Why Kazakhstan sees ‘dynamic relations with Israel’ flourishing after elections

Why Kazakhstan sees ‘dynamic relations with Israel’ flourishing after elections

Joe Millis travels to the central Asian country's capital of Nur Sultan for its presidential election, and discovers why it has burgeoning ties with the Jewish state

Nursultan Nazarbayev after voting  after voting
Nursultan Nazarbayev after voting after voting

Kazakhstan believes that its excellent relations with Israel will continue to flourish following the presidential election this weekend.

The election – the first since independence in 1991 without Nursultan Nazabayev as a candidate – was won by the outgoing president’s hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, with more than 70 percent of the vote.

His nearest challenger in a field of seven, Amirzhan Kosanov, polled only 16.2 percent of the vote on a 77 percent turnout.

Speaking before Sunday’s election, deputy foreign minister Roman Vassilenko said: “We have very dynamic and interesting relations with Israel. We have hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and before him other Israeli ministers and officials, including Shimon Peres.

Oli- and gas-rich Kazakhstan – it supplies upwards of 25 percent of Israel’s fuel – is, like other Central Asian states, of strategic importance to Israel due to their proximity to Iran.

And Kazakhstan, being the most politically stable of the five “stans” – Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – is an important intelligence sharing partner for the Israelis.

Israel is Kazakhstan’s fifth largest Asian trade partner, and imports over $1.4 billion worth of goods from the Central Asian republic each year.

Chen Bar-Yosef, the Managing Director of the Israeli National Infrastructure Ministry’s Fuel Authority, has praised the quality of Kazakhstan’s oil, and has encouraged Kazakh manufacturers to sell oil directly to Israeli private companies.

Kazakh policymakers believe that Israel could indirectly assist Kazakhstan’s attempts to increase its oil exports to East Asia and Nur Sultan has expanded its investments in Haifa’s oil refineries.

“We have deep economic cooperation with Israel,” Vassilenko said. “Many companies from Israel operate here, especially in the fields of high-tech and agritech.

Noting that water was a precious resource in Central Asia, he said that Israel’s “famous” water saving technologies were being used in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the region.

“We have very limited water resources in the region, and the population is likely to grow to 90 million people by 2050 and new technologies are very much needed,” he said, speaking at the foreign ministry in the capital Nur Sultan, which used to be called Astana but whose name was changed to honour the former president.

“We are also in discussions with the Israelis about direct flights and visa accommodation.

“Israel is a digital powerhouse and it is helping Kazakhstan develop its own digital/startup culture and infrastructure,” Vassilenko added.

Only last year, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE) signed an agreement with Kazakhstan’s new stock exchange to help set up its cybersecurity protection systems.

TASE said it would help the Kazakhs with its “high level of professional experience and the many years of professional experience on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in the field of cyber protection, which is one of the significant challenges currently facing stock exchanges and financial institutions around the world”.

Newly-elected President Tokayev is expected to continue the foreign policies of his predecessor, and that means playing a delicate balancing act between its two big neighbours, China and Russia, while cooperating with the EU and the US.

The elections themselves – deemed “free and fair” by international observers, or at least “freer and fairer” than previous polls – passed without a hitch. However, there were about 500 arrests in Nur Sultan and Almaty, the ancient capital, by groups protesting against what they described as a lack of choice in the election.

With seven candidates standing, that was a bit of a stretch.

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