New Kazakhstan: President Tokayev and Foreign Policy

President Tokayev

Prof. Dr. Darkhan KYDYRALI*

Introduction

The tragic events in Kazakhstan in January 2022 raise many questions about the future direction of the country. Especially Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is a matter of great curiosity. In this context, the changes and transformations in Kazakhstan and the foreign policy understanding of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev should be discussed.

In fact, it is obvious that Kazakhstan achieved many successes in the 30th year of its independence. The state-building process of Kazakhstan has been completed, the problems related to the disputed areas have been resolved, the country borders have been clearly drawn and registered by international law. In the heart of the Great Steppes, a magnificent and modern new capital has risen. Economically, Kazakhstan has become an important member of the international market. The longest land borders at the center of the continent have become the guarantor of peace and security.

It is clear that foreign policy has made important contributions to these achievements of Kazakhstan. Founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev determined the foreign policy of the country as multi-vector. In the formation and development of this foreign policy understanding, which has become Kazakhstan’s trademark, there is no doubt that experienced professional diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who served as the country’s foreign minister for many years (1994-1999 and 2002-2007), and later served as the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, played an important role. This policy means that balanced, pragmatic and constructive relations will be developed with regional and global powers. Over the past three decades, such a strategy has proven its effectiveness several times in the turbulent global geopolitical situation.

After being elected as President of Kazakhstan in 2019, Tokayev declared that he would attach importance to continuity in foreign policy. The “2020-2030 Foreign Policy Concept of the Republic of Kazakhstan” adopted in March 2020 is like the declaration of continuity in foreign policy. The President had elevated the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs to the level of Deputy Prime Minister, appointed a special representative responsible for foreign policy, appointed the Deputy Foreign Policy Deputy Head of the President’s Office, thus demonstrating that he attached great importance to diplomacy. Appointments in this direction continued in the following period as well.

The President, who attended the extended meeting of the Board of Directors of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was held for the first time in six years on November 18, 2021, emphasized the need to review foreign policy methods and develop systematic measures in the light of the current situation in the world. Tokayev stated that first of all, foreign policy should be carried out according to the understanding of “a state that hears the voice of the people”. This is a foreign policy that serves the needs of the people and the national interests. Secondly, the need to stimulate economic diplomacy and make efforts to attract investment was underlined. Thirdly, it is important to strengthen Kazakhstan’s leadership in Central Asia. Fourthly, it was instructed to establish equal and effective cooperation with the leading countries of the world and influential countries in the region, to create a new image of Kazakh diplomacy and to make a breakthrough in this field.

In this context, the article focuses on Tokayev’s activities in foreign policy. In particular, Tokayev’s efforts to continue his balanced and multi-vector foreign policy strategy are discussed. In this context, it is also mentioned how the Tragic January Events affected Kazakhstan’s foreign policy.

January Events and Challenges in Foreign Policy

After the tragic January Events, some experts began to be skeptical of the future of Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy. According to them, the entry of the CSTO peacekeepers into Kazakhstan opened up the possibility of Nur-Sultan’s abandonment of multi-vectorism in foreign policy. However, it was soon realized that such an assessment that Kazakhstan’s balanced and effective foreign policy would change was wrong. President Tokayev has signaled that Kazakhstan will not give up its multi-vector foreign policy, both with his appointments in the field of foreign policy and with his activism in this are.

The appointments by the Head of State in the field of foreign policy and his active actions in foreign policy played an important role in restoring the country’s reputation. For example, for the first time, the administration of the Presidential Office of Kazakhstan was entrusted to Murat Nurtileu, a professional diplomat. Erjan Kazıhanov, the new Vice President of the Presidential Administration and the President’s Special Envoy for International Cooperation, is also an experienced diplomat who has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, the fact that Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi remains in the post of Deputy Prime Minister shows that foreign policy will not change.

In January and April 2022, there was activism in all important areas of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. These events were in line with the “2020-2030 Foreign Policy Concept of the Republic of Kazakhstan”. The important steps have been taken by Nur-Sultan to strengthen relations with the East (China and India, East Asian countries), neighboring countries (Russia and Central Asia), the Islamic and Turkic World, the West and major international organizations in a record short time.

Regional Integration: Central Asia First 

At the regional level, the foreign policy pursued by President Tokayev generally focuses on Central Asian countries. This attitude is also clearly stated in the document “2020-2030 Foreign Policy Concept”. In fact, this is the continuation of Kazakhstan’s policy since the 1990s. Upon Nazarbayev’s suggestion, the Central Asian Union was established in 1994, but the signed agreements remained only on paper for some reasons. In 2007, Nazarbayev tried to revive this Union, but this attempt was also unsuccessful. Situations started to change as of 2017, and summits were held in Kazakhstan in 2018 and in Uzbekistan in 2018 under the name of “Central Asian Leaders Consultation Meeting”.

