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Interview with H.E. the Ambassador of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Alexei Volkov

 

“We think that the key reason for our fast economic growth is Kazakhstan’s increasing cooperation with the world and its neighbours to expand opportunities, investments and spread prosperity. This is based on the evidence which shows that we all benefit if trade can be encouraged…”

 

 

“At a time when some countries are lowering their sights, Kazakhstan has shown its confidence in the future.”

 

GDL: What are the general objectives of your country’s diplomacy, both at an international and regional level?

AV: I would like to start by congratulating both Kazakhstan and Greece on the significant event that we are celebrating this year – the 25th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Starting our work back on October 1st 1992, we have now built a solid foundation for cooperation and friendship between our nations. On July 2nd, my country also celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Kazakh Diplomatic Service.

As we reflect today on what are the objectives of our foreign policy are, I believe that the key lies in the understanding that Kazakhstan is a large continental, land-locked country with rich historic, cultural and geographical roots in both Europe and Asia. Our location in the heart of Eurasia defines our foreign-policy. Today Kazakhstan is an impartial nation, one that has worked hard to reform its military, political and social-economic policies as it advances toward a full democracy. Our foreign policy underscores its commitment to create strong, long-lasting alliances and partnerships. Kazakhstan’s good and dynamic relations with Russia, China, the EU, US and other Western nations underscore our multi-vector foreign policy approach. One of Kazakhstan’s most important decisions since its independence was to come from being the 4th largest nuclear arsenal in the world to gaining the status of a non-nuclear state and pursue the policy of non-proliferation. In doing this, Kazakhstan set an example, demonstrating its desire for peace, internal stability and sustainable economic and political development.

In April 2016, during a visit to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, my President unveiled his vision for a secure world in his Manifesto ‘The World. The 21st Century’. It was in this strongly worded speech that President Nazarbayev actually “declared war on war” appealing for a new mentality that would eliminate war as a way of life, whilst underscoring the responsibility of leading world powers to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free-world in this Century.

The last few years will rank amongst the most turbulent of recent times. The tragedy of Syria and Iraq has deepened, fuelled by violent extremism, which continues to cause death and destruction across the world. These conflicts are also a prime cause of the refugee crisis. Millions have fled to Greece and other European states to seek a safer, better life for their families. Against this worrying background, on January 1st 2017 Astana took on the major responsibility as the first country from Central Asia to sit on the United Nations Security Council. We are determined to do all we can to help heal divisions and tackle global threats.

As to our region, Kazakhstan has good relations with all its neighbours in Central Asia. We are also in close proximity to India, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. We are at the crossroads of civilizations serving as a bridge between East and West, North and South. On the other hand, Kazakhstan has long-standing historical ties and a vast shared border with Russia. Kazakhstan also shares a border with China. China’s pursuit of energy security and new markets has strengthened its ties to Kazakhstan and its economy. These ties will continue to be strengthened.

The steady development of the country is also based on it being an active, yet impartial, actor in regional events. As a result, Kazakhstan has become an important player in several regional organisations, including the CIS, EEU, CICA, SCO, CSTO and OSCE.

GDL: Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic society and therefore occupies a strong position of constant dialogue between civilisations, cultures and religions. What initiatives do you promote with neighbouring countries and regional organisations?

AV: Indeed, modern Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation. For that reason we have created a unique constitutional body named ‘The Assembly of People of Kazakhstan’. Its prime goal is to ensure respect for the rights and freedoms of Kazakh citizens, irrespective of their ethnicity, as well as to promote individual cultures and languages of all the nations who live in Kazakhstan.

According to official statistics, 63.07% of the population is Kazakh, 23.70% is Russian, while 13.23% is comprised of Germans, Tatars, Ukrainians, Uzbeks and Uyghurs, Koreans, Greeks and many others.

Representatives of more than 100 ethnic groups live in Kazakhstan and some 818 ethnic and cultural associations operate under the auspices of the ‘Assembly of People of Kazakhstan’. All ethnic groups have a single civil and social status. For instance, there are over 17 Greek cultural centres operating in various regions throughout Kazakhstan. The main Greek Association of Kazakhstan is called ‘Filia’ (Friendship).

The Head of State inspected Kazakh Eline Myn Algys monument, erected in front of the regional building of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan.

 

Our President, H.E. Nursultan Nazarbayev, was one of the first to draw attention to the need to build a model of inter-ethnic tolerance and social harmony. The promotion of multi-religious dialogue, such as the President’s initiative to host the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, is testament to Kazakhstan’s commitment to strengthen human rights and universal freedoms around the world.

