David Cameron impresses Nazarbayev University crowd with answers and aplomb02 july 2013, 17:59
When David Cameron became the first sitting British prime minister to visit Kazakhstan, his flight from Pakistan arrived late at the Caspian Sea oil city of Atyrau.
Cameron said yesterday that he apologized to President Nursultan Nazarbayev for the delay on Sunday.
“Don’t worry,” Nazarbayev smiled. “We’ve already been waiting for you for 20 years.”
It was a reference to the fact that until Cameron arrived, no serving British prime minister had visited Kazakhstan in its two decades of independence.
Cameron recounted the story to a packed crowd of Nazarbayev University students, faculty and staff at a question-and-answer session at the front desk of the university library. The university threw chairs down to give the event a town-hall-type flavor.
In the front row of seats next to Cameron, who stood while answering questions, was Nazarbayev University Provost Simon Jones; Aslan Sarinzhipov, who led the team that founded Nazarbayev University and is now a trustee; and Michael Grant, provost of University College London. UCL is a partner in both Nazarbayev University’s first-year preparatory program and its School of Engineering.
The Prime Minister hosted a PM Direct meeting with students at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. Photo courtesy of flickr.com
Cameron clearly relished talking with the students, who were sitting in a semicircle closest to where he stood, and to the rest of the 150 in the crowd, including visiting British journalists.
The 46-year-old also displayed a warmth and charm that conjured up John F. Kennedy for some of the Americans at the event.
The questions he answered – most of them from students – ran the gamut from the Syrian situation to what moments he treasured the most in his private life.
He started with a few remarks guaranteed to please.
“It’s a great pleasure and a privilege to be here at this extraordinary university,” he said after university President Shigeo Katsu introduced him on the second day of his two-day trip.
There’s a lot to celebrate about Kazakhstan, Camerson asserted. One is the country’s decision in the early 1990s to give up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Another is how Kazakhstan uses the tax revenue from its oil and gas industry, he said. It was a reference to the country using much of it for development, infrastructure and social-service programs.
Still another thing to celebrate is Kazakhstan’s effort to diversify its economy, Cameron said. The country’s leaders are trying to move it away from a dependence on oil, gas and mining.
Cameron praised Astana’s innovative skyline, which, he hastened to note, “was done with the help of” some top British architects. Britain’s Norman Foster designed two of the most talked-about structures, the Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation and the tent-shaped Khan Shatyr shopping and entertainment complex.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev meets British Prime-Minister David Cameron. Photo courtesy of flickr.com
A Nazarbayev University staff member and a student raised the most momentous issue in the question-and-answer session: Syria.
“What is England’s position on Syria?” the staff member asked. A few minutes later, student Akerke Amangeldina asked if the stand-off between the West and Russia on the Syrian question can be resolved.
Britain is pushing for an international peace conference that would lead to a transitional government to replace the Assad regime, Cameron said. The next step would be for the Syrian people to decide on who would replace the transitional leadership.
The prime minister was adamant that “Assad has to go” because of the “appalling things” he’s done.
“Assad has blood on his hands,” he said. His regime has killed most of the 100,000 Syrians who have lost their lives in the civil war, he charged.
And there’s evidence Assad has used chemical weapons in the fight, he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin disagrees with Cameron about Assad’s departure.
Putin, whose country has been battling Islamic extremists in Chechnya for two decades, is concerned about extremists in the Syrian opposition coming to power, Cameron said.
The prime minister said he believes there are moderate elements in the opposition that the world can work with, however. In fact, he said, “we should be helping the official opposition” – those who “are not extremist and terrorist.”
Putin, he acknowledged, “doesn’t see the official opposition the way I do.”
But there is common ground between the West and Russia, Camerson said. “We want to see this slaughter end.”
The implication was that the common ground raises hopes for a solution to the Syrian issue that’s acceptable to Russia and the West.
Other substantive issues that Cameron addressed:
Croatia joining the European Union – “I think it’s excellent news,” he said.
“Think back 15 to 20 years ago,” he said. A war was raging in the Balkans among Serbs, Croats and Kosovans that spawned atrocities, including mass slaughters.
Now countries from the Balkans are applying for membership in the European Union, he said.
To join, they must adopt standards on the rule of law, elimination of corruption and other democracy-fostering tools, he said.
The European Union as an institution – In today’s competitive world, the EU is “too inflexible, too bureaucratic and too costly,” Cameron maintained.
Seventeen of the EU’s 28 countries use the euro while 11 use their own currencies, he said.
But the euro-using nations have failed to integrate their banking systems. “If you have a single currency, you need an integrated currency system,” Cameron said.
Analysts have said that lack of integration is one of the reasons the euro has been under pressure from flagging economies in the southern tier of the eurozone, particularly Greece and Spain.
Such problems are “why I’ve argued for a renegotiation of the rules of the European Union,” Cameron said.
The issue is so important in the United Kingdom, he said, that by 2017 the population is likely to vote on whether to remain in the EU.
The possibility of Scotland withdrawing from the United Kingdom – “I personally believe that Scotland should stay in the United Kingdom,” Cameron said,
Scots will vote on the issue next year, and polls indicate that independence forces will lose, he said.
Nazarbayev University staff member Aigerim Shaikhina, who earned a master’s degree in Social Policy and Politics at Scotland’s Edinburgh University, was the one who asked Cameron his views on Scottish independence.
Cameron displayed a keen grasp of issues and an unbridled enthusiasm in answering all questions, but the ones about his personal life offered the crowd the most insight into the man himself.
One student asked what personal moments he remembered most.
“I remember vividly the day of my marriage,” he said. In wrapping up his recollections of his marriage, he added wistfully that he hadn’t seen his wife Samantha for several days – and “I miss her desperately.”
Other memorable moments involved the first time he saw his youngsters reach childhood milestones and being able to return a serve from former tennis great Boris Becker.
A Nazarbayev University instructor asked Cameron who had inspired him.
The late Margaret Thatcher “was an inspirational figure when I was growing up in the 1980s,” he said.
She became prime minister when many people believed the United Kingdom had fallen into decline, Cameron said.
“She refused to accept that,” he said. And under her leadership, Britain bounced back, he said.
He also said Winston Churchill was one of his heroes for his determination in 1940 that Britain would fight Nazi Germany alone.
Cameron said that recently in London he and Putin pinned medals on men “now in their 90s” who ferried war supplies to the Soviet Union during World War II.
When a student asked Cameron which Harry Potter character he would play if he could, his answer drew chuckles. “I suppose in the end you know if you’ve got any sense you want to play Harry Potter,” he replied.
Cameron’s trip to Kazakhstan began with he and Nazarbayev dedicating a facility that will process gas from the giant Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea, where production has just started.
Then it was on to Astana for talks with Nazarbayev and other officials.
A contingent of British business people accompanied Cameron, hoping to sign up to $1 billion in deals.