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Interview – Xymena Kurowska

Xymena Kurowska is Associate Professor of International Relations at Central European University in Vienna and Budapest. She received her doctorate in political and social sciences from European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. She works within international political sociology, with particular focus on security theory, psychosocial and anthropological approaches in the study of politics, relational and interpretive methodologies, and the ethics of academic practice. She also practices interpretive policy analysis and has recently served as a rapporteur for a cyber diplomacy project, EU Cyber Direct.  

Where do you see the most exciting research/debates happening in your field?

We do not have ‘grand debates’ anymore and I find it liberating. In the past, grand debates, at a disciplinary level, were too often conducted within pre-determined hegemonic parameters, and in the end very few were eligible to speak. The downside to this may be fragmentation and polarization, the infamous camp-structure of IR, and some inwardness of scholarly engagement. It is gratifying to speak to those with whom one shares a worldview.

I am most interested these days in the “necessary fictions” that hold international society together, in normative subversion and in relationality, including how we produce knowledge about them. Research on stigma by Rebecca Adler-Nissen and Ayşe Zarakol, for example, shows the coercive character of norms but without reverting to the simple version of realism as we might know it from some introductory texts to IR. Maria Mälksoo develops on the concept of normative threat to contextualise the return of the entrenched trope of Central Europe as being somehow subversive of  the western European subjectivity. Such discussions see norms as a form of politics and confront the self-flattering liberal narrative of multilateralism and global governance, without valorising grievances and resentments which pervade illiberal rhetoric. I am drawn to these scholars’ appreciation of tensions and ambiguities, although a certain risk remains that the analytical category of stigma may reduce actors to unidimensional types. Cynthia Weber, for example, points out how the stigma lens singularizes what are always plural subjects (‘plural’ in the sense of accommodating apparently contradictory logics of behaviour, not in the liberal sense of pacific accommodation of differences). The emerging research agenda on rituals goes towards a pluriversal approach in world politics that I am keen to explore in this context. In a collective article that we just published in Critical Studies on Security, we think about ritual in conjunction with image as simultaneously ordering and involving potential disruption. The ritual angle confounds logocentric and mono-normative frameworks of analysis and engages the simultaneity of the concrete, situational and affective in world politics.

Another conversation I am drawn into, and part of my own research focus, is the question of what it means to think relationally in IR. Relationality is not a new question in IR but it is undergoing radical reconfigurations. These reconfigurations come from two directions in my view, posthumanism and narrative IR. As Milja Kurki argues in her recent book, IR’s ontology of relations tends to privilege the study of ‘things,’ such as types of actors, against ‘backgrounds,’ such as material resources or environment, thus reducing relations to interactions. It also favours humans. Kurki proposes instead to think of relations as ‘thoroughgoing’, as ‘shooting through’ constellations of more-than-human enmeshment. Enmeshment radicalises the constructivist idea of mutual constitution, because here entities do not pre-exist as such but materialize in intra-action. This is a challenge to intersubjectivity understood in terms of public, transparent and discursively formulated relations which can be examined for regularity of patterns. Posthumanist understandings also reconfigure the standing concepts of international politics in the era of digitalisation. In AI and machine learning, for example, rationality, strategy, leadership, diplomacy, etc. both crumble and unleash renewed efforts to discipline and govern.

What for me brings together the posthumanist and narrative relationality is attunement to affect, that is, to the embodied and pre-discursive. Such relationality both decentres and embeds the human that cannot easily unmask the relations that produce her, which injects interpretive humility. In contrast to IR approaches that understood narrative as an analytical tool that renders the world more intelligible and thus epistemically controllable, here narrative is an affective mode of expression that interweaves personal experience with structural conditions. It becomes a site for thinking through the workings of power, knowledge, and ideological formations while acknowledging limits to knowledge and critique. Narrative confronts dissonance, disavowal, and irreducible conflict at the core of any personal and social project. This understanding of narrative helped me probe and express the implication of the critical academic subject in neoliberal conditions of possibility and the ambiguities of knowledge production in fieldwork. The papers appeared in two new journals, Political Anthropological Research on International Social Sciences (PARISS) and Journal of Narrative Politics edited by Elizabeth Dauphinee at York University, both exceptional venues for rethinking modes of expression in IR.

How has the way you understand the world changed over time, and what (or who) prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?