Every three years, since 2003, Kazakhstan has hosted this world Congress, with the most recent one taking place in June last year. The next Congress is to take place in Astana on 10th-11th October 2018. Apart from that, Kazakhstan has made notable contributions to global peace and security in several key areas, including strengthening international dialogue, inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony.

GDL: Up until a few years ago, Kazakhstan was one of the few fastest growing economies in the world. Its importance as an economic power is obviously on the rise. Can you outline some of the reasons for this?

AV: We think that the key reason for our fast economic growth is Kazakhstan’s increasing cooperation with the world and its neighbours to expand opportunities, investments and spread prosperity. This is based on the evidence which shows that we all benefit if trade can be encouraged.

Kazakhstan is becoming an important part of the New Silk Way initiative and is an active member of the Eurasian Economic Union. Transport links have been improved, not only to the major markets to the East and West, but also to the South. At a time when some countries are lowering their sights, Kazakhstan has shown its confidence in the future.

This has been coupled with continued reforms and investment to strengthen the economy. A far-reaching domestic programme called the ‘Third Modernisation of Kazakhstan: Global Competitiveness’ has been put in place. Privatisations of major sectors are being accelerated to introduce new funding and new ideas. The establishment of the Astana International Financial Centre is designed to secure Kazakhstan’s position as a key regional hub in the global economy, but also to attract new FDI to Central Asia as a whole.

These steps have already been reflected in the positive way our country and economy is viewed globally. Kazakhstan was one of the biggest risers in the World Bank’s 2017 Ease of Doing Business report, jumping six places to 35th in the league table.

This significant improvement follows a series of concrete steps to remove barriers to investment. They include making it easier to set up new businesses, to obtain a building permit and export goods.

Shareholders’ and investors’ rights have also been strengthened, propelling Kazakhstan into the top five countries for protecting minority investors according to the World Bank. There is more to do but Kazakhstan is moving in the right direction.

Renewable energy is among the areas where there is great potential forming an important topic for discussion at the 2017 Astana Economic Forum. Last month, a unique atlas, drawn up by the Ministry of Energy of Kazakhstan and the UNDP, enabled the public for the first time to examine the online for the country’s solar energy potential. It is this potential which is already being acknowledged outside our country. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development recently approved a framework to invest up to €200 million ($224 million) in the development of renewable energies within our borders.

It is a practical example of the international partnerships which will help improve living standards, while protecting our planet. If we achieve these ambitions, we need more, not less, international cooperation on economic challenges.

Astana – building upon its past and moving toward its ambitious future

 

GDL: Kazakhstan seems determined to embrace broader integration in global trade, especially since you became a member of the WTO. How feasible is the establishment of a common Eurasian Economic Space?

AV: In a world of globalisation, the movement of goods, services and people is a main factor of prosperity. The removal of artificial barriers is increasingly essential to economic success. We all witnessed a growing commitment to economic integration and the creation of free-trade blocs.

However, the present disunions within the EU show even longstanding achievement does not promise a problem-free future. So the question of feasibility of the Eurasian Economic Space (EAEU), established under the treaty signed on 29th May 2014 in Astana is a good question. The first year of EAEU existence overlapped with a hard period for the world economy. The decreasing price of oil and following financial slowdown have been the catalysts for credit downgrades in main oil-producing nations and a wakeup call to a number of emerging economies, including Kazakhstan. Deteriorating relations between Russia and Europe and the US have seen extensive sanctions imposed, which are reducing confidence and development.

This has given the EAEU’s opponents plenty of reasons to fate the initiative to a failure from the start. But this temporary pessimism disregards the longstanding motivations of the new trading union and misrepresents its goals. Far from restricting choice or reconstructing the past, the EAEU upsurges diversity and inspires member states to modernise their economies.

For Kazakhstan, this means, above all, accelerating the shift away from a reliance on oil exports. The EAEU offers a pragmatic solution to this challenge, providing new opportunities to diversify within our region. The core objective of the EAEU is to boost trade, both within the organisation and with outside partners, including Greece. With a common market of more than 180 million people, the free movement of goods, services and capital will increase investment and prosperity. Experts predict a 25% growth in the member states’ GDP by 2030 – an increase equivalent to more than 600 billion USD.

But while the EAEU obviously forms a major part of Kazakhstan’s economic future, its introduction does not mean that we should be turning our back on existing partnerships and relationships. Kazakhstan is determined to develop its economic opportunities with its immediate neighbours and with its global partners. For instance, Kazakhstan is committed to strengthen its economic ties with the EU. The new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed on 21st December 2015 in Astana signals a continued confidence in the relationship between the EU and Kazakhstan and pave the way for the expansion of the present almost 50 billion EUR in annual bilateral trade.