In this context, Tokayev’s participation in the Central Asian Leaders Consultation Meeting held in Turkmenistan on 6 August 2021 has given a new impetus to regional integration. At the summit, the President of Kazakhstan stated, “We need to strengthen our union and prevent unnecessary competition with each other. If we express our common stance on the most important international issues, we show our common approach to the world public opinion. Competition in the international arena contradicts our national interests.”

The President noted at the expanded General Assembly meeting of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 18 November 2021 that Central Asia is a priority region for Kazakhstan. Emphasizing that it is a very important task to strengthen Kazakhstan’s leadership in Central Asia, the President emphasized that “Kazakhstan has a special responsibility for the fate of Central Asia.” This means that Kazakhstan will continue to follow an active policy for regional cooperation.

It should be noted that Tokayev’s visit to Turkmenistan on October 25, 2021 is important in terms of both bilateral and regional cooperation. The signing of 20 agreements in various fields from trade to transportation, from agriculture to science during the visit is an indication that the relations between the two countries have reached a new dimension. The agreement on the demarcation of the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan state border and the division of neighboring fishing areas, especially in the Caspian Sea, has a special place. Thus, the legal registration of the land and sea borders between the two countries was completed.

The active participation of Turkmenistan, which is the gateway of Central Asia to the Middle East, in regional integration projects is important for Kazakhstan. In this respect, Turkmenistan’s observer status in the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) is considered a positive step by Nur-Sultan. Therefore, we can conclude that Tokayev’s visit to Turkmenistan strengthened the strategic relations between the two countries and made significant contributions to regional integration.

Kazakhstan’s relations with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan both in the context of Central Asia and in the context of the Turkic World have strategic importance as well. In this context, the visit of President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev to Kazakhstan on December 6, 2021 was very important in terms of bilateral relations and the future of the region. This was the first “state visit” since Mirziyoyev was re-elected President of Uzbekistan. In international politics, the first visit of an elected or a re-elected head of state is often important as it expresses the country’s priorities. In this respect, Kazakhstan is the most important country for Uzbekistan in the region and in international politics. This is the result of Nur-Sultan’s prudent policy to date.

The welcoming of Mirziyoyev at the Nur-Sultan airport by Tokayev himself showed that the relations between the two countries are not just a neighborhood, but a real brotherhood. During the visit, 22 documents were signed, the most important of which is the “Declaration of Allied Relations”. In fact, Uzbekistan is the only country with which Kazakhstan has an alliance, apart from the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

It should be noted that important events took place in Kazakhstan’s relations with Kyrgyzstan in the given period. On December 2, 2021, President Tokayev approved the “Agreement on Free Military and Technical Assistance between the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic”. It is also worth noting that Kazakhstan has previously sent humanitarian aid in the form of grains and vaccines to Kyrgyzstan.

Thus, Kazakhstan continues its effective policy towards Central Asia. President Tokayev’s activities in foreign policy prove this.

After the January Events, Kazakhstan’s relations with its southern neighbors developed steadily. In this regard, it is worth noting a number of events at different levels. On January 20, Tokayev had a telephone conversation with the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. On February 9, Tokayev received Nurdinjon Ismoilov, Chairman of the Legislative Council of the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan, in Akorda. On the same day, the parliamentary delegation of Uzbekistan met with the Speaker of the Assembly of Kazakhstan, Erlan Koshanov, and after the visit, an agreement was signed between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on the establishment of the Inter-Parliamentary Cooperation Council. Two days later, on February 11, President of Uzbekistan Mirziyoyev received Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Alikhan Smailov. During the meeting, the parties discussed the implementation of the agreements reached by the leaders of the two largest countries of Central Asia at the summit in December last year.

Cooperation with other brother countries in the region continued at the same pace. On February 12, 2022, First Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Roman Sklyar met with President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in Ashgabat. The sides exchanged views on expanding cooperation in transport and transit, trade, economic and agricultural fields.

Some international experts point to a joint photo taken by Central Asian leaders at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Arkady Dubnov, a well-known expert on Central Asia, said, “With their joint photos, the leaders of Central Asia are trying to show the world that they can put their disagreements aside and reach consensus… This gesture is an attempt to create a common Central Asian community. The leaders of the countries in the region are trying to make Central Asia the subject of international politics as a whole.”

