Kairat Umarov, the ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United States since 2013.
Yesterday, Kazakhstan formally signed the agreement to join the World Trade Organization. The final deal, which has taken years to broker, represents a rare opportunity to economically boost not just one nation but an entire region at the crossroads of global trade. It matters more than one thinks.
Kazakhstan’s WTO membership legitimizes the WTO’s rule-of-law trading system in a part of the world where it is not yet fully embraced. It is the final piece of the puzzle that expands U.S. trade and investment in Central Asia, builds a more integrated and prosperous regional economy, and more effectively links European and Asian economies. For these reasons, WTO accession for Kazakhstan has profound implications beyond membership by a single country.
Kazakhstan is the central hub of a growing route
First, Kazakhstan is the central hub of a growing route that connects China, Russia, India and Central Asia to European markets. Firmly at the center of both China’s “One Belt, One Road” Initiative and the “New Silk Road” Initiative of the United States, its prolonged WTO negotiations, which took almost 20 years, are evidence of the complexity of the regional political and economic situation. Balancing this complex set of relationships is a commitment we continue to make to our people and to the world. This commitment has served us well and is strengthened today by further connecting us to the rest of the world through the WTO.
The major force in Central Asia
Second, our leadership in providing security and development aid to nearby countries only be strengthened through stronger economic partnerships in the WTO. Kazakhstan is the major political, economic and civil society force in Central Asia and has a significant and positive influence on the region. Through the convening power of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan is addressing concerns of food and water security by convening dialogues to address disputes over water rights and by providing resources as a leading grain and flour exporter. The “Green Bridge” is a regional initiative led by Kazakhstan with the UN to bring the technology and political will to fight climate change to Central Asia. As Kazakhstan is the driver of the regional economy, linking these programs together through more coordinated economic and trade relations with our WTO neighbors–such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan–will spur more economic growth.
A dynamic economy driven by an ambitious workforce
Third, Kazakhstan has a diverse, growing and dynamic economy driven by a diverse, creative and ambitious workforce ready to expand its engagement with the world through the advantages afforded by the WTO. With an adult literacy rate of nearly 100%, Kazakhstan is one of the most educated countries in the world, ranking 21st out of 176 countries, ahead of traditional economic leaders such as the UK, Germany and Japan. Thirty percent of Kazakhstan’s GDP is made up of 700,000 small and medium sized businesses that employ 2.5 million Kazakhstani workers. Our long history of multi-nationalism promotes a positive environment that has attracted 38 thousand foreign specialists to support our growing industries. 25% of the population is now under 30 years of age, most of these college-educated, internationally traveled and English-speaking.
Critics note that growth in Kazakhstan slowed due to the financial crisis and that the price of oil, a mainstay of our economy, has been cut in half. Despite this, Kazakhstan has weathered the economic crisis better than many European nations and maintains a GDP that dwarfs its neighbors. Even with the economic recession in Russia, our largest trading partner, our economy continues to grow. Projections for growth remain at 4-5%, higher than most of the world. Further, overall unemployment in Kazakhstan has continued to fall since independence and remains today around 5%.
Opening a customs-free market to more than 170 million customers
In the end, the WTO deal, which we formally sign today in Geneva, opens a customs-free market to more than 170 million customers–customers who are employed, educated and ready to buy, companies that are ready to expand, export and grow and investors who are ready to provide financial and capital to emerging markets. As 90% of Kazakhstan’s bilateral trade is with WTO members, the deal further connects these customers, who are expanding their collective input to the global economy, to markets in both the East and the West. Most importantly, the agreement proves that through trade and despite the conflicts that exist in our world, we can move forward together to create more opportunity and more prosperity for our region and our world.