My doctoral years at EUI were no doubt transformative. First, and quite literally, I acquired a conceptual and academic imagination; second, EUI is a site of unique exposure where all sorts of characters cross paths. Unaware of the rules and rituals of the academic world, I did not back then understand how lucky I was in this respect and how much this contingency structured my trajectory. My advisor, Fritz Kratochwil, has a way of thinking about the social that marked these beginnings. I was socialized into “IR” through what Tanja Aalberts, with reference to Fritz, calls “counter-disciplinarity as interdisciplinarity proper.” She defines it, inter alia, as non-imperialist cross-disciplinary encounters without a roadmap, and this sounds like an uncannily apt description of my academic journey. With no roadmaps indeed, and fewer words than one would expect from a prolific writer, Fritz instigates an attitude rather than setting up a framework to be further developed, undermined, or emancipated from to acquire one’s own voice. The hallmark of this attitude, the way I absorbed it, is a disposition towards a ruthlessly critical (self-)engagement, actually rarely an asset in the neoliberal academia, and a very complicated relationship with theory. Kratochwil is known as a grand theorist of International Relations but he has also been busy subverting that discipline by confronting its fantasy of theory. And yet those uninterested in social theory will find his writing alienating. From among peers at EUI, I have the strongest and most long-lasting bond with Patryk Pawlak who chose the path of praxis and policy analysis and helped me make sense of that minefield with nuance and a critical edge, remaining ever vigilant, so to say.

Dvora Yanow must be credited with introducing me to interpretive research, which happened at the precarious moment of connecting dots between theory and field. Not only did I get an introduction to interpretive data generation and analysis, something that back then nobody taught IR doctoral students, but she also introduced me to Cecelia Lynch whose work has shaped my engagement with interpretive IR ever since. These early career encounters were happening thanks to the openings in the aftermath of the EU enlargement (and my home country, Poland, joining the EU) but also in its obscure shadows. I am currently trying to make sense of the latter in a current book project on liberal affect in the semi-periphery for which I develop a psychosocial approach inspired by relational psychoanalysis. Recently, a research fellowship at the Department of International Relations at Aberystwyth was an important reinvigoration. It made me (re-)discover IR as counterdisciplinary, thanks in no small way to the diverse early career research community there and the creativity of Milja Kurki and Berit Bliesemann de Guevara. Milja and Berit helped me revitalise my research, ethical academic practice, and mode of expression, even if I cannot fully reform anymore.

Much of your writing is of an interdisciplinary nature. How does this influence the way you research and write articles?

I came to think of it as a position of an embedded situationist. Inspiration comes from a situation and I build on that in substance and style, while minding that the event is part of a larger social formation. The situation may involve myself. An interlocutor’s joke, a wink, can instigate a lengthy deliberation on ‘post-enlargement’ subjectivity, for example. Empirically, this somewhat resembles Lee Ann Fujii’s ‘accidental ethnography,’ although I don’t claim to be an ethnographer and I reach out instead to psychosocial studies. In both our approaches, however, one cannot plan or engineer insight. It comes in unexpected ways while fleeting moments and seemingly subjective impressions contain traces of social practice. Thinking from a situation does not necessarily involve direct participation. In a recent piece on trickstery and Russia as a trickster, written with Anatoly Reshetnikov, we analyse two situations that happened in autumn 2018: an interview on the pro-Kremlin TV channel RT with the alleged poisoners of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and Russia’s bid in a UN General Assembly committee for a new UN resolution on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. Engaging thinkers from anthropology, semiotics, and the study of religion, we piece together what trickstery may mean in contemporary international society. The research strategy, if I may call it like this, is to work ‘in the midst of things’ and take rather seriously glimpses and slippages. Writing is then a process of searching at length, counter disciplinarily, for a vocabulary to convey what I think I have learned. The above is perhaps a slightly metaphorical description in lieu of saying that I neither test IR theories nor transpose the thought of any one social theorist to elucidate an IR problem. There is a downside to it: If one does not follow stylistic templates and conceptual conventions of any one way of theorising, one is seen as lacking a coherent research agenda or politics, somewhere between being wooly, contrarian, and co-opted.

How does International Political Sociology benefit our understanding of International Relations?

This is a subject that many in IPS have debated and I would not be able to do justice to these debates here. I think that IPS has changed (critical) IR, fractured it, as many IPS scholars may prefer to call it, opened it up. This helped see critical research as a legitimate way of studying global politics in unorthodox ways. It made many hidden hierarchies come to the fore, broke through more than a few orthodoxies, and made it less taboo to speak of who gets to say what that is agenda-setting and ‘professional.’ IPS integrated the margins, in other words. The latter can of course be seen as taming radical critique and showing IPS’s own pursuit of social capital and status (see a recent contribution). But I prefer to see the long way IPS has gone legitimating the kind of work that previously struggled to be accepted, including that counterdisciplinary disposition which I would not know where to take otherwise. IPS is also an ever-vigorous space of a relative freedom of style and of transversality, the concept which I find most productive.

A component of IPS is its emphasis on decentering the dominant modes of knowledge production. Why this is important?

The normative and epistemological come together in the purpose to decentre. Decentering gets us closer to what some have called pluriversality. To be centred on something is to be fixed, rigid and detached. It is, in effect, a sort of “flight from reality”. Undermining this fixedness not only adds dynamism but it also makes possible complex plural engagement; plural understood in the way I signalled before, that is, not as merely tolerating an apparent difference but as able to bear contradictions and incommensurability. Such engagement will always be porous and fragmented and for this very reason unsatisfactory but, I would claim, less prone to fantasy and dogmatism. This is also how I see the link between IPS sensibility and practice, even policy practice, although many IPS scholars reject such direct linkages as uncritical when policy practice pulls to re-centre and control.

