Interview • 06 May, 2020

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev: Our country will come out of this difficulty even stronger (Interview)

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The national newspaper “Egemen Kazakhstan” published an exclusive interview with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. He was interviewed by the Head of the newspaper Darkhan Kydyrali. We are pleased to present the English translation of the interview by the Kazakh Embassy in Pretoria, South-Africa.

– Your Excellency, your first interview as President was published last year in the newspaper "Egemen Qazaqstan". At the outset, let us express our sincere gratitude for agreeing once again, nowadays in these difficult times, to share your valuable thoughts with readers through our newspaper.

– “Egemen Qazaqstan” is the voice of our country, the tribune of our nation, as well as centennial chronicle of the Kazakh history. Therefore, it is extremely important to communicate with the public through the main media outlet of the country.

- So, let us start the interview. Last week, you issued a Statement on the coronavirus epidemic, outlining many of the concerns of the public. Previously you have already made Address and Statement on television. In general, how do you assess the current situation in the country? What will be our next direction?

– The pandemic has significantly affected the normal life of the entire world. As you can see, the epidemic has led to a sharp decline in economic activity around the world. It is crystal clear that the fall in commodity prices will worsen the economic situation. According to the International Monetary Fund, this year's global GDP will fall significantly. Of course, recovery from such a crisis will not be easy. Without immediate action, the global recession will continue to worsen. Therefore, countries with appropriate abilities and capabilities make every effort to ensure direct help and concrete support their citizens.

We declared a state of emergency in Kazakhstan in a timely manner. Thanks to such measures, we prevent the spread of the virus and maintain stability in society. As you know, about KZT 6 Trillion has been allocated for anti-crisis measures. Above of all, we decided to pay the unemployed population an amount of KZT 42,500. In total, 4.2 million people already received this assistance. We will continue it in the second month as well. In addition, about 1 million needy people will be provided with food and other necessities.

Isn’t it a challenge to our statehood if the people are not helped in such a difficult period?! Of course, the distribution of money does not improve the situation. In times of crisis, it is necessary to organize comprehensive and systematic measures. Above all, it is necessary to employ young people. Therefore, more than 250 thousand jobs will be created. Each region has infrastructure and engineering projects, as well as facilities providing housing and communal services. Yet, we are mobilizing the unemployed people for their construction and repair.

Loan repayments have been postponed for 1.6 million entrepreneurs in temporary difficulties. Such a measure is necessary to support business people. Also, the funding of the Programme "Economics of Simple Things" was increased to KZT 1 Trillion. These funds will be used to refinance new projects and provide soft loans. Time for paying taxes and providing other mandatory payments by entrepreneurs have been extended. The affected SMEs were exempted from the mandatory payment of the salary fund for six months.

It should be noted that during the quarantine, our citizens quickly adapted to isolation. Many employees of enterprises and institutions were transferred to remote work. This shows that the society is ready for new trends.

In general, the strategic direction of Kazakhstan is crystal clear. The Leader of the Nation (Elbasy) made this clear at the recent meeting of the Security Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Any crisis gives rise to new initiatives. Of course, we need to learn from this period and improve on our weaknesses. If the epidemic does not escalate, the state of emergency will end on May 11.

– In accordance with Your Excellency’s recent Statement on COVID-19, the current situation is not easy for the entire world. During the crisis, the KZT has depreciated against the USD. Can the KZT stabilize and recover after the pandemic?

– It is true that along with the currencies of other countries, our KZT has depreciated. In this regard, the Government and the National Bank have taken concrete measures to stabilize the situation. I instructed the quasi-public sector to sell part of the export earnings on the domestic market. They are also returning their foreign currency deposits to the country's financial system. These funds will be spent on specific, concrete projects. These and other measures are taken to prevent a shortage of dollars.

