will change. Now is the time to serve the people. For this, the understanding of both political parties and senior executives in the state will change. Responsibility will increase, transparency, public service, all of these will be reflected in domestic policy. It’s not only the state responsible for a strong democracy but also society will be responsible for it. In the future, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights activists in society will also have a responsibility. Not only by the state; there will be changes in the domestic policy towards the creation of a sustainable mechanism together with the society.

8. What has this crisis demonstrated to Kazakhstan? How should we, as the Organization of Turkic States, approach this process?

We have seen that there is a security gap in the events that took place in Kazakhstan, the state machine is weak in the eyes of the people, there are deficiencies in the free economy and competition and corruption. All of these need to be fixed. As for what kind of lesson we should learn as the Turkish States Organization; We cannot decide whether the risks in Kazakhstan are the same for other states or not. However, everyone, especially neighbouring countries, followed what happened in Kazakhstan and took notes. The emerge of such events in a country like Kazakhstan, which has a strong economy and is active in foreign policy, created a shock effect for everyone. As the Organization of Turkish States, the biggest lesson that we need to learn is to read perception operation of some external forces from our point of view correctly and remove our lack of communication so that we don’t get caught up in these perception operations. For this, we need to be in closer relations with institutions and organizations, such as “think tanks” or other opinion leaders. Because we have seen that we are very open and weak to manipulations in these events. Let me tell you from Turkey’s point of view, many experts have emerged in many fields, whether they know Kazakhstan or not. Experts have emerged who have never been to the region and do not know the national interests of Kazakhstan. False information, different scenarios, and disagreeable conspiracy theories were put forward by these experts. That’s why we can create a common network in order to better manage the process in times of crisis like this. The Organization of Turkish States can present a comprehensive research report on the question of what kind of support can be provided in emergencies, starting with communication. We, as Kazakhstan, are ready to share our experiences.

Lisans eğitimini Gazi Üniversitesi İletişim Fakültesi'nde tamamlayan Sibel Mazrek, yüksek lisans eğitimine Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli Üniversitesi Lisansüstü Eğitim Enstitüsü'nde Gazetecilik Ana Bilim Dalı'nda devam etmektedir. Çeşitli medya kuruluşlarında muhabirlik, spikerlik sunuculuk görevlerini üstlenen Mazrek, ANKASAM'da Medya Koordinatörü olarak çalışmalarına devam etmektedir.