How does using an interpretive approach enhance our understanding of EU foreign policy?

Briefly, I think about it as sorting out the narratives that actors, here EU foreign policy actors, tell themselves and each other in their political projects, as part of broader and conflicting structures of signification. The (EU foreign policy) ‘practitioner’ is, in this respect, a subject beyond being an individual but she is not a mere mechanical throughput of a structure working behind her back. An interpretive approach can start in controversies by asking what frameworks (narratives) the practitioner uses to make sense of her situation. She is a site of many influences that she tries to reconcile in her narratives, and interpretivists have means to observe such struggles. The purchase of an interpretive approach is that it can analyse tensions in lived political phenomena rather than resolving them by a theoretical or political fiat. There is scepticism there about any claims to consistency and transparency, and attunement to pluriversality of meaning despite seeming equivalence of language. Joe Soss’s chapter in the volume Interpretation and Method edited by Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwarz-Shea offers an excellent conceptual and methodological elucidation of this analytical purchase.

The narrative of the EU as a ‘normative power,’ as worn-out as it may seem, is a deep well for interpretive analysis. It is a term that refuses to die and travels across policy areas in different reiterations. Currently, it is being repurposed in the cyber domain in connection with the EU as a global (normative) leader in data protection regulation. EU (foreign policy) actors attach different meanings to it in different contexts, they are both dismissive and protective of it, with slippages that signify interesting entanglements. Try announcing that the EU is not a beacon of progressive norms in global politics on a panel on EU foreign policy supported by EU-affiliated institutes. Despite all the jaded criticism of incoherence, lack of political will and capacities, etc. it has an effect similar to the use of the ethnomethodological method of committing a social blunder in order to understand the local social rules. You do get to see them operate, at a significant social cost. The interpretive approach has worked for me in the study of policy because it is both wary of claims to competency by others and sees research as learning from others. In the realm of eloquent EU diplomats and bureaucrats, that analytical attitude is useful to maintain suspicion towards “being-in-the-know” by any party.

What are the pedagogical challenges to teaching interpretivist methods? How can these be overcome?

I have been confronted with this question ever since I started teaching methods in 2010. Interpretive methods are anti-foundational, cross-disciplinary, holistic, and thus counterintuitive and initially frustrating at least in three respects: First, disciplines come with discipline-specific methods. In an IR classroom, we often teach with examples from across social sciences and humanities and this raises the question how such examples can be useful for IR problems. This bafflement grows exponentially as students are still mostly expected to perform disciplinarily in their research papers. We seem to end up telling them ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ A way forward could be to teach with IR examples only, but this reinforces disciplinarity and the pattern to borrow from elsewhere and IRise.

Second, participants in methods classes expect a procedure to follow, a template how to reproduce neatly delineated steps that lead to a methodologically rigorous research paper, that is, to science. The lack of interpretive template is exasperating. The misconstrual of technical instructions as systematicity, certainly not only in the classroom, does not help. This is a long discussion on the conflation of science and neoliberal measures that I cannot go into here, except to signal that the engagement with Science and Technology Studies has added much nuance to this debate in IR. Crucial, I think, is not to fantasize from the successful experiment, so to say, but to confront the organized hypocrisy of research design, as we ponder with Berit Bliesemann de Guevara in our chapter for E-IR’s Fieldwork as Failure: Living and Knowing in the Field of International Relations, a volume edited by Katarina Kušić and Jakub Záhora which has much to say about interpretive sensibility.

Third, and connected, interpretive methods are seen as subjective, a misunderstanding in my view, and thus often felt as uncomfortable at the personal level and with respect to being scientific. Indeed, in the interpretive approach, the researcher is asked to engage with her own position in order to make sense of where she speaks from: Claims to objectivity and epistemic superiority are scrutinized as political claims since we always speak from somewhere. While we cannot fully grasp the complexity of our own implication, and interpretivists are modest about the extent of their penetrating gaze, we nevertheless ought to continue probing. Cecelia Lynch conveys most lucidly how the researcher is part of the hermeneutical circle and research questions emerge within particular socio-political conditions. Asking why we decide to pursue a particular problem is then part of the picture. This must not be conflated with confession and I am careful discussing positionality in research projects. We are incompletely embedded in ideologies and hierarchies and there is no automaticity to what positionalities mean. For example, “I was born and raised in Poland in a particular historical period and in a particular social and cultural milieu and therefore…” may be factually true but it does not in and of itself settles my positionality. It may be a statement off the mark, a deflection, as well as manipulation of cultural intimacy. Further, we must not demand confessions; not only because they can masquerade for reflection but also because we never know what trauma we are stepping on. In this context, the interpretive method and task is not only epistemic but also normative and thus never fully realizable in a vulnerable environment of a classroom. The acknowledgment that a template for analysis does not work in practice is insufficient, however. The pedagogical challenge is to convey that the biggest weakness of interpretivism is also its major source of productivity. Specifically, systematicity comes from engagement not detachment, one learns from being together with others and from confronting one’s urge to instruct and control, not from being taught. How to approach it in a methods course, with looming deadlines for paper submission? Not easily and with effects mostly after the submission.

