Kazakhstan-Azerbaijan: Strategic Partnership with Deep Roots, Huge Potential

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Kazakh Ambassador to Baku, Mr. Serzhan Abdykarimov, in an exclusive interview for the Azeri Observer Magazine, speaks about the latest contacts between the two countries at different levels and the agenda for 2021. He recounts what transport infrastructure has been created in Kazakhstan over the last years, explains how it can help both countries to unleash their huge transport potential, and how the liberation of the occupied territories can contribute to this process. In addition, he talks on the interest of Kazakh investors in Azerbaijan and multiple cultural exchanges between the two countries.

BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

Q.: Kazakhstan has made extraordinary progress over the last few years. Not only has it been able to preserve peace, security and stability in the country but has emerged as a noteworthy economic and political actor in the Central Asian and CIS region. Could you give us a brief outline of the main achievements of your country?

A.: First of all, I would like to mention that in the year of 2021, Kazakhstan, just like Azerbaijan, celebrates the 30th anniversary of its independence in our new historic reality. Over the years, our country has carried a number of large-scale, socio-economic and political reforms, which have brought the country to the path of sustainable development and allowed it to enter the Top-50 competitive countries in the world in 2012.The crucial role in the formation of the sovereign Kazakhstan belongs to our First President, Elbasy (Ed. note: the title meaning “Leader of the Nation”), Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev. His insightful, out-of-the-box thought process, with a clear strategic view of the country’s long-term development, along with the ability to defend his point and readiness to assume responsibility, are intrinsic features of strong personalities, which any country and nation need at critical and turning points in history.

Thanks to their open and pragmatic policy, the country has all the modern technology they need with more than $320 billion in foreign direct investments, and continues working on the diversification, digitalization and transition to green economy. Kazakhstan ranks 25th in the Ease of doing business index, a middle class and national entrepreneurship has been created, and the well-being of the citizens has significantly improved. Our youth had an opportunity to study in the world’s best universities with the support of the Bolashak (Future) state program, and they formed a national business management elite. Kazakhstan has turned into a transport and logistics hub of global importance, which significantly enhances its economic potential.

Our country has been conducting a peaceful foreign policy since the very beginning. Having closed the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site [Ed. note: located on the steppe in northeast Kazakhstan] and giving up the world’s fourth-largest nuclear potential, Kazakhstan has positioned itself as a responsible member of the world community. Thanks to the constructive proposals in this area, our country was internationally recognized as a leader in the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament initiative. We have also become an impartial mediator in the negotiations on Syria and other conflicts.

Our country has chaired the UN Security Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia; and significantly contributes to the development of interreligious dialogue, in addition to partaking in international peacekeeping operations.

For the first time in our national history, our country has its state borders legally defined by international agreements. With the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea signed in 2018, we finally determined our borders not only on land, but also in the sea. Despite the gloomy forecasts at the dawn of independence, Kazakhstan was able to ensure national unity based on the equality and interethnic and interfaith harmony for 120 ethnic groups living in the country, including 140,000 diaspora Azerbaijanis, and 17 religious confessions. The model of peace and social harmony, which is in the DNA of our political culture, was internationally recognized as a benchmark of the harmonious development of society. Finally, we built a new capital in the heart of Eurasia, which is a symbol of the modern Kazakhstan’s achievements.

A lot has been done over a relatively short historical period. We have to work hard to ensure Kazakhstan continually provides the most effective response to the new challenges and threats in a rapidly changing world along with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In this regard, the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, initiated comprehensive socio-economic and political reforms designed to modernizing the economy and state, and further democratize our multiethnic society, and he works hard on their implementation.

Q.: Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan relations are always characterized as a strategic partnership based on mutual understanding. As the Ambassador of Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan, what vision do you hold and cooperation you seek to further strengthen these relations?

A.: It is true that Kazakhstan and Azerbaijani are strategic partners. I would add that our relations are based on warm relations between our leaders, centuries-long friendship, common history, language and culture. The developed humanitarian interaction between our countries clearly demonstrates the spiritual closeness of the two nations. In the political sphere, we don’t have any problems either and usually reach a compromise and understanding on a variety of issues. As for the economic cooperation, I believe that the volume of our mutual trade and business exchanges is still insufficient for two bordering states, as we are (if we don’t consider the Caspian Sea between us). There is a great potential for expanding mutual trade and interregional ties, creating joint ventures, so we have to make joint efforts to fully unleash it.

Q.: Has the bilateral cooperation somehow been affected by the coronavirus pandemic? What measures does the Embassy take to sustain bilateral ties in this new reality?

