Pope Francis in Kazakhstan: We need a new spirit of Helsinki


Speaking alongside the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jormart Tokayev on 13 September 2022 in Nur-Sultan, Pope Francis spoke of the need of "a new spirit of Helsinki", in an obvious reference to Helsinki process which helped end the Cold War. [Georgi Gotev]

This article is part of our special report Promoting dialogue and peace.

On a visit to the capital of Kazakhstan on Tuesday (13 September) which he called a “pilgrimage of dialogue and peace”, Pope Francis spoke of the need to ease Cold War-style confrontations and rhetoric. EURACTIV reports from Nur-Sultan.

Francis arrived in Kazakhstan at the start of a three-day trip to attend a peace meeting of world religious leaders. The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which has occurred every three years in the capital of Kazakhstan since 2003, gathers global religious and political leaders.

The pope’s visit coincides with the visit to Kazakhstan of China’s President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, his first official trip to a foreign nation since China all but shut its borders due to COVID-19.

In an address to the Kazakh government and the diplomatic corps on Tuesday night, Francis spoke of “the senseless and tragic war that broke out with the invasion of Ukraine”.

Pope Francis had made public his intention to talk to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who supports the war in Ukraine. However, Kirill did not attend the congress of religious leaders, and the hosts said no explanations were provided.

Speaking alongside the President of Kazakhstan, Kassy-Jormart Tokayev, Francis said, “now is the time to stop intensifying rivalries and reinforcing opposing blocs” and spoke of the need for “a new spirit of Helsinki”, in an apparent reference to the Helsinki process which helped end the Cold War.

The Helsinki process culminated with the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which saw the birth of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with 57 member states from Europe, Central Asia and North America. In December 2010, Kazakhstan successfully hosted a OSCE summit held. Kazakhstan has also suggested “updating” the 1975 Helsinki Final.

Kazakhstan suggests hosting OSCE forum to bolster global security

The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has warned of a risk to post-World War II order and proposed that his country host a conference of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2020 with the purpose of “updating” the 1975 Helsinki Final Act of the then CSCE.

Diplomats, including from the EU, recognise the importance Central Asia and Kazakhstan are gaining in the context of world tensions. As a former Soviet Republic, Kazakhstan has strong relations with Russia, but it is also seeking to balance those with relations with the other world major players, including with China, its other powerful neighbour.

As Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko reminded journalists during a briefing on on Tuesday, Kazakhstan is ready to act as a mediator in the Ukraine conflict.

Kazakhstan has maintained neutrality in the case of the war in Ukraine, stressing the need to cease hostilities, preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine and reach a solution based on the UN charter.

Asked in what way the Congress of religious leaders could help promote dialogue and peace, Vassilenko said Kazakhstan was trying to create an atmosphere and a momentum for peace initiatives.

He said that before Kazakhstan started its initiative in 2003, there had been hesitations among the world’s religious leaders to gather and sit next to each other. He described the process as a “success story”, with an ever growing interest from more countries and delegations to join the gatherings.

Since 2003 when 17 delegations participated, this seventh edition of the Congress gathered more than 100 delegates from more than 50 countries, he said.

In his words, many of the world’s religious leaders shook hands for the first time ever in the capital of Kazakhstan.

Speculation is ripe whether Francis will meet Xi while both are in Nur-Sultan.

Speaking to reporters accompanying him on his flight, Francis was asked whether he might meet Xi in as both will be in the Kazakh capital on Wednesday.

“I don’t have any news about that,” the pope replied, without elaborating.

Asked if he was ready to go to China, a country with witch the Vatican has difficult relations, Francis responded: “I am always ready to go to China”.

‘Eternal strategic partnership’

Asked about Xi’s visit, Vassilenko said the signing of numerous economic agreements was expected, moving forward with the ‘eternal strategic partnership’ between the two neighbours.

In his words, already China is the second largest trade partner of Kazakhstan, after Russia. He mentioned the figure of 52 projects worth $21 billion with Chinese participation being implemented in Kazakhstan, extending from areas such as energy, construction, and industry.

China is currently under US pressure, with Washington considering options for a sanctions package against China to deter it from invading Taiwan.

US considers China sanctions to deter Taiwan action while Taipei presses EU

The United States is considering options for a sanctions package against China to deter it from invading Taiwan, with the European Union coming under diplomatic pressure from Taipei to do the same, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

According to diplomats, one of Xi’s objectives is to secure the imports of uranium from Kazakhstan, needed for China’s push to build many new nuclear power centrals.

Orthodoxy and Russia

Some top Vatican officials were relieved that the encounter between Francis and Kirill would not take place because of the bad optics of the pope meeting with a key backer of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a senior Vatican source quoted by Reuters.

Asked about Kirill’s absence, Vassilenko reminded that the Russian Orthodox Church had sent a big delegation led by Mitropolit Antoniy.

The Orthodox Church is the second largest in majority Muslim Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan will host Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-October, Vassilenko told EURACTIV.

The occasion is the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan in mid-October. CICA is an initiative of Kazakhstan dating from 2002.