Of course, it is not easy to regulate such issue in a market economy. Moreover, it is no secret that in our country foreign exchange reserves in hard currency are forming mainly from the sale of raw materials. Sooner or later, the KZT will stabilize. But it is continuing to be influenced by external factors. It is well-known that it is possible to correct and improve the exchange rate of the KZT against the USD only depending on the supply and demand in the foreign exchange market. Therefore, the relevant Kazakhstani authorities will prevent illegal actions in our foreign exchange market. In the future, the National Bank will continue to work with the Government, adhering to the principle of free exchange rate of the KZT.

– Earlier Your Excellency have already said that second-tier (regulated) banks should be responsible at this stage. It is not a secret that these structures often turn to the state for support during the crisis. In general, is this correct? What kind of assistance can these banks provide to the population because of the current state emergency?

– The banking system is the most important part of the financial market. The state, business representatives and ordinary depositors are interested in the stable operational functioning of banks. Therefore, support to banks will not be unfounded. This is the way to stimulate the national economy.

Now banks could provide their serviced uninterruptedly. The Deposit Insurance Fund is also stable. This situation is monitored closely by the National (Central) Bank. Therefore, there is no threat to depositors' funds.

We can say that during the state of emergency, second tier banks have contributed to the stabilization of the socio-economic situation. Above all, banks postponed the repayment of loans to entrepreneurs and citizens. Hence, loan payments were deferred for three months. Those who have lost their income need such help. However, there should be no public perception that the loan will not be repaid at all. This is a misconception.

On the other hand, a soft loan programme for SMEs has also been developed with the participation of the Government. If banks stop lending to entrepreneurs and citizens, many sectors of the economy will stagnate. We will not allow it.

On my instructions, the National Bank and the Agency for Regulation and Development of Financial Market are considering additional measures to maintain the stability of the financial system.

– If the situation continues to worsen, will our budget be able to bear this burden? Can the country's budget be amended again in the future?

– In times of crisis, it is often necessary to regulate budget revenues and expenditures. The Government has approved a special procedure for the budget adjustment during the crisis. As you know, significant financial means has been allocated to fight the coronavirus. Measures to support the country’s citizens and increase economic activities require additional funding.

It is noteworthy that the purchase of expensive cars and furniture will not be allowed within the budget. Funds for large-scale gatherings have been reduced. Some investment projects have been postponed. The savings will be used to ensure sustainable economic development of the country and to bolster recovery during the state of emergency and beyond.

Several projects aimed at improving the quality of life of the population are also being implemented.

– One of the important pillars of our economy is agriculture. At this critical time, this sector is receiving significant support. Noteworthy, farmers who have started the sowing campaign will receive real benefits. Are there any plans to improve the lives of the rural population?

– You are right, agriculture is very important for our country. The main task now is to ensure a successful sowing campaign. The Kazakhs say, " One day in the spring leads to one-year food well-being." This work should be carried out in a timely manner, regardless of any risks and threats.

In accordance with my recent Statement, KZT 200 billion has been allocated for the spring sowing campaign and pre-purchase this year. KZT 70 billion from the above-mentioned amount will be spent on the development of seed production and the purchase of fertilizers. In addition, small and medium farms will receive fuel at low prices. In this regard, 390 thousand tons of diesel fuel are sold at a discount. I hope that all this will help to get a rich harvest. Now one of the main tasks is to provide food to our people, while ensuring the food security of our country. I instructed both the Government and the local governors to keep this issue under constant control. In general, the country has enough food. Yet, in the future it is necessary not to raise prices and provoke our population, but to do the proper work.

The most important issue is to create conditions and ensure employment for young people in rural areas. Otherwise, we may face uncontrolled migration and urbanization, which may lead to complex social and political issues. Hence, we began to see such difficulties. This is especially true in metropolitan cities. These issues should be in the constant focus of all the state bodies and governmental agencies.

– The educational process has been changed due to quarantine. People are worried that the school year will end differently than usual. What is the solution to this problem?