A.: It undoubtedly had some impact. The frequency of the bilateral contacts has decreased at all levels; our trade turnover fell by 38% in 2020. Ordinary people were deprived of the opportunity to travel to each other. The virus has become quite a serious challenge, not only for Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan – the quarantine restrictions have been imposed in every country around the world. The meetings have gone digital; trade operations, cultural and humanitarian projects are carried out with quarantine restrictions in mind. There is no doubt that it cannot substitute real-life communication, but, unfortunately, this is all we can afford in this difficult period. I really hope that the start of the mass vaccinations in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, the economic recovery kick-started by stimulus measures, and a slowdown in the spread of the coronavirus will allow us to restore the volume of our cooperation, and then gradually bring it to a new higher lever. It is not just our desire – we see the readiness of our Azerbaijani partners to jointly boost the bilateral cooperation as well.

Q.: The energy sector is extremely important for the economies of both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Tell us about the partnership in this area.

A.: The energy sector definitely fills an important place in our bilateral relations. The energy ministers are the co-chairs of the Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Cooperation, which testifies the prominence of this area. Inter-ministerial working groups are constantly working, and some joint projects are under implementation. In August 2020, Energy Ministers, Nurlan Nogayev and Parviz Shahbazov discussed the preparations for the 17th meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission, interaction between our countries within OPEC+ and other industry issues. Moreover, in October last year, the Deputy Energy Ministers’ considered transportation and transit of hydrocarbons and oil products at the second meeting of the working group, which was also online.

A successful example of a mutually beneficial cooperation was the agreement between the national companies, KazMunayGas and SOCAR, in 2019 on the transfer of the Satti jack-up floating drilling rig to Azerbaijan. It is expected that it will be put in operation by the end of 2021 and used in projects in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea.

Our countries also enjoy effective interaction within multilateral structures. During the online meeting, the Energy Ministers highly appreciated our cooperation within OPEC+. Joint efforts and work in the organization allowed us to minimize the negative consequences of the pandemic for the national economies and contribute to the stabilization of the world energy prices.

Projects in alternative energy also seem promising. Azerbaijan shows potential in this area, and measures aimed at its development and legal framework improvement in the country, arouse interest among Kazakhstani companies. I think that we have every opportunity to implement joint projects in alternative and renewable energy in the future, which is mentioned in the bilateral documents.

Q.: Our countries are committed to the development of their enormous transit potential. What are the latest joint achievements in this sphere?

A.: The advantageous location of the two states along the Great Silk Road predetermined their important role in the goods transportation between Asia and Europe. Moreover, the Caucasian route passing through Azerbaijan opens up an alternative route to Europe for us, and Azerbaijan, in turn, enters the markets of Central Asia and China, through our territory. Transit, transport and logistics cooperation is one of the drivers of the bilateral trade and economic ties. Our countries make great efforts to build, modernize, expand and diversify their transit transport potential and logistics.

In recent years, Kazakhstan has done a lot in the transport sphere – we have modernized and built new railway lines connecting the Chinese border with the Caspian Sea, completed the construction of the Western Europe-Western China, six-lane 2,700 km long, transcontinental highway, expanded the port of Aktau, and launched a new modern ferry complex in Kuryk. The total capacity of the seaports of Aktau and Kuryk hits 26 million tons.

Azerbaijan also modernizes its transport and logistics infrastructure, and renews its merchant fleet, which is the largest one in the Caspian Sea. Just recently, we witnessed the launch of two modern vessels– Akademik Zarifa Aliyeva and Azerbaijan, built at the Baku shipyard. The network of Azerbaijan’s railways is also modernized. Your country develops the international transport network within trans-regional corridors. Moreover, the opening of new transport routes in the region, which became possible thanks to the restoration of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, will significantly enhance the transit role and attractiveness of our countries.

Ferry traffic between the commercial sea ports of Kuryk (Aktau) and Alat (Baku) is an important segment of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TCITR) and a huge achievement of the two countries in the issue of the transit potential development. Kazakhstan intends to expand the capabilities of the Aktau and Kuryk seaports. Despite the pandemic, in 2020, the Kazakh seaports handled 19% more cargo to Azerbaijan compared to 2019. The majority of transit cargos fell on rail and sea transport, which demonstrates a high demand for this route, and ferry transportation in particular.