In 2014 you wrote about Russia’s contestation of liberal norms and its self-perceived responsibility to contain Western dominance. Has this changed in the age of Trump and an increasingly fragmented liberal world order?

One may expect that if the world order has become less liberal, Russia’s protestations against it could also lessen. The opposite seems to be the case. So, one may entertain a conclusion that it has been pure realpolitik all along and the substance of a particular ideology does not matter, beyond providing convenient parameters to perform rivalry. This does not seem accurate either, in the sense that ideological differentiations matter. The role of individual rights and social dialogue have different currencies in different contexts, for example. The paradox is that the contestation has intensified and Russia’s position and image have strengthened without Russia becoming stronger, which in my view can be seen against the background of the mythology of the liberal world order. Not to diminish the implications of Russia’s conduct in global politics, the reaction to this conduct reveals the failure of liberal democracies to live up to the liberal ideal globally. In this context, Russia’s contestation of liberal norms is useful for the purposes of highlighting the dangers to the rules-based international order and confounding the irony that liberal democracies try to prosecute by law and sanctions, or govern by global institutions what is, in essence, a political problem. Crucially, this is not only the issue of self-subversion and hypocrisy over hierarchy in international society. It also relates to the historical observation that the successful liberalisation at the global level undermines liberalism itself, as Beate Jahn writes most lucidly.

Your recent research has focused on cyber diplomacy and Russia. How does this fit into Russia’s broader foreign policy?

Cyberspace has become a central geopolitical arena where Russia enjoys an overblown status. Russia has been active in cyber matters not only as a troll, hacker and curtailer of Internet freedoms, but also through diplomatic efforts at global regulation of the Internet that it initiated in the late 1990s. There are distinct continuities of Russia’s foreign policy tropes in its cyber posture. Russia’s initial proposal to regulate the Internet was modelled on the nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime. This was partly because Russia sees information as a weapon, a position which is reflected in its narrative of information security promoted at the regional and global level. The regulation initiative was from the outset geared towards containing the US dominance in the cyber domain, importantly through curbing global business registered in the US for which non-regulation was a source of significant profit. The main controversy in cyber diplomacy nowadays surrounds the question of a separate cyber treaty or treaties. Russia is advocating in favour, arguing that this would keep in check the exploitation of the cyber domain by Western states, a rather familiar trope of ‘democratization’ which in practice resembles a pursuit of the balance of power between US-Russia-China. The majority of Western democracies argue against a treaty and try to specify how the existing international law applies to cyber space to prevent treaty negotiations. Russia is portrayed in this process as a spoiler that obstructs “governance by cyber norms” and the rules-based international order more broadly. This is a fascinating clash of narratives. What gets under the analytical radar is that Russia and liberal democracies operate with different meanings of global norms and the role of international law in ordering international society, as I try to explain in my recent chapter on Russia’s cyber diplomacy.

What is the most important advice that you would give to early career scholars studying international relations?

Above all, I’d say that one needs the minds of others to think and one can only grow with and through others, minding not to make this process extractive. The reciprocity is about the time and attention you give to others and their work. This does not necessarily equate with harmony and may be ridden with conflict and disappointment. In other words, my one piece of advice is: Find yourself a community, or (overlapping) communities, or a changing constellation of a few people who will read your work with loving ruthlessness, including in editorial terms, who will get you unstuck or send you into (in the long run) productive turmoil, sometimes by saying two words or making a face, and sometimes by making you restructure your abstract so that you finally figure out what your paper is about. You will forge better ties with some in that community while some will misconstrue you completely, in your interpretation, although you hoped desperately to pick their minds. Some will think that you pick on them, and perhaps you do. Those that do not seem to understand you may be very important as they occasionally connect the dots you did not know existed. Finding this sustenance (feedback) and being able to use it productively is paramount and most difficult, because of the neoliberal pressures that structure academia, clashing personalities, and our own and others’ follies. But it is worth it. Finding your thinking mates is not the same as networking, however, which is another advice that I should give from pragmatic positions. Networking can help get a job, if the stars and the departmental politics align, which is also sustenance of course. It may be necessary for finding your thinking mates, too, but it will not necessarily make your thinking thrive.