– From April 6 this year, school students begun their distance learning. We have taken such a step to prevent the spread of the epidemic. On the other hand, it is a modern requirement of our times.

Due to the different speeds of the Internet, several ways of distance learning have been suggested. In particular, TV lessons were organized along with lessons on the Internet platform. Students living in 57 settlements and communities without the Internet access, continue their education through the postal service. Local executive bodies provide teachers and students with computers and mobile Internet. Financial means were provided from the governmental funds to increase the communication opportunities. As a result, distance learning is now back to normal.

In general, in recent years, distance learning has become a global trend. This method is widely used in many universities around the world. But it has both advantages and disadvantages. Yet, there is no alternative to distance learning, especially in the current conditions of quarantine. Therefore, it should be improved in the future.

I think this school year has ended successfully. There should be no difficulty in assessing academic performance. Of course, it would be ideal for our students to meet with their teachers and peers and study as usual. But temporarily this seems problematic. I am grateful to the teachers who understand this and teach their students at a distance.

– You always support doctors who are at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. In Your Excellency’s recent Statement, you also showed sincere sympathy for them. In general, what should be done to improve this sector of health and medicine?

– Above all, doctors and medical staff were mobilized to curb the epidemic, which posed a threat to entire society. It is important to support them in every way. The authorities are creating the best possible conditions to them.

Unfortunately, in the fight against the epidemic, the weaknesses of the medical system have been also identified. Despite precautions, many health workers became infected. We faced such a problem when our doctors were already in short supply. This situation is under my direct control. Specific tasks were given. Physicians involved in the fight against the epidemic are paid accordingly.

At present, raising the status of health workers has become an important topic. It is necessary to expand the scope of social guarantees for doctors and improve the system of incentives. The pandemic highlighted the importance of supporting healthcare providers. We have been paying attention to this field since our independence. However, there is still a lot of work to be done. The coronavirus epidemic has shown the importance of the development of medical science. Today, the whole world pays special attention to this area and intensifies the fight against infectious diseases. This is a legitimate, naturally-determined phenomenon. In the future, the country will pay special attention to medical and biological research. Hence, along with a great army, strong medicine is also constituting the main shield of the state. Undoubtedly, its relevance will increase from now on. Recently, a modular hospital for infectious diseases was opened in Nur-Sultan. You know, it was built in just two weeks. The hospital is equipped in accordance with international standards. I visited it on purpose. In addition, our scientists have developed a system of diagnostic tests. Undoubtedly, such concrete work will improve the health and medicine sector. The Ministry of Health must continue to work extensively and systematically to improve the quality of medical services.

– It is well-known that previously many events were scheduled to mark the birth anniversaries of Abu Nasr Al-Farabi and Abai Qunanbaiyly. Will there be any procedural changes in the implementation of these projects?

– It is a good tradition of our people to exalt the great and glorify the wise. By studying the legacy of Al-Farabi and Abai, we will demonstrate that the roots of civilization in the Kazakh steppes are deep. Therefore, commemoration and tribute to these great sons of our people, along with proper celebration of their jubilees will be a great challenge for all of us.

Abai leaved to us as his legacy the concept of “the complete person”, while Al-Farabi – the principle of “a perfect state on the path to happiness”. The position of these great thinkers on justice and virtuousness is well known. My concept of the “Listening State” (a state that listens to the voice of the people) is in line with these principles.

Nation-wide and regional plans were developed within the framework of both the jubilees. To the date, we have implemented some projects in this regard. Due to the current situation, various anniversaries are marked online. These projects will be also widely promoted on social networks and Internet resources.

– You know very deeply the ins and outs of foreign policy. You have been in the diplomatic service for many years. How should we conduct our foreign policy today in order to be strong in guarding, defending and protecting our national interests? In general, how will international relations develop after the pandemic?