GDL: Kazakhstan’s economy is larger than those of all the other Central Asian States largely due to your country’s vast natural resources. What are the current challenges in order to drive and accelerate the diversification of the economy and enhance economic competitiveness?

AV: The world today is witnessing the fourth industrial revolution. My President believes that the digitalisation of the economy will make entire industries disappear and create fundamentally new ones, and that is both a challenge and a historic opportunity for our nation. For that reason, Kazakhstan has developed a strategic programme outlined in President’s latest Address to the Nation. It proposes the creation of a new model of economic growth that will improve the country’s global competitiveness.

The Address further outlined five priorities for Kazakhstan’s modernisation. First, the economy’s accelerated technological modernisation. Within this priority, we are aiming to create new industries based on digital technologies, such as 3D printing, mobile banking, e-commerce and digital services. The President instructed the government to develop a ‘Digital Kazakhstan’ programme and establish an international IT start-up technological park, based in some of the premises to be left vacant after EXPO 2017 which will attract entrepreneurs and investors from around the world.

Second, improving and expanding the business sphere. One of Kazakhstan’s strategic goals is to ensure small-and-medium-sized businesses account for at least 50% of the GDP by 2050. The President also initiated introducing a doing business rating across Kazakhstan, an analogue of the World Bank’s Doing Business report, with a special prize awarded to pioneer regions annually on Industrialisation Day.

The state’s share in the economy is to be reduced to 15% of the GDP. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are to become primary mechanisms of infrastructure development, including social, housing and utility sectors. All possible types and forms of PPPs will be used in order to attract private equity.

Thirdly, macroeconomic stability. The Kazakh Government indicated the task of restoring the stimulating role of monetary policy and involving private capital into financing the economy. Inflation is to be reduced to 3-4% in the medium term and the financial sector should be “reset”.   

Fourthly, improving the quality of human capital. Education is the core of the new model of economic growth and should be focused on developing critical thinking abilities, skills of unaided information search, IT knowledge and financial literacy. My President noted the importance of transitioning to trilingual education. While Kazakh remains the core language, several subjects at schools will be instructed in English starting in 2019.

Apart from all of this, President Nazarbayev published on April 12th a wide-ranging policy article, ‘Course towards the future: modernisation of Kazakhstan’s identity’ outlining steps for the transformation of social norms and priorities. Basically, he proposed to modernise “the mindset of the nation” and its people. It is based on principles of competitiveness, pragmatism, preserving national identity, cult of knowledge and evolutionary, not revolutionary development of Kazakhstan, and open-mindedness.

The fifth and final institutional reform is security and the fight against corruption. Implementing the best practices and recommendations of the OECD and protecting private property, the rule of law and equality before the law will remain pivotal in the new economy model.

GDL: The Astana Expo 2017 has opened its doors with a spectacular ceremony. What are Kazakhstan’s expectations at the end of this international exposition?

AV: EXPO-2017 in Astana is a world-wide effort to address the energy challenges of the modern time and to create a more sustainable future for generations to come. This forward-thinking line to lasting stability and prosperity is consistent with Kazakhstan’s call to the UN General Assembly in 2015 for “a strategy that would eliminate for good the threat of war and its causes”. A plentiful and sustainable energy supply to all parts of the world will help create conditions for peaceful co-existence.

Kazakhstan is rich with natural resources. We are major global exporter of oil and gas, as well as uranium and other rare earth metals. Many may ask why Astana is hosting a major event that is dedicated to renewable energy. But Kazakhstan sees no contradiction between supplying today’s energy needs while also being committed to the development of sustainable and cleaner energy that will benefit future generations. The two are not mutually exclusive in our progressive vision.

After the exhibition is over, we plan to use the EXPO installations for educational purposes, for international organisations, such as the UN Green Technology Site. We are also going to have an Astana International Financial Centre, which will become the heart of green financial operations in the region and beyond. The site will continue to be a symbol of best energy practices which we can use and learn from well into the future.

 

GDL: Kazakhstan is a state located on the crossroads of civilisations in Europe and Asia. What can your country do to mend the East-West rift and encourage dialogue in order to combat the new challenges of today’s threats?

AV: Indeed, over the last few years we have seen a growth in suspicion and dividing lines between East and West. These lines have caused economic damage due to reciprocal sanctions, inflamed conflicts and increased risks that the localised disputes in which they are involved in could spiral into something much more dangerous. Even more frightening is the rise of a new breed of violent extremists whose aim is to cause as much death and destruction as they can. They are actively seeking weapons of mass destruction, which they will not hesitate to use.