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The European Union’s Security and Defence Policy Beyond COVID-19 – E-International Relations

As Europe went from being the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic to a situation where most European countries are confident that they are past the worst of the crisis, the focus of the European leaders is now towards the resurgence of the society back to normalcy. Beyond the epidemiological challenge of the virus – the economic, political, geopolitical as well as security challenges faced by the Union are also plenty. Though the European Union’s Global Strategy of 2016 (PDF) highlighted the detection, prevention and response to global pandemics as a priority, the massive consequences and implications on the security policy of the EU are unprecedented. In a continent that is always undergoing shifts, the outbreak of COVID-19 is likely to cause an impact much similar to that of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States of America in 2001.

The most direct and immediate impact is economic in nature which is taking place concurrently to the pandemic. Most European companies including the EU defence firms are witnessing a historic drop in their stock market prices. This is subsequently leading to a rise in their debt ratios and eventually causing a functional threat to their survival. Further, as the public authorities are channelling their resources towards fighting an unprecedented challenge, the funding towards the defence sector and its initiatives is bound to be diminished.

As Europe enters a massive economic recession, defence spending will also take a blow in terms of priority. Europe’s recovery from the outbreak will require unparalleled levels of financial stimulus and thus, the allotted funding to previous defence initiatives, which do not seem to play a key role in the overall recovery of Europe, is likely to decrease. Spending on the defence sector, which had finally reached its pre-2008 financial crisis level in 2019, is now likely to see a reverse trend. The lack of funds will also have a directly proportional relationship with the in-house Research and Development sector of the European defence firms. As long as the COVID-19 crisis persists, its impact will continue to be seen as the slowdown of innovation in the European defence sector, further diminishing the European competitiveness in the same.

As the spending on defence sector slumps, the development of several initiatives on the EU defence cooperation such as European Defence Fund (EDF) and the European Peace Facility (EPF) will lose their velocity. The number of Member States already questioning the political credibility and the value of financing these initiatives will rise, fragmenting the otherwise flourishing integration project of the supranational Union. With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the already unequal economies of the Northern and Southern European states, unity and solidarity are already under stress as Member States embolden nationalist narratives, rather than European solutions. Political will is a crucial factor for a transnational actor like the EU in order to develop an effective framework for European security and to establish itself as a credible security partner alongside NATO. The EU defence project will only make sense if the Member States support each other in principle in times of crisis.

The EU’s position as a security actor is under question as a result of the pandemic. Owing to the high cost of dealing with the socio-economic damage caused by the outbreak, the EU’s operational readiness of crisis-management activities will be narrowed down. The Union’s willingness to contribute troops to civilian and military activities on Libyan, Syrian and Ukrainian territories is likely to decrease. This inward-looking perspective of the European security policy further creates a risk that crisis in such regions may worsen at the peak of a pandemic. This will not only add to the human suffering in the neighborhood, but also create a nexus of vulnerability and crisis for Europe. If not handled effectively, non-state actors may begin to take advantage of this period of vulnerability of the Union. Negative externalities could spill over to the EU, such as accelerating the migrant issue and leading to political polarization within the Member States.

While COVID-19 continues to transform political and economic realities in Europe, it becomes imperative for the EU to advocate a holistic recovery package that focusses not only on the reconstruction of economies but also on the diversified security needs of the alliance. The EU has to cope with the pandemic as well as the economic recession without sacrificing the European defence sector initiatives and competitiveness, which could play a functional role in not only maintaining security and stability but also in pushing towards an EU-wide plan of economic and industrial re-launch. At the same time, it is important to note that the need for advancing solidarity on the defence policy front has never been as compelling. With the EU facing the heat on both sides of the pacific in the face of US-China rivalry and transatlantic relations also under stress, the exigency for a more coherent, geopolitical, self-reliant Europe is emergent.

The European Union External Action Taskforce’s factsheet on ‘COVID-19: Lessons and Implications for EU Security and Defence’ (May 2020) highlights the need of the Union to confront all possible security consequences of the pandemic, in order to be truly prepared and resilient for the future. The document brings out the five key essential initial lessons learned in order to overcome the crisis: partnerships, solidarity, responsiveness, capabilities and preparedness. It is advisable for the EU to not abandon its pre-coronavirus agenda on security and defence policy, which is required to be truly responsive to imminent threats facing the continent. Thus, the EU must incorporate European defence cooperation to be a part of its post-pandemic recovery, in order to achieve the goal of strategic autonomy, and enhance its role a security actor in the international realm.

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#Kazakhstan President Tokayev’s first year in office a success says EU

What happens in Kazakhstan also matters for the EU because the 27-member bloc is the number one investor in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (pictured), has marked his first year in office, with a pledge to forge ahead with more reforms. Tokayev won the presidential election on 9 June 2019 with 70% of the votes, running against six other candidate.  He is widely praised for introducing far-reaching reforms in the country, the eighth largest in the world though with a population of just 20 million.

In his first major speech, the president defined his policies in all fields of the economy and society.

In the state-of-the-nation address he promised to oppose ‘unsystematic political liberalisation’ and instead carry reforms ‘without running ahead’. Crucially, a large part of his one-hour speech was devoted to improving living standards for the Kazakh people.