Among the achievements, I also would like to mention a Cooperation Agreement between Kazakhstan Temir Zholy [Ed. note: Kazakh railways], Port Kuryk and Kaspi Grain Way [Ed. note: Kazakh grain warehousing and storage company] on the construction of a new terminal in the port of Kuryk with a capacity of 1 million tons. The terminal is scheduled to be launched in 2022. We expect that the terminal will ensure an increase in the export of grain crops from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan and further to other countries.

In addition, we have increased the capacities of container cargo transportation. Since this year, a feeder vessel, “Beket Ata” transports containers between the ports of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan four times per month. Moreover, we are constantly working on the development of modern infrastructure and attractive tariffs.

Q.: How does our bilateral trade change year-over-year? Can the Kazakhstani Trade House, opened several months ago in Baku, contribute to its expansion?

A.: The trade between our countries has been at a respectable level over the past 5-6 years. However, in 2020, it fell by 38% compared to 2019 to $142 million due to the aforementioned reasons. Therefore, our goal is to restore and increase the trade volume, and expand the range of goods supplied to each other’s markets. For this purpose, last year the Trade House of Kazakhstan was opened in Azerbaijan, which is a platform helping to expand trade and economic ties, where the business circles of the two countries can meet and organize presentations and exhibitions of goods and services. During the quarantine regime, the Trade House conducts online negotiations with Kazakhstani manufacturers and local distributors, and has signed Memorandums of Cooperation with the QazTrade agency [Ed. note: Kazakhstan’s Center for Trade Policy Development], KazakhExport Export Insurance Company, and the Chamber of International Commerce of Kazakhstan. When direct flights are resumed, the Trade House, with the support of the Embassy, will host a Kazakhstani products exhibition in Baku. We also propose to create a Kazakhstan-Azerbaijan Business Council to strengthen economic cooperation, develop recommendations for the state institutions of two countries and solve actual issues and problems.

We continue supplying Kazakhstani freight electric locomotives and grain to Azerbaijan. In late 2020, 50 Azerbaijani companies learned about the activities and infrastructure of the Seaport Aktau, tax and customs preferences of this Special Economic Zone, and the prospects of its development during an online presentation. It is where Azerbaijani Azersun Holding already operates a logistics center and another Azerbaijani company, ATEF builds a transformers and cables plant. Companies of the two countries are involved in the construction and modernization of highways and railways in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. I am sure that all ongoing work and the implementation of the agreements will contribute to an increase in the bilateral trade in the future.

Q.: What spheres of Azerbaijani economy are the most attractive for Kazakh investors?

A.: Our countries have established a good legal framework for the investment activities and development of the non-primary sector. Open, sustainable and predictable conditions were created for foreign capital, which can enjoy support at different levels.

As for the Kazakhstani investments in Azerbaijan, we have witnessed an increase in recent years. According to the Azerbaijan Export and Investment Promotion Foundation (AZPROMO), in 2019-2020 alone, they amounted to about $100 million. There are 145 companies with Kazakh capital registered in Azerbaijan, mainly engaged in industry, construction, trade, agriculture, transport and services. The interest of Kazakhstani investors results from the favorable business climate, existing benefits and preferences and favorable working conditions in the industrial and economic zones and agricultural parks in Azerbaijan.

Q.: Do you think that Kazakh businesses can be interested in investing in the Azerbaijani liberated regions?

A.: During a telephone conversation between our Presidents in December 2020, Kazakh companies were invited to participate in the restoration of the liberated territories. A number of our companies have already showed their interest and willingness to contribute to this process, both as investors and contractors. Their proposals were sent to Azerbaijan’s state bodies. We are currently working with the Economy Ministry and other Azerbaijan’s institutions to obtain all the necessary technical information for our companies. Such respected companies as Uni Assistance, Skymax Technologies, BI Group, are among them. Uni Assistance, for example, has solid experience in the Smart City development and it was involved in the implementation of the Smart City concept in the city of Akkol, creation of the Center for Operational Management under Kazakhstan’s Internal Ministry. This company proposed to organize a Smart Qarabag forum in Azerbaijan, which would develop a comprehensive Smart City QARABAG concept. The Skymax Technologies company provides professional services in the civil aviation modern infrastructure, and has constructed and reconstructed more than 30 airports in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. BI Group is the largest construction company in Kazakhstan and the region. These firms don’t just bring their own investments, but also help to attract foreign investors and international financial institutions. There are more companies in Kazakhstan that are interested to become both investors and contractors in the region. I hope that when proposals from the Economy Ministry of Azerbaijan on the projects in the liberated territories are received, this issue will become a reality.

