Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, the UK must support post-Soviet success


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Sir Ciarán Devane, former chief executive of the British Council, explains why Britain must not abandon the states that gained independence from the Soviet bloc

For those of us who grew up when the Cold War was the dominant paradigm and an unstable standoff between what we called the West and the Soviet bloc was a terrifying reality, the events of December 1991 were memorable.

By the end of that month, the Soviet Union had finally collapsed and the newly independent states were now players on the world stage.

Thirty years later, some of these states are still in the news and our relations with them are sometimes very difficult. Think of the recent fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan or the reports of military build-up on the Ukrainian / Russian border; refugees on the Belarusian / Polish border – or Britain’s own relations with Russia which were so badly damaged following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 with Novichok in Salisbury.

But the bad news isn’t the whole story and to get the full picture we need to look at each of the 15 states – ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Tian Shan Mountains in Central Asia – that left the collapsed Soviet Union.

Although linked by a common history, the geographic diversity of the former Soviet republics has produced divergent trajectories over the past three decades.

Eastern European countries, such as the Baltic States, have joined the European Union’s political and trade bloc and Western security alliances. The nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia, for their part, shared a more unequal fate pursuing their own social and economic development largely independent of transnational blocs. Russia has its own history and, as the largest of the 15, remains a world power in its own right.

How the UK got involved with the 15 is another story. Political relations with Russia remain strained. Relations with the former Eastern bloc countries in the EU have been unrecognizable for a generation – cemented by migratory flows, cultural exchanges and shared international goals.

However, in Central Asia, the picture of British engagement is more mixed. Squeezed between China and Russia, the landlocked countries of Central Asia have tended to lead a existence more isolated from the cultural, economic and diplomatic reach of the UK, reflected by more closed economies and smaller civil societies. These are companies in which British business, education and soft power organizations such as the British Council – my former employer – are gaining insufficient traction, even as the region’s strategic importance grows.

However, among these, a Central Asian country and the one I know best stands out, Kazakhstan.


‘Enlightened self-interest’

Last week, December 16, was Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. On this day, Kazakhstan became the last of the former Soviet republics to celebrate its 30 years of independence.

Kazakhstan has experienced a remarkable transformation from a Soviet dumping ground to an upper middle-income economy. In three decades, its GDP per capita has increased 18-fold, now lagging behind the only EU member states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania of the former Soviet club. Outside of Europe, Kazakhstan is the richest landlocked country in the world.

This rapid economic development is fueled by a wealth of natural resources. It is a resounding achievement of which the UK has been a strong and committed supporter. Trade between the two countries was worth £ 2 billion a year before the coronavirus pandemic, with various extractive industries originating from Kazakhstan and mainly professional services and technical expertise originating from the UK.

When I visited Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan a few years ago, it was to attend a conference of British, Kazakh and Central Asian creative industries, as we sought to promote technical exchange, to identify mutually beneficial business opportunities and share the experiences of the UK’s fastest growing companies. growing business sector.

Indeed, the UK’s example is remarkably visible in the future direction of Central Asia’s largest economy.

The Astana International Financial Center – which aspires to serve as a global financial hub straddling the time zones of major Asian and European financial centers – has adopted English common law (and even English judges) as a means of settling disputes. commercial. On climate change, Kazakhstan became the first Central Asian country to set a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 and, at the recent United Nations COP26 summit in Glasgow, struck a deal. strategic partnership with the United Kingdom on support for the green transition.

For me, this collaboration shows the advantage of having a clear, holistic and resourced plan for a bilateral relationship, aided, it must be said, by competent ambassadors and embassies in the respective capitals.

Another intriguing aspect of the transitions from the Soviet Union is how the various states have engaged with the larger club of nations, whether bilaterally or multilaterally.

As a newly established “regional power”, Kazakhstan has sought to develop its identity in this club; its national brand. It has sought to increase its reputation as a reliable, trustworthy and valued partner of the international community on global issues. Whether it is providing regional security during the Afghan crisis or playing an active role in international organizations like the World Trade Organization, the country is increasingly assuming international responsibilities.

At the last United Nations General Assembly in October, Kazakhstan was elected a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council for the period 2022 to 2024. This is the second time in 10 years that it has been elected. fulfills this international duty, which must be seen as a declaration of expectations and standards to be respected by all.

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My training in cultural relations would applaud this international ambition. We know from the evidence that trusted and engaged states are more likely to get foreign direct investment, more likely to be supported by the UN General Assembly, and more likely to benefit tourists and students. cultural and educational assets of a nation.

It’s not just about being a good citizen and supporting global solutions to global problems. This mutuality leads to change, progress and development at home. If a lesson to be learned from studying global influence is that one should join all the good clubs and serve on committees, then Kazakhstan certainly does. It is an enlightened personal interest.

So many transitions from autocracy to liberal market democracies go wrong. It remains encouraging, perhaps even remarkable in our present world, that Kazakhstan has achieved such a radical economic transformation and progress in terms of living standards with a relatively stable political culture and moderate involvement of civil society organizations. This creates a platform for further changes.


Britain’s role

In the next 30 years of Kazakhstan’s development, strengthening civil society and mainstreaming political reforms will be prerequisites for the country’s progress and evolution towards a more advanced and knowledge-based society.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who succeeded longtime leader Nursulatn Nazarbayev in 2019, acknowledged him when he came to power.

Here the UK can be a valuable partner in shaping the growing geopolitical and economic importance of Kazakhstan and in promoting peace, security and development throughout the Central Asian region. To do this, the UK must recognize that its power lies in its example and engagement with the people, institutions and government of Kazakhstan to experience the UK and become familiar with it. example.

It will be vital to provide major aid programs and medical supplies to help Kazakhstan and its regional partners support migrants fleeing Afghanistan. Cultural, scientific and educational exchanges, such as those enabled by Erasmus +, aimed at generating a deeper understanding of common challenges and enshrining collaboration between the UK and Kazakhstan should be expanded. Programs aimed at supporting women leaders in the industries of the future and at sharing innovations in building the circular economy are of crucial importance. Strengthening civil society organizations and supporting a culture of enhancing social capital and institutional strength is no less so.

It is these types of relationships that help strengthen diplomatic relations, enable technology transfers and, above all, establish shared goals and commitments for reform. A stronger and more capable Kazakhstan – a Kazakhstan that trusts the UK and shares our values ​​of fairness and openness – will only advance UK interests in the world.

In the life of a nation, three decades seem trivial. But the nation-building process that Kazakhstan has undertaken since the fall of the Soviet Union has paid off. As the country and its former Soviet peers look to the next three decades, in search of sustainable growth and fairer and more transparent societies, the UK has an invaluable role to play in leading the way.

My hope is that we meet this challenge, not only with Kazakhstan or with the post-Soviet world, but as the foundation of our approach to foreign policy.

Sir Ciarán Devane was Managing Director of the British Council from 2015 to 2020 and Director of the Center for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

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