He also emphasised his goal of having a strong president, an influential parliament, and an accountable government. This reflects the government’s continued focus on reducing inequality in Kazakhstan and improving Kazakh citizens’ quality of life.

At the same time, the president also focused on political and economic development, including supporting micro, small and medium-sized businesses.

While much of President Tokayev’s first year in office has focused on – successfully – delivering on these promises  prioritised domestic reforms, he has also paid heed to several foreign policy priorities for Kazakhstan.

Most recently, of course, the focus has been very much on combating the ongoing health pandemic.

Last month, he admitted that this “has not been easy for our country.”  He also warned, “the crisis has not yet been completely overcome. The epidemic has not completely disappeared. A pandemic is still dangerous to public health.”

Several key issues, he believes, still need to be resolved in the near future.

First. Improving the self-sufficiency of the Kazakh economy.

Second. Kazakhstan has allocated around 1 trillion tenge for the implementation of the president’s Employment Roadmap and, following the implementation of the projects, an analysis of their socio-economic efficiency will be carried out.

Third. the construction of affordable housing will give a powerful incentive for economic development, employment growth and social support.

Fourth. the time has come, he insists, to work out the issue of introducing a progressive scale of individual income tax in respect of wages and other types of income.

Fifth. Support for national business.

Sixth. The country should switch to working directly with each capital holder to boost increased competition for foreign capital.

So, what is the verdict on his first year?

Mukhtar Tileuberdi, the minister of foreign affairs of Kazakhstan, says, “The President has been quick to implement his ideas. In his first few months in office, he has shown his commitment to promoting the development of a multi-party system, increased political competition, and pluralism of opinions in the country”.

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, said that in recent months “the breadth and depth of our relationship has progressed immeasurably.”

This is partly due to the fact that president Tokayev, in March this year,  signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union, he said.  In doing so, Borrell notes it became the first country in Central Asia.

The Spanish official, a former president of the European parliament, adds “The European Union is the country’s biggest trade and investment partner, while Kazakhstan is by far the EU’s largest trade partner in Central Asia. What is more, we have invested heavily in strengthening governance, supporting its justice, social and economic reforms.”

Borrell says that, under the president’s tutelage, “We are turning the page and beginning an exciting new chapter.”

Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki, the Chair of the EU-Kazakhstan Friendship group in the European parliament, is equally enthusiastic, saying “In Europe, the prevailing opinion is that Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in fact, is building a social welfare state, where special attention is paid to reducing inequality, improving the quality of life of every Kazakh, and where priority is given to solving the day-to-day problems of the people.”

The ECR deputy adds, “In the field of foreign policy, Kazakhstan, as has been the case before, pays special attention to its partnership with the European Union. On 1 March 2020, the European Union-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement came into force. On the basis of this document, we expect that the parties will be able to fully reap the benefits of their partnership. As EU-Kazakhstan Friendship group chair I will do my utmost to further our relations to our mutual benefit.”

But the president has also overseen a whole raft of other changes, including abolishing the death penalty and reaffirming the need to strengthen the role of the Kazakh language as a state language.

He is spearheading a rapprochement between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union and also promoted freedom of expression for his country’s 20m citizens.

The president is also intensifying efforts to attract foreign direct investment, support farmers to market their products to foreign markets and support the activities of the Astana International Finance Centre.

He has also pledged to continue to support micro, small and medium sized businesses.

Shavkat Sabirov, director of the Institute for security and cooperation in Central Asia, says there has been a damaging lack of public confidence in political leadership around the world in recent time and this has many causes.

“But,” he notes,” perhaps none is more important than the widespread belief – fairly or unfairly – of citizens that their wishes, concerns and hopes are being ignored or taken for granted by those they have put in power.

It is a charge that Kazakhstan Tokayev has shown in his first months in office that he is determined to avoid.

Since his election last year, he has made his main priority reforming state and government services so they are more responsive to the needs and ambitions of its citizens.

He has wasted no time, either, in extending as he promised opportunity to all and increasing support to those who need it most.

It is a packed agenda – and President Tokayev is promising there will be no slow-up in reforms.

Fraser Cameron, director of the Brussels-based EU/Asia Centre, is a vastly experienced and respected expert on Asian affairs and gives a decidedly upbeat assessment of the country’s new head of state.

“President Tokayev’s ambitious reforms,” says Cameron, a former senior European Commission official,”should provide a solid basis to deepen cooperation between the EU and Kazhakstan.”

According to Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, there is still room for improvement. He says, “In the field of human rights, the legacy of President Tokayev’s predecessor is very heavy and a lot of progress needs to be quickly achieved. Freedom of religion is one of those areas where some controversial laws should be revised and aligned to international standards as quite a number of peaceful Sunni Muslims have been unduly sentenced to very long prison terms. The US is putting in place a constructive policy in this regard with the establishment of the US-Kazakhstan Religious Freedom Working Group.

