Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko talked to NE Global in an exclusive interview about a state-wide referendum on June 5 on the adoption of amendments to the Constitution that will determine the future of the Central Asian country, areas of strategic cooperation between the European Union and Kazakhstan, energy security, transport corridors as well strengthening cooperation within Central Asia and expanding the region’s cooperation with outside partners.
“I would say that the referendum comes as a logical step for President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev who has put forward four packages of political reforms from 2019 since he became president and who put forward very wide-ranging reform proposals in his state-of-the-nation address in mid-March. When it was all put together, it became clear the proposed amendments have to do with the 30% plus of the articles of the Constitution, meaning that one third of the Constitution needs to be changed,” Vassilenko told NE Global in a video interview during his visit to Brussels on May 16.
“So, the president then decided the most democratic way to get his proposals approved would be to put them for a vote to the people. Under our law, it would be possible to pass these amendments in parliament, but the president decided that they are so wide ranging, deep and meaningful that they require the consent of the entire electorate. The previous referendum in Kazakhstan took place in 1995 when the Constitution under which we lived for 27 years had been approved. Further amendments to this Constitution were introduced through parliament but again this time the president’s decision was that these amendments were so wide ranging and deep that they require the consent of the entire electorate,” Vassilenko said.
“The expectations are that the people would, of course, debate this offer from the president. The whole package is put forward for the people to vote on,” he said, explaining that it’s a yes or no vote. “Under our law, a minimum of 50% of the voter turnout is required for the referendum to become valid. Also, a minimum of 50% and above is required for the decision of the referendum to be legitimate. Right now, the challenge is to convince the people that this is the chance for the people to vote on the future of their country,” the deputy foreign minister said.
According to him, there is a sense that these amendments are liked by the people, that people would want to support that. He noted that there is a challenge that there might be some complacency and some people may decide that there is no point in going and voting because there is such a wide support for the amendments, and they will supposedly pass anyway. “So, the complacency is basically the opponent of the referendum, and we need to, as a government, as a state to explain the meaning of these amendments, the importance of these amendments for the people and the importance of the vote for the referendum,” Vassilenko said.
Kazakhstan has invited international observers from numerous organizations including Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Organization of Turkic States, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, as well as the Office of democratic institutions and human rights (ODIHR) of the Organization of Security and Co-operation of Europe (OSCE). “We hope all these organizations observe the referendum, help us improve the electoral process thought their observations, through their recommendations so when we come up to the next round of the elections, we can take them into account,” Vassilenko said.
Strengthening local self-government
“As part of these reforms we are talking about the strengthening of the Mazhilis (lower house) of Parliament and its powers and beginning with the way the Mazhilis is created. According to the proposed reform, 70% of the Mazhilis will be elected through the party lists and 30% of the seats will be filled through single vote constituencies. Up to know it’s a 100% party list proportional system,” Vassilenko said. “But at the regional assembly level the breakdown is going even further towards strengthening the connection with the electorate, meaning that 50% of those seats will be filled through the party lists and 50% will be filled through direct vote and even at the lower level the election will be fully made through the individual constituencies, without party lists,” he added.
According to Vassilenko, the local assemblies in regions will now have a choice between the two options offered by Kazakhstan’s President as head of the region. “Up until now they basically vote on just one individual that is proposed by the president, but this will change and they will have a genuine choice between the two options thus again having a bigger say in how the regions in which these assemblies are created are run. There is also a greater effort to devolve more responsibility for collecting and using the taxes. Right now, there are six categories of taxes that are collected by local authorities and spent locally. This will increase to 13 categories of taxes that the local authorities will collect and use the money collected locally without sending to central government,” he said.
Asked if Kazakhstan is looking at the EU model, Vassilenko reminded that Tokayev, in his state of the nation address on March 16, put forward a proposal for Kazakhstan to consider joining the European Charter of Local Self-Government. “Unfortunately, this Charter is not open for joining by countries that are not members of the Council of Europe but there is a possibility to apply the provisions, the principles outlined in this charter in our national legislation, and the work is being done to do just that,” Vassilenko said.
EU-Kazakhstan strategic cooperation
Turning to EU-Kazakhstan cooperation, Vassilenko said the foundation for relations between Brussels and Nur-Sultan is the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which entered into full force on March 2, 2020. “It covers 29 areas of cooperation but in recent months especially the top priority, top attention by all officials is given to connectivity, to transportation, to finding many alternative routes to transport goods between Central Asia, between China and then Central Asia and Europe,” he said.
Another important area of growing cooperation is critical raw materials. Vassilenko noted Kazakhstan has quite a good number of deposits and it can be partners for the European Battery Alliance and European Raw Materials Alliance, and there is potential for great cooperation in this area.
Another area is the green energy and there are several projects supported by the European Union but implemented by European companies to develop renewable energy sources in Kazakhstan as well as to produce green hydrogen, he said.