Turkic World Integration Process

Kazakhstan has given special importance to the Turkic World from the very beginning. The most important event in this direction during President Tokayev’s term is the 8th Summit of the Turkic Council held in Istanbul on 12 November 2021. This visit of Tokayev, who visited Turkey for the first time in the capacity of President, was of particular importance. The President’s suggestions at the summit were remarkable in terms of showing the continuity of Kazakhstan’s policy in the Turkic World. Emphasizing the importance of Turkic integration, Tokayev said that the organization should attach special importance to economic, humanitarian and environmental cooperation.

It is worth reminding that the summit took place in the place where the late Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his friends were tried and is now known as the Island of Democracy and Freedom. As a matter of fact, in this context, Tokayev, as the President of Kazakhstan, thanked Adnan Menderes and the Turkish people for accepting the Kazakhs who took refuge in Turkey in the 1950s. This message aroused great repercussions in Turkish society. Later, in the city of Almaty in April 2022 and in the city of Turkistan at the beginning of May 2022, the streets were named Adnan Menderes.

After the January Events, Kazakhstan continues to cooperate with Turkic countries. In this context, it should be noted that Ankara supported Nur-Sultan as always. President Tokayev discussed the events with Turkish President Erdogan several times.

The OTS Council of Foreign Ministers held an extraordinary meeting on 11 January 2022 regarding the situation in the country, with the initiative of Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey, which is the Term President of the Organization, and expressed their support for Kazakhstan. In addition, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Kazakhstan in February. Within the scope of the visit, the 7th planned meeting of the Kazakhstan-Turkey Joint Strategic Planning Group was held.

On 3-4 March 2022, Vice President of Turkey Fuat Oktay visited Kazakhstan. Receiving Fuat Oktay, Tokayev drew attention to the high level of bilateral relations in political, commercial, economic, investment, cultural and humanitarian fields and emphasized the need for further intensification of relations. Within the framework of Fuat Oktay’s visit, the Kazakhstan-Turkey Business Forum was held and 11 agreements worth 500 million dollars were signed.

It is expected that Tokayev’s visit to Turkey, which is planned to take place in May, and Erdoğan’s participation in the 6th CICA Summit, which will be held in Nur-Sultan in October this year, will give a new impetus to the relations between the two brotherly countries. In fact, this reflects the strategic nature of the relations between the two countries.

It is expected that Tokayev’s visit to Turkey as the President of Kazakhstan will take the cooperation of the two brotherly countries, which are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, to a new level.

Relations with Asian Giants

With its pragmatic foreign policy, Kazakhstan deepens its cooperation not only with brother countries, but also with neighboring countries. In fact, this policy strengthens the Turkic World as well. This policy continued in the same way after the January Events.

On January 25, 2022, President Tokayev attended the “Central Asia-China Summit” held in online format. The high-level forum was organized to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Central Asian states and China. Shortly thereafter, on February 5, Tokayev, who was in Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the XXIV Winter Olympic Games, met with President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping. During the negotiations, special attention was paid to strengthening trade and economic ties.

It is useful to pay attention to a detail during the visit to China. Most of the invited heads of state stayed in hotels in the Chinese capital. Only the presidents of three countries were hosted in the historical “State Residence”. These were Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. This gesture from the Chinese side means many things.

Another Asian giant, India, is Kazakhstan’s long-term partner. Two days after the above-mentioned “Central Asia – China” summit, on January 27, Tokayev attended the first “Central Asia – India” summit of heads of state, organized at the initiative of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Trade issues were also discussed during the meetings. In this context, it is worth noting that 80% of the trade volume between Central Asia and India is the share of Kazakhstan.

In this period, effective cooperation continued with East Asian countries besides China and India. For example, on January 26, 2022, Kazakhstan Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Shahrat Nurishev met with Japanese Ambassador Jun Yamada and on January 28, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea Ku Hong Sok. The meeting is dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan. In the meeting with the South Korean ambassador, the terms “strategic partnership” were used.

On April 29, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi paid an official visit to Kazakhstan and was received by Tokayev. After the meeting between the foreign ministries of the two countries during the visit, the “2022-2023 Action Plan” was signed. By the way, it is worth noting that the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz paid a visit to Japan on the same dates.

Likewise, Kazakhstan continues its cooperation with countries such as Iran and Pakistan. On February 2, President Tokayev and President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ibrahim Raisi held a phone call and discussed various aspects of bilateral cooperation. On January 26, 2022, Deputy Prime Minister – Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Mukhtar Tileuberdi had a telephone conversation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Makdum Shah Mahmud Qureshi. The parties discussed not only cooperation in the political, commercial, economic and humanitarian fields, but also cooperation in the international arena between Kazakhstan and Pakistan. On March 22, 2022, the Kazakh delegation headed by Mukhtar Tileuberdi attended the 48th session of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers held in Islamabad on “Partnership for Unity, Justice and Development”.