“Washington is also developing an Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue (ESPD) and has engaged Kazakhstan on a range of issues, such as human rights, labor and religious freedom. President Tokayev should not miss this opportunity to restore the image of his country.”

Looking to the future, there is still much more to do if the shared ambition of First President Nazarbayev and his successor of Kazakhstan joining the ranks of the world’s most developed 30 countries is to be achieved.


Kazakhstan/EU Factfile

  • The EU is Kazakhstan’s biggest trade partner, with almost 40% share in its total external trade.
  • Kazakhstan’s exports to the EU are heavily dominated by oil and gas which account for more than 80% of the country’s total exports.
  • Exports from the EU are dominated by machinery and transport equipment, as well as products within the manufacturing and chemicals sectors.
  • Imports from Kazakhstan greatly exceed EU exports to Kazakhstan.
  • Kazakhstan has a growing importance as an oil and gas supplier to the EU. Kazakhstan has benefited from strong foreign direct investment in recent years, largely to its oil and gas sector. Almost half of the foreign direct investment inflow comes from the EU.


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OLAF finds MEPs broke EP rules by financing national party through their salaries

An OLAF investigation published on April 30 revealed that MEPs from two member-states breached the European Parliament’s rules by transferring part of their salaries to their national parties.

The investigation by Europe’s anti-fraud office also found that MEPs from one member state also increased the salaries of their assistants so that the latter could make additional contributions.

The first investigation that was launched in 2017 found that for the period between 2014 and 2019, MEPs and staff members of the parliament’s party delegation paid contributions of over €640,000 to the national headquarters. It was also found that the illegal move was not spontaneous, but part of an already agreed obligation, that was set out in a financial charter that the party had specifically approved for the delegation at the European Parliament. Such an arrangement is contrary to the EP rules.

OLAF concluded that sanctions should be put in place by the European Parliament for the illegal actions and for the recovery of due amounts established by the investigation.

The second investigation that was conducted a year later found that for the particular time period, the financial contributions made by MEPs exceeded €540,000, as each was requested to contribute €3,000-4,000 to the national delegation. OLAF’s investigative team also revealed that their assistants were classified as of higher grade and thus, with a higher salary, so that they are able to transfer part of their salary to the national party.

Although no evidence of MEPs coercing the assistants was found, the EP members knew this was happening and had arranged the assistants’ hierarchy upgrade.

OLAF issued recommendations to the European Parliament proposing disciplinary action to ensure that amounts transferred by the Parliamentary Assistants to the national party are recovered. The anti-fraud office also recommended that the assistants face disciplinary action for following the instructions of their party, even though these instructions put them in conflict with their statutory obligations to the European Parliament.



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China to supply Europe with masks and medical equipment

In a tweet published on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that China will provide Europe with medical equipment and test kits, following talks with the country’s Prime Minister Minister Li Keqiang.

China’s medical supplies include 2 million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits, as the EU27 bloc is running out of medical equipment, having recording dozens of thousands of COVID-19 cases.

On Wednesday, a group of 300 Chinese intensive-care doctors began to arrive in Italy, the worst-affected country by Coronavirus outside China. To date, Italy has 41,035 confirmed cases and 3,405 deaths.

Belgium’s Health Minister Maggie De Block announced on Wednesday that the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and founder of e-commerce colossus Alibaba would ship 500,000 masks and 30,000 test kits, to be distributed among the health providers.

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What Happens to Brexit Now?

In May 1832, a political and ideological struggle between Reformers and Reactionaries brought Britain the closest it has been to revolution. In the “Days of May” of 1832, Britain abandoned its stagnant, century-old politics that had barely changed since the Acts of Union in 1707, and entered a new phase in which politics became formalised. The old ways were gone, and a painful transition dragged the British into a new era. Something similar is happening now. For the last three years it has been impossible to go an entire day Great Britain without saying, reading, or hearing, the word “Brexit”. It’s unlikely that the next three years will be any different. Earlier this year the cumulative fatigue led to Brexhaustion, a national and parliamentary paralysis, as Leavers and Remainers were united in how tired they are of the whole process and how Brexit seems to be a state of permanent impermanence, a limbo in which we can’t go forward, can’t go back, and just exist in a political no-man’s-land. But now the country has a second wind, and both sides are bringing up debates old and new, in response to two major plot changes. The Days of May are back.

After nearly three years as the Prime Minister who said she would not resign until Brexit has been delivered, Theresa May has resigned without Brexit being delivered. This was motivated by multiple reasons. In a desperate attempt to bring her Withdrawal Agreement before the House of Commons a fourth time (the first time in British history that a government has brought a failed bill to vote, four times), May offered MPs the option of voting on a second referendum – if they passed her bill. She promised that if they voted for her on a fourth vote, they could maybe vote on whether to have a second vote. Unsurprisingly, this destroyed the last shreds of her credibility. To make things much worse for Mrs May, polls for the European Parliament elections showed a total collapse of public support for the Conservative Party. Although results were not released until the 26th May, the British vote on 23rd May was enough to force Mrs May to resign on the 24th, pushed by her terrified colleagues in the remnants of the world’s oldest political party. This has opened a new phase in the Brexit process.