Moreover, education is always a priority. “We, of course, are interested in further expanding this cooperation through the Horizon 2020 program,” he said.
Also, on Kazakhstan’s priority list is to increase and improve the conditions for people’s mobility. This is an area which is provided for in Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) which states that the EU and Kazakhstan will support greater people’s mobility. “As of the beginning of this year, we restored the visa free travel for citizens of all EU member states which was suspended during the two years of the pandemic. Now we would like to see some progress on the visa facilitation for Kazakh citizens to the European Union. We do not ask for visa free travel, but we ask for some facilitating arrangements for issuing the visas, and this is a priority for Kazakhstan,” Vassilenko said.
Turning to the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister said, “That’s one of the issues that is being discussed right now on how to strengthen and expand this cooperation between logistics companies, national transportation companies of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey”.
On March 31, four countries – Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Kazakhstan – signed a quadrilateral statement on the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor, aimed at strengthening cooperation and increasing the transit potential of the countries along the corridor. “National railway companies pledged to work together to strengthen this cooperation. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to synchronize the efforts. It has to do with tariffs, it has to do with provision of rolling stock, of locomotives, of scheduling, et cetera.
There is a very successful example that we already have of having similar arrangements with the Russian and Belarussian railway companies under the United Transport and Logistics Company with Kazakhstan. Three railway companies established a joint company and for the past 9 years it worked very well to transport cargo from China, from Central Asia across Kazakhstan, across Russia and Belarus into Poland, and then further to Germany and other destinations. We would like to replicate that with the Middle Corridor,” Vassilenko said.
“Happiness is having multiple options for transporting your goods. There is also the option to transport cargo across the Caspian Sea. We have two ports, Aktau and Kuryk, on the Caspian Sea; their throughput capacity is 27 million tons, but it has not been used in full. It has been used only maybe up to 20%-25% of its capacity. So, there is potential to use and expand these opportunities and have more options to export goods,” he said.
Asked how Kazakhstan can contribute to EU energy security, Vassilenko told NE Global there is a German-Swedish company Svevind which is planning to build solar and wind power stations to produce about 45 MW of electricity. “Furthermore, they are looking at a much more ambitious project, and their goal is to produce from this electricity green hydrogen and then export it to Europe. So, we have a lot of potential not just in batteries and critical raw materials but in producing green hydrogen. It requires a lot of effort, a lot of investment but this is something that is already being worked on,” he said.
Central Asia cooperation
Asked about security issues in Central Asia, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister said his country has always been of the position that multilateral diplomacy especially is the way to prevent problems from happening and then resolve them if they exist. He reminded that Kazakhstan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) which now brings together 27 countries. “In Central Asia proper, we have always advocated for stronger regional dialogue between the five countries. Since 2018, such a dialogue has been launched at a very high level. Three such meetings of the leaders of five countries took place beginning with the one in Astana in 2018. We’re now looking at a much more ambitious plan of cooperation between the five countries. It includes cooperation in various areas, but the security cooperation is dealt through other institutions which I mentioned already such as Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and CICA.
I should also mention the OSCE, but I should also mention the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Some of the countries in Central Asia are CSTO members such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Others are not. For us, the main idea, the main goal is to strengthen across the board cooperation among five countries – economic, trade, political – so that we resolve these problems that exist between the countries. They always exist, we have a big challenge with managing water resources which are becoming increasingly scarce in our region, for example. So, again, our idea is to continue with this dialogue among the five countries of Central Asia,” Vassilenko said.
“We also support various dialogue formats between the five countries of Central Asia and other international actors. For example, EU-Central Asia dialogue or Central Asia Plus One, meaning the United States, or Central Asia Plus South Korea or Central Asia Plus India or Central Asia Plus China or Central Asia Plus Russia. In other words, these are the formats where outside partners of the five countries want to engage with the region as a region, and we welcome these platforms because they have different angles, different focuses depending on the international partner, and different scopes, different history, some are rather new such as the ones with China and Russia, others such as with the United States, is now six years old, with the European Union it is much older, much more established. With Japan or South Korea, they are much more established and has been in existence much longer. To sum up, first we want to strengthen cooperation in Central Asia, within Central Asia and then we want to strengthen cooperation of Central Asia with outside partners,” Vassilenko said.
He noted that interestingly the EU is the largest trading partner as a bloc not just for Kazakhstan but also for other countries in Central Asia. “Our neighbors in Central Asia stand for very limited trade volume between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and other countries in Central Asia. So, we want to expand trade within Central Asia because there is great potential, and this trade has not lived up to its full potential in the 30 years of our independent life where we sought commercial partners, investment partners beyond the region. Secondly, we want to expand trade between our region and Central Asia and this is where the EU Global Gateway program is handy or the EU Strategy on Central Asia is useful,” Vassilenko said.
He added, “So, there is framework, there is a political focus in the EU about how to expand its cooperation with Central Asia. We are working together to make it a reality”.