Q.: Do you expect any bilateral events and meetings by the end of 2021? If yes, what will be on the agenda?

A.: We have specific plans and intend to intensify work in all areas of the bilateral cooperation in 2021, in order to make up for the time lost due to quarantine. The agenda includes visits and events at various levels in the political and economic spheres, as well as the signing of a number of documents, which should give a significant impetus to enhancing cooperation. We expect the resumption of contacts between the Azerbaijani-Kazakh inter-parliamentary friendship group. As I already mentioned, we are aimed at resumption of a full-scale economic cooperation, mutual trade, expansion of the range of goods supplied to each other’s markets, and organization of business missions. We also plan a number of cultural and humanitarian projects that were postponed because of the pandemic. The implementation of all these plans will depend on the epidemiological situation in our countries.

Q.: Could you tell us about latest cultural and humanitarian exchanges between our countries?  Can we expect any more projects in these spheres in the near future?

A.: The cultural cooperation is traditionally one of the most important qualitative indicators of our bilateral relations. Therefore, the cultural interaction of our countries is a clear indicator of the spiritual closeness and high extent of mutual understanding and friendship between Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. We annually implement or participate in a number of projects – both bilateral and multilateral under the aegis of the International Organization of Turkic Culture, International Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation, the International Turkic Academy, etc. – aimed at the further rapprochement of the two nations. For example, last year we celebrated the 175th anniversary of our famous philosopher and poet, Abai Kunanbayev. The celebration started with a concert and presentation of new books by Kazakh writers, translated to Azerbaijani language, organized with the support of the International Turkic Academy at Baku State University, in Jan. 2020.

In August, a memorial plaque was reinstalled in Abai Kunanbayev street in Baku, and the International Organization of Turkic Culture, organized an international video conference on the occasion of his anniversary, where the book, “Abai Kunanbayev” in the Azerbaijani language by Professor of the Azerbaijan’s Pedagogical University, E. Guliyev was presented. The book includes the most famous works by the Kazakh poet. Moreover, the International Turkic Academy presented a book by Azerbaijani publicist and journalist, A. Eyvazova,at the international online conference, “Abai and the 21st Century: Continuity over Time.” I also want to mention such writers as Elkhan Zal Karakhanly, Ibrahim Ilyasli and Nariman Abdulrahmanli, who contributed to the celebration of the Abai’s 175th anniversary by publishing his books in Azerbaijani language on their own. In December 2020, the Embassy hosted a presentation of a book by famous literary scholar, Nizami Mammadov-Tagisoy, “Work of Mukhtar Auezov: from tradition to innovation” in Azerbaijani. In January 2021, Azerbaijani researchers of Abai’s works were awarded with “Abai 175 years” medals and diplomas of the International Organization of Turkic Culture at the Embassy. The projects implemented under the International Organization of Turkic Culture, the International Turkic Academy and the International Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation contribute to the popularization of cultural values of the Turkic world, and bring our people closer.

We also focus on the cooperation in education and science. In September 2020, an agreement was signed between the Baku State University and the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University on the double degree program in the Master’s course in Maritime and Energy Law. In October 2020, Kazakhstan’s, Zhetysu University named after Ilyas Zhansugurov and Baku State University signed an agreement on mutual cooperation.

On our initiative, Kazakhstan’s National Resort Association signed Memorandums of Cooperation with the Naftalan Resort and the Duzdag Physiological Center in Nakhchivan, which will increase the mutual flow of medical and health tourists.

In addition, we created a digital library of the works by Kazakh writers and Kazakh literature, translated to the Azerbaijani language, and plan to open a section of Kazakh literature and history in Azerbaijan’s Central Scientific Library. We also continue to work on establishing sister relations between the regions of our countries, including Nakhchivan.

Finally, we plan to hold round tables dedicated to the 30th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence and the 30th anniversary of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site’s closure, and celebrate the 175th anniversary of Kazakh poet, Dzhambul Dzhabayev, and the 180th anniversary of educator and enlightener, Ybyrai Altynsarin.

The year of 2022 will mark the 30th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between our countries. On this occasion, we initiated a documentary film and a book, which will cover the history of the bilateral cooperation over this period.

Q.: How do you like to live and work in Azerbaijan?

A.: You know, the hospitality, empathy and openness of the Azerbaijani people are very similar to the Kazakh mentality. Therefore, I didn’t have a feeling that I was in a foreign country when I moved to Baku. I have already visited Nakhchivan, Ganja, Sheki – one of the most beautiful cities of Azerbaijan, which is rightfully called the country’s architectural reