In an interview with the South China Morning Post , Gabit Koishibayev, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Beijing, assesses the biggest crisis to shake his country since independence in 1991. He also addresses concerns about the impact of the unrest on China’s massive investment in its resource-rich neighbour and the possible spillover across the border into Xinjiang . The following is a transcript of the interview. Q: What is the situation in Kazakhstan now? A: The situation has been fully stabilised and all counterterrorism operations have come to an end. Peacekeeping forces were pulled out from Kazakhstan on January 19. The new Kazakhstani government is now facing a new task to work on the country’s new economic policies. Meanwhile, investigations into the unrest have been under way to find those responsible. We believe the results will be released very soon. Q: Is there any evidence of foreign interference? A: The protest began peacefully in the western part of Kazakhstan but ended up in massive violent unrest. However, there are reasons to suppose that some organised terrorist or extremist criminal groups were involved in organising the riots. The law enforcement agencies of Kazakhstan are investigating the causes of the riots, which we believe will be made public soon. I would also like to make one point, that not all those demonstrators in the streets were terrorists and extremists. Many of them were just peaceful protesters who were raising demands to improve their livelihood. So those who didn’t attack state institutes or shops will be released. The direct reason is the price hikes of liquefied petroleum gas, which most local people use to run their vehicles. However, regarding the specific reasons, I would like to suggest that it is due to social inequality in the country, where the gap between those with high incomes and those in poverty is very large. This was a point made by the president during his recent meeting with business executives. In Kazakhstan, just 162 people hold half of the nation’s wealth while over half of the population earn no more than 50,000 Kazakhstani tenge (US$114.47) every month, which is less than 1,000 yuan. Because of the reasons I mentioned, young people in Kazakhstan don’t have development opportunities and have no way to find a good job. To us, the peaceful protests and the demands from the demonstrators do have significant social meaning, and how it unfolded is also a warning for Kazakhstan too. This is a widespread problem, and our president has ordered the new government to work on a practical programme to address real-life problems for millions of people. The problem of inequality has not appeared all of a sudden but has been an economic problem in Kazakhstan, and this is now a major issue that Kazakhstan needs to deal with as soon as possible. Q: So is it a lesson that Kazakhstan has learned? A: This is a lesson that needs to be learned not only by the government of Kazakhstan, but also by the people of Kazakhstan as a whole. The unrest took place on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, as we started to implement further economic reform and political modernisation in Kazakhstan. This is a very complex process, but for Kazakhstan, the most urgent task is to solve the existing economic and social problems to ensure the broad interest of the people. Q: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said China is willing to strengthen law enforcement and security cooperation with Kazakhstan. What do you think China can do? And what do you think the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation can do? A: First of all, many thanks to China for its sympathy and support as Kazakhstan goes through this extraordinary period. Our cooperation with China in the field of security mainly includes the exchange of information and experience, and we also cooperate in the fight against the “three evil forces”, while under the framework of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), we have worked together under a regional anti-terrorism structure. But at the same time, I would like to point out that the SCO is not a military-political alliance in the first place, and it has no peacekeeping forces to deploy. I think the main task for the SCO is not only to ensure the stability and security of the region, that is, the region within the area where the eight countries are located. There is a more important mission in the economic sphere, to improve the well-being of the people. While economic cooperation is high on the agenda of the SCO, I still believe we can do more. For example, there is great potential to develop logistic networks as well as to utilise water resources – there are many cross-border rivers in SCO member states but we don’t have a multilateral platform for such cooperation. I understand it is very difficult to involve all eight countries, but maybe more projects could be based on bilateral or trilateral cooperation. We are simplifying some procedures, including in customs and finance. Q: How do you assess relations between China and Kazakhstan? Which areas do you think have potential for the two countries to jointly develop? A: Over the past three decades since the establishment of diplomatic relations, trade between China and Kazakhstan has grown 40-fold. Energy is a major area in bilateral cooperation – Kazakhstan and China have an oil and gas pipeline and Chinese companies have invested in the extraction and export of oil and gas in Kazakhstan. But the promising areas could be in logistics. Fast logistics is important in economic cooperation. Now half of the cargo of the China-Europe Express goes through Kazakhstan. There is also great potential in road transport – the construction of the international expressway between China and Kazakhstan has been completed and I believe it will open up new prospects for future economic cooperation. Meanwhile, Some Kazakh companies have earned approvals from the Chinese side to export farm products to China, and this is an area Kazakhstan has great potential and advantages. China is now actively investing in infrastructure in Kazakhstan. However, I think Kazakhstan has a unique location advantage to be the transition hub for cargo transport between China and Central Asia and further on to Europe. This is also an advantage in developing e-commerce. In finance, the Astana International Financial Centre is now an important financial hub for Central Asian countries and even Russia. Q: Since the crisis there have been concerns over China’s energy supply. What is your assessment? The riot took place mainly in the major cities of Kazakhstan and mostly targeted state institutions instead of foreign investors, including those from China. We will do our best to ensure the safety of foreign investment. One thing I want to stress is that Kazakhstan’s national security agencies and law enforcement agencies are fully capable of ensuring security, and no additional help is needed. There have been worries that the interests of foreign investors could be harmed, but I want to guarantee that our obligations to protect their security remain the same and we are ready to cooperate with international institutes as well as other countries at a higher level. Q: It seems China is helping to train more Kazak officials. Is it a sign of rising China’s influence? Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were more than 11,000 Kazakh students studying in China. There are a large number of citizens, including ordinary citizens and government workers, now studying in China. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev studied Chinese in Beijing and I also spent one year studying in China. Many Kazakh officials have experience of studying or training in China. China has always been a friendly neighbour of Kazakhstan – the two countries share a 1,700km (1,054-mile) border and China is the largest trading partner with Kazakhstan. With 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs, China has historically and geographically been a friendly neighbour of Kazakhstan and has been, and will continue to be, a very important partner for us. Studying in China gives Kazakhstan’s students an opportunity to cooperate with China in their future career. A friendly relationship with China is also a very important factor for the internal politics of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has chosen its own path to develop, but China is one of our priorities for cooperation. Q: Kazakhstan is an important partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But there have been reports of protests against Chinese economic involvement in Kazakhstan. What do you think is behind this sentiment? The Belt and Road Initiative was proposed by President Xi Jinping during his visit in Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan was among the first to endorse the initiative. The belt and road projects in Kazakhstan are usually joined by Chinese partners, and most of the jobs are taken by Chinese. But it is not because the Chinese took away local jobs. Rather, it is because we don’t have enough skilled workers for these jobs. That’s why vocational training will be high on the agenda in the future economic policies, and I believe the issues will be resolved on the basis of mutual understanding and this problem will not be encountered again in the future. On the other hand, the income gap between local and foreign personnel remains large, which leads to discontent and even protests. The authorities will do their best to solve these problems. Q: Kazakhstan is one of the main leaders in the Organisation of Turkic States, formerly known as the Turkic Council, which Chinese experts say could have consequences for China. What are your thoughts? I have also recently read a lot about the concerns of experts from both China and Russia over the Organisation of Turkic States, but I think such concerns are totally unfounded and unnecessary. The Turkic Council was established in 2009 by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan as well as Turkey, and the main goal was to strengthen cooperation in culture, politics, economy and other areas. When I worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was involved in some negotiations and activities under the Turkic Council and I can say responsibly that the Organisation of Turkic States would not pose any threat to any countries. There are six Turkic-speaking independent countries in the world, and we are mainly engaged in cultural and linguistic contacts as well as in strengthening economic cooperation. There are no talks on military-political issues under the framework of the organisation. I’ve read the reports in Chinese and Russian, and many have raised concerns over Pan-Turkism, or neo-Ottomanism. However, under the framework, Turkey is not necessarily the most powerful one, because it is in Western Asia and the countries in Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also maintain significant influence, so it’s unlikely that Turkey will dominate other countries within the organisation. Pan-Turkism disappeared maybe 100 years ago. Yes, this idea, the ideology, was very popular in the 1920s, but not now. We are not talking about any kind of pan-Turkism within this organisation and they cannot influence our neighbours.