– Today the whole world has entered a new stage of development. I think this will be noticed most especially after this pandemic. At such a critical time, every state will think, above of all, about the safety and security of its citizens. This is legitimate and natural thing. However, such a difficult period should not undermine international cooperation. In recent weeks, I have spoken by telephone with the leaders of several countries and international organizations. I took part in the video summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States and the online working meeting of the members of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council.

Now it is necessary to strengthen international cooperation in the fight against pandemics. In this regard, we are working closely with our partner countries. This is the main way to fight the epidemic. In general, the continuity of our foreign policy will be maintained. We will continue to develop mutually beneficial relations with our traditional and new partners.

It is also important for any country to attract investment from other states. It is therefore that we also pay special attention to economic diplomacy in foreign policy. This is one of the major priorities of Kazakhstan’s long-term strategy. It will remain the same in the future. Foreign policy must be constructive not on paper but in real life, not in word but in deed. Diplomacy should also learn from the epidemic.

– It has been more than a year since Your Excellency took the Presidential office. During this time, you have set a number of goals. In general, are you satisfied with the implementation of your initiatives?

– There is a Kazakh proverb: “Without a strong state, the happiness will not be stable”. In this regard, important initiatives have been taken to strengthen our statehood and increase the welfare of our people.

Above all, the prosperity and unity of society must be strong. This can be achieved through regular dialogue between the government and the people. In this regard, the National Council on Public Trust was established. Its main purpose is to ensure large-scale measures and events for the modernization of public consciousness, to discuss topical/pressing issues, as well as to prepare and develop effective proposals. To the date, the Council has held two meetings. Numerous proposals were made in the areas of political, economic and social modernization. Various issues of public concern were debated hotly.

Political reforms are being carried out in accordance with modern requirements. At present, a number of important legislative changes are being discussed in the Parliament on my initiative, inter alia, the draft plan for a Law "On the organizing and holding peaceful assemblies" is being considered. It is undoubtedly that such an important document will determine the further democratic development of our country.

Political parties running in the Majilis (lower chamber of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan) and Maslikhats (local representative bodies) elections will set a 30 percent quota for women and youth. In this regard, it is planned to make appropriate amendments to the Electoral Law. Significant amendments will also be made to the national legislation to facilitate the registration of political parties and the formation of a parliamentary opposition institution.
I hope that these changes will be a concrete step towards further liberalization of political processes. Comprehensive political reforms will continue. This is our strategic choice.

I also proposed the concept of the “Listening State” (a state that listens to the voice of the people) for the expeditious consideration of citizens’ requests. This is a particularly important and necessary initiative. The task of officials is, above all, to serve the people. Who will they listen to if they do not listen to the needs of the own people?! This principle should be inculcated in the minds of public servants at all levels. There is already a positive change in this direction.

Several initiatives for the development of domestic businesses have been implemented. On my instructions, SMEs were exempted from income tax for three years. Their activities will not be inspected for the next three years. As you know, a moratorium has been announced to this end. Even in the current state of emergency, great support is provided to entrepreneurs. I already mentioned it above.

It is well-known that one of the most pressing issues in the country is housing. Extensive work has been done in this direction. The Government has set a goal to expand the scope of the “Happy Family” Programme proposed by the Leader of the Nation (Elbasy) and revitalize housing construction. In accordance with its road map, starting from this year, ten thousand families with many children and children with disabilities will be provided with housing on annual basis.

New types of social assistance for low-income and large families have been introduced. For example, large families began to receive benefits regardless of income. Unsecured loans of up to KZT 300 thousand were repaid to more than half a million people. These initiatives are aimed at improving the quality of life of our population.

Last year, the Law "On the status of a teacher" was adopted. In this regard, I instructed the Government to double the salaries of teachers in the next four years. This work is carried out on a regular basis. The salaries of other public sector employees are being increased as well.

I trust talented and goal-oriented, ambitious young people. It is therefore that we created the "Presidential Youth Personnel Reserve" and selected best 300 from amongst our most capable young people. Many of them got their much-desired jobs. I instructed the relevant state bodies and governmental agencies to develop a new comprehensive programme for our youth policy.