This is the reality and threat that we all see in today’s modern world. International terrorism has gained a more sinister character. To fight new threats and encourage peaceful dialogue my President wrote a Manifest ‘The World. The 21st Century’ that was published during his visit and outlined in his speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2016. It is a document that amalgamates the vision of a world in which the “virus of war” has been eradicated with practical steps to achieve that vision. In what was a detailed blueprint for peace, he called, for example, for urgent action to prevent the spread of nuclear arms to space, the development of new and more dangerous weapons and the retreat into competing military blocs between East and West.

GDL: How is the pace of bilateral cooperation between Kazakhstan and Greece and are there any upcoming official contacts due to take place?

AV: On October 1st 2017 Kazakhstan and Greece will celebrate the landmark date – the 25th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. In this regard, we are planning a number of major political, economic and cultural events, including the exchange of visits and the expansion of the treaty base.

Throughout the history of our bilateral ties, we have managed to build up a solid framework of our cooperation. We have a positive experience of exchanging mutual support within the framework of international organisations. Greece supported the candidacy of Kazakhstan for the OSCE chairmanship in 2010, the non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council for 2017-2018 and the accession to a number of important conventions of the Council of Europe.

We also have a well-established Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group. We are planning to organise a next meeting of the Group before the end of the year. In addition to that there is a proposal to organise several other high-level visits of Greek government officials to Astana and Kazakh official to Athens, but it is too early to announce just yet.

GDL: What is the current level of trade relations between Kazakhstan and Greece in both the public and private sectors? Is this cooperation at a satisfactory level and what steps should be taken to encourage bilateral trade?

AV: The foundations of trade cooperation were laid during the visits of our President to Athens in July 2001 and August 2004. Last year, President Nazarbayev noted once again the significant prospects for the development of relations with Greece, aimed at enhancing the political and trade-economic interaction.

Today, we have commercial projects in such sectors as construction and engineering, medicine and rehabilitation, cosmetology. Greece is one of the markets for Kazakh goods. The basis of Kazakhstan’s exports is crude oil and crude oil products (almost 91%), obtained from bituminous rocks, the rest 9% is aluminium. From Greece, Kazakhstan imports pharmaceutical products, technical equipment, tobacco, cosmetics, kiwi and mandarins, olive oil and peaches. Unfortunately, our trade dialogue was seriously tested during the last few years. Negative impact on the volume of mutual trade was influenced by the sanctions confrontation and the world economic slowdown. Foreign trade turnover of Kazakhstan with Greece for 2016 dropped by 36.2%, making it only 886 million USD.

However, both Astana and Athens are making every effort to break this tendency and encourage bilateral trade. For instance, in September 2016 we organised a ‘Kazakhstan – Greece Business Forum’ that was attended by the two countries’ officials and over 100 business representatives. The event’s goal was to invigorate trade and economic cooperation between business circles in Kazakhstan and Greece and also to make a presentation of Kazakhstan’s Industrialisation Programme 2015-2019 to the Greek party, as well as of the package of incentives for investors, of priority sectors of the economy and to arrange meetings in a B2B format. On other hand, Greek companies also presented their propositions in the construction, pharmaceutical, medical, agriculture, machine-building and food industries.

GDL: How can the large Diaspora of the Pontian Greeks help in establishing business contacts and enhance cultural and humanitarian dialogue between Kazakhstan and Greece?

AV: In the early 1990’s, virtually 95% of the Pontian Greeks left Kazakhstan for Greece. However, about 10,000 Greeks wished to continue their life in Kazakhstan and now present a living bridge of friendship between our two countries.

Most of the Kazakh Greeks settled in northern Greece, as well as in Athens and its suburbs. Kazakh Greek repatriates in Greece (around 30,000 people) continue to keep strong ties with their relatives and friends in Kazakhstan. Our Greek compatriots always speak warmly of the years they spent in Kazakhstan and of its people, who helped them in the most difficult years of resettlements.

H.E. the Ambassador of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Alexei Volkov

We keep close contacts with our former citizens. Some of the Pontian Greeks established businesses related to trade and tourism with Kazakhstan. For instance, one of the businessmen opened a grocery shop in the Kallithea district of Athens called ‘Astana’. 

Another good example is the famous Greek opera singer Ms Elena Kelessidis, who was born and raised in Kazakhstan. She graduated from the Almaty Music Conservatory and is now a renowned opera singer in Europe and Greece. There are many other examples of good connections that Greece and Kazakhstan share.

GDL: Your Excellency, we know that you enjoy writing in your spare time; can you tell us more about that and what other hobbies you enjoy?

AV: As you know, I graduated from the history department of the Kazakh State University. Throughout the years I kept my affection for this subject and continued my personal research. The love towards history and everything that is connected with it brought me to a hobby of collecting humble antiques that present great interest to me as a historian.

 

 

Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life

 

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