Thus, the country’s Asian and Muslim partners expressed their support for Kazakhstan’s swift recovery from the tragic events of January and the return of its foreign policy to its traditional direction.

Pragmatic Partnership with Russia                                                                        

Russia and Kazakhstan, which have a common land border of seven thousand kilometers, have reliable and pragmatic relations. These reliable relations played an important role in overcoming the Aircraft Crisis between Russia and Turkey in 2016. The continuation of these relations between Kazakhstan and Russia is of strategic importance for Nur-Sultan.

In this context, President Tokayev’s visit to Russia on February 10, 2022 also played an important role. 11 agreements were signed within the scope of the visit. Six of them are related to education, and the other five are related to cooperation in the field of economy and energy. All agreements are based on mutually beneficial partnership principles.

The most special part of Tokayev’s visit to Russia was his visit to Kazan on February 11 and his meeting with Tatarstan President Rustem Minnikhanov. Many experts pointed out that the President of Kazakhstan spoke Kazakh and easily understand with Minnikhanov. Two leaders discussed ways to expand cooperation in trade and economics, investment, cultural and humanitarian fields. Earlier, on January 24, 2022, Tokayev received Minnikhanov in the capital of Kazakhstan.

In the following period, telephone conversations between Tokayev and Putin continued.

On April 22, Kazakhstan Deputy Prime Minister – Minister of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tileuberdi paid a working visit to Moscow, and then, narrow and expanded formats were held with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. On the same date, the Kazakh Minister participated in the fifth meeting of the “Central Asia + Russia” foreign ministers format. On May 5, Lavrov published the article “Russia – Central Asia: 30 Years of Friendship and Cooperation” and emphasized the importance of cooperation with Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that Kazakhstan did not take sides in the Ukraine Crisis and at the same time declared that it did not recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Western Direction

Cooperation with the Western World is one of the priorities of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. In this context, the President of Kazakhstan carries out an active policy towards the EU and the USA. Western partners appreciated Kazakhstan’s political reforms and efforts to respect human rights. Kazakhstan while maintaining its diplomatic stance, it states that processes in this direction are developing continuously and healthily in a balance between high international standards and national interests.

It was very important to explain the Western states objectively about the January events in the country and their reasons. This process has been successfully managed. During the counter-terrorism operation carried out with the participation of the CSTO peacekeepers on January 6, Foreign Minister Tileuberdi had a telephone conversation with the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, on the initiative of the American side. The parties discussed current security issues at the global and regional level, as well as the situation in Kazakhstan.

Later, on January 10, on the initiative of the European side, Tokayev met online with the President of the European Council, Charles Michelle. In addition to the domestic political situation in the country, the meeting focused on the further development of the strategic partnership between Kazakhstan and the EU. It should be noted that the EU remains Kazakhstan’s main trading partner to this day.

On 19 January, Minister Tileuberdi paid a working visit to Belgium and held meetings with senior officials of this country and the EU. The main topic of the talks was to develop mutually beneficial, multi-faceted cooperation between Kazakhstan and the EU in all areas of bilateral relations. “The Advanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement”, which accelerated the development of relations between Kazakhstan and the European Union, was signed in March 2020.

Shortly thereafter, on February 7, President Tokayev received Finnish diplomat Teri Hakal, the EU’s Special Representative for Central Asia, in Akorda. The Kazakh leader thanked EU President Charles Michelle for his support. The European diplomat noted that he fully supports President Tokayev’s reform policy, as he is interested in the development of Kazakhstan, the EU’s main partner in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan Deputy Foreign Minister Akan Rakhmetullin, who paid a working visit to the USA on February 10, 2022. He met with officials from the White House, Congress, the US State Department, think tanks, and a number of other institutions. In particular, the issues of deepening the bilateral and expanded strategic partnership in the “C5+1” format were discussed. Rakhmatullin also briefed the American side on the main aspects of the comprehensive political and economic reform program in Kazakhstan.

On February 11, Kazakhstan State Secretary Yerlan Karin met with Matthias Luttenberg, German Foreign Ministry Plenipotentiary Representative for Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, to discuss Kazakh-German cooperation. The parties noted the interest in further development of the multilateral partnership. On February 14, Tileuberdi met with the ambassadors of EU member states. European Ambassadors expressed their support to Kazakhstan and praised the ongoing reforms in the country, highlighting Kazakhstan’s achievements in the field of human rights. The Minister also had a telephone conversation with Pekka Haavisto, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Finland. As a result, cooperation plans were agreed at the UN and OSCE.