I have declared this year as the Year of Volunteer. Today we see that this initiative was launched on time. Volunteers are still working hard during the state of emergency. We need to follow the example of energetic young people who remain proactive even in difficult times.

In general, concrete work was done throughout the one year since I assumed my duties. Therefore, such decisions that will rise the spirit of our nation up, will continue to be made.

– Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of our independence. We have entered a new stage of our development. It is no secret that along with the new opportunities, we shall meet new risks and threats as well. What should we focus on in the future in order to cope with them and develop the prosperity of our country?

– We have created an independent Kazakhstan thanks to the prudent course and policy of the Leader of the Nation (Elbasy), and the well-being, solidarity and social cohesion of our people. During these years, an effective management system has been formed. Extensive work has been done to strengthen the foundations of our sovereign country. We have overcome all the difficulties of the transition period and embarked on a path of sustainable development. The goal now is to multiply such successes and reach new heights.

A famous French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, “A strong state is best suited to maintaining the freedom of its citizens”. We must make Kazakhstan a strong state to improve the quality of life of our people. At the same time, we must adhere to the formula, “A strong President - an influential Parliament - an accountable Government”.

There are different trends in the world. But not all of them are corresponding to our national interests. Hence, the main threats are ahead of us. We therefore need to be always alerted and prepared to overcome the difficulties.

In order to address new challenges, it is necessary, above all, to protect our national values. The succeeding generations will not forgive us if we do not preserve our native language, traditions, national self-image, identity and consciousness, peace and harmony in society, as well as prosperity and unity. The issue of our state language is especially important. Language is the basis of a nation and the source of life of its generations. The Kazakh language can show, advertise and promote reputation of the Kazakhs people to the world. The language of the people is like its ID. This should always be kept in mind. We should know that our national security starts from respect to our language.

Today, digital technologies are rapidly evolving and penetrating various spheres of public life. We pay special attention to this process. This is the main requirement of our time. This was made crystal clear by this difficult period of the coronavirus epidemic. 
On my instructions, the Government will reconsider its Programme “Digital Kazakhstan”, taking into account all the shortcomings identified in the course of its implementation. Undoubtedly, the process of digitization will give a new impetus to the development of our country, and its significance will continue to grow.

We will continue the process of diversification of our national economy to ensure the prosperity of our country. In this vein, it is better to create best possible conditions for SMEs. We will also develop further our human capital.

This is necessary for the formation of a competitive nation. In this regard, we have a task to radically modernize our education, science and healthcare sectors.

Another big goal is to encourage our people to work. To tell the truth, our population are not yet recognized as real hard-working people abroad. It is seriously damaging our reputation. Yet, only through hard work we will be able to solve many problems, develop our state and increase our prosperity.

I therefore believe that training should be the main direction of educating young people. This has a direct impact on the future of our nation.

– Your Excellency, Mr. President, you have answered the most pressing questions of the country. Now let me formulate the last one, but not the least. So, what would be your summary on the current difficult period?

– The state of emergency has significantly changed our day-to-day lives. We had to postpone the planned work, various events. At that point, above all, we realized what is most valuable. These are human life, human relations, the health of citizens, as well as the well-being of society. We also realized how important it is to support each other. Everything else can be put in order gradually.
During the pandemic, our whole society was challenged. Many citizens have shown the best way to serve the country in difficult times. This is a manifestation of noble patriotism. Any difficult period burns a person's energy and sharpens his spirit. But in the face of the global epidemic our people will only unite and consolidate further.

At the same time, the following words of wisdom from the great Abai’s poetry come to my mind:

"You should know that the moderation and considerate patience come from strength". 

In fact, if we persevere and tolerate, we will hold out the difficulties. I can say with confidence that our country will recover from this challenge.

We will overcome all the difficulties together!

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