Choosing the next Prime Minister will be a small, elite affair. Candidates will be whittled down to two in votes by the shrinking Conservative Party membership and MPs, until a successor is chosen. Out of the many candidates, a front runner is obvious. Boris Johnson is deeply unpopular with his fellow Conservative MPs, but a panicking party may well back him as the only candidate with the charisma to fend off Nigel Farage. And as a hard Leaver, this would work in Boris’ favour. He will be able to claw back supporters by arguing that while Farage is a single-issue politician, the Conservatives can deliver hard Brexit alongside a portfolio of other policies. This would reflect the splitting of British society back into two camps – Leave and Remain. Soft Brexit is dead, and the country is now back to the binary choice offered in 2016. To try and rescue the party in the aftermath of its worst defeat since 1834, the Conservatives will likely back Boris and hard Brexit.

The Conservatives are not the only ones facing extinction. Labour performed slightly better than the Tories, but still achieved a pathetic result – particularly pathetic against a government which has been incumbent for nine years, and whose leaders have spent the last three years fighting a vicious civil war. Still dogged by the anti-Semitism scandal, Labour are now also fighting a vicious civil war. Before the elections Jeremy Corbyn, frightened of alienating Leave voters in Labour’s post-industrial heartlands and alienating Remain voters in London and the big cities, chose to sit on the fence and not to mention Brexit. Proclaiming, bizarrely, that Brexit was not an issue for British voters in the 2019 European elections, he failed to put forward anything that even vaguely resembled a coherent position. Where Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens, clearly backed either Leave or Remain, Corbyn was exceedingly vague. His position was to not have a position, effectively telling potential supporters that Labour neither supported Leave nor Remain, but wanted a general election, but if one didn’t happen then Labour might or might not support the idea of a second referendum. This vague, confusing, and deeply dissatisfying non-position has resulted in Labour’s support plummeting as badly as the Conservatives’, with labour being abandoned by its working-class heartlands and its middle-class Remainer strongholds. The first result announced on the 26th, Sunderland, showed a massive majority for the Brexit Party – in a constituency that Labour have held unchallenged for a hundred years. In his own north London constituency of Islington, Corbyn lost to the Liberal Democrats – and on his birthday, too. Like the Conservatives, Labour is collapsing as Leavers flock to Nigel Farage and Remainers switch to the Liberal Democrats or Greens. The two main parties which, between them, have controlled British politics since the First World War, are facing extinction. But where the Conservatives are aware of the scale of the disaster, to the point of throwing out their Prime Minister and publicly acknowledging the party’s crisis, Corbyn refuses to believe that anything is wrong.

The victors of the European Parliament elections, in Britain at least, are surprising. The LibDems and Greens have made impressive gains (even if the Remain vote is split between them). But by far the most surprising result is Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party. British politics and the first-past-the-post system are punishingly cruel to small and newcomer parties, as Change UK have discovered. Farage himself realised this in the 2015 General Election, when four million UKIP votes translated into just one seat at Westminster. But the Brexit Party is not UKIP. Formed only six weeks ago, the newborn party has not only survived, it has crushed the ancient titans of Labour and the Conservatives. Nothing better illustrates the new face of British politics than the successes of the Brexit Party and the LibDems – old allegiances are dead, party policies on anything but Brexit are irrelevant, and the country is split into two completely opposed halves, each of which wants something that the other considers an abomination. The British people have known this for three years. Perhaps if Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May had acknowledged this, the EP results might have been different.

What does this mean for Brexit? Clearly, Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement has failed. The two options left are the two extremes of Hard Brexit or No Brexit. To try and snuff out Nigel Farage a second time, the Conservatives will almost certainly place Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street, and he will push for a No Deal exit on October 31st. Labour will continue to vacillate, with Jeremy Corbyn continuing his daily ritual of demanding a general election. And with the new European Parliament facing deadlock and the exhausting task of building coalitions, Europe will be in no mood for more nonsense from the British. A further extension of Article 50 is out of the question. A second referendum in Britain would take far too long. And while a general election might be tempting to Boris Johnson as a way of wiping out an exhausted and abandoned Labour Party, his own Conservative Party is too weak to risk it. The net result of the new “Days of May” is that No-Deal Brexit is all but assured. And with the traditionally dominant parties of the European Parliament having lost their majorities to similar nationalist and Green surges, neither the UK nor the EU will be particularly able to manage Brexit.

For Remainers, there is at least one glimmer of hope. When Britain crashes out, 29 Brexit Party MEPs will exit the European Parliament. And diminish the influence of the eurosceptic right. But this will still leave a European Parliament scrambling to form and keep coalitions together; coalitions which may find it much more difficult to deal with the fallout from Britain’s looming exit.

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