International Organizations

It should be noted that after the January Events, Kazakhstan cooperated intensively with international organizations. During January-April 2022, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs actively worked in this direction. On 21 January, the Minister of Foreign Affairs paid a working visit to Vienna and met with the OSCE leadership. During the meetings, issues of further development of cooperation during the reforms in Kazakhstan were discussed.

On 31 January, at the initiative of the OIC Secretariat, Tileuberdi had a telephone conversation with the Secretary General of the Organization, Hüseyin İbrahim Taha. Expressing his support to the people and administration of Kazakhstan, the Secretary General expressed his condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the January events. It is obvious that the Islamic World is interested in Kazakhstan and closely follows the events in the country.

On 7 February, the Minister of Foreign Affairs also met with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Representative for Central Asia, Ryszard Comenda, to raise current issues in this area.

On February 15, Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan Alikhan Smailov received Ambassador Kayrat Sarıbay, Executive Director of CICA. Saribay gave information about the implementation of the priorities of the Presidency of Kazakhstan in this structure, which will soon become a full-fledged organization. Having increased its effectiveness in recent years, the CICA is becoming one of the most important foreign policy instruments of Kazakhstan.

During the tragic events in January, Turkic cooperation institutions, in particular the OTS Secretariat, TURKPA, the International Turkic Academy, the Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation supported Kazakhstan. On January 31, OTS Secretary General Baghdat Amreyev came to the capital of Kazakhstan and met with Minister Tileuberdi. On February 11, well-known statesman Ikram Adırbekov attended the three-day meeting of the OTS Elders Council. Thus, Kazakhstan’s relations with the Turkic World remained up-to-date.

In this context, it would be useful to briefly mention the International Turkic Academy. Established in Nur-Sultan in 2010 with the initiative of Nazarbayev, the institution is responsible for the scientific integration among the Turkish states. The Academy, which received the status of “international organization” in 2014 has in intensive cooperation with international organizations such as UNESCO, ISESCO, COMSTECH, especially the UN. Hungary has observer status at the Turkic Academy while Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey are founding members. The membership process of Uzbekistan continues. Recently, Mongolia, Pakistan and Tajikistan expressed their interests in memberhsip. In addition, the Academy has intensive cooperation with Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

Kazakhstan supports the work of the Academy. In 2021, the Government of Kazakhstan allocated two buildings to the Academy. The State Secretary of Kazakhstan personally attended the opening of the new building on October 29, 2021. The reception of the President of the Academy, Darhan Kydyrali, by President Tokayev on March 11, 2022 and his meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs are the expression of the highest level support shown by the Kazakh side to the Academy.

On May 3, 2022, the President of Kazakhstan Kasım-Jomart Tokayev signed the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the Approval of the “Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Turkic Academy on the Terms and Conditions of Placement of the Turkic Academy” ratified by the Parliament of Kazakhstan. Thus, the Turkic Academy has become a full-fledged international organization whose main documents are recognized by the founding states and its rules are determined by special laws.

Conclusion

As a result, the events of the past months require a reassessment of many things. First of all, it is necessary to underline that President Tokayev successfully pursues Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy. The balances were settled with the great powers and the independence of the country was preserved. Therefore, Kazakhstan will continue to occupy an important place on the world map. For the international community, Kazakhstan is still an important country. Foreign partners support the country recovering rapidly after the crisis and the country’s government quickly implemented the positive changes and restructuring originally planned.

In domestic politics, primarily the fight against corruption, the elimination of social injustice, the establishment of the rule of law and the provision of basic human rights will maintain their priority on the agenda. There is no doubt that work in this direction will continue in the future. Thus, Kazakhstan proves its commitment to international agreements.

In this context, it is noteworthy that President Tokayev announced the new package of reforms in his Address to the Nation on March 16, 2022. The rapid preparation of the amendments to the Constitution mentioned in the address and the announcement that a referendum will be held on 5 June 2022 reveal Tokayev’s determination.

All necessary decisions are being implemented to revive the economy. This strengthens Kazakhstan’s position in regional and global geopolitics. The attitude of the country administration shows that the measures taken are strategic and long-term, not tactical.

In the final analysis, Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy will not change. The aim of President Tokayev is not only to “return to normal”, but also to make a breakthrough in the development of the country and further strengthen its position in the world. This is in line with the “New Kazakhstan” discourse.

* President of the International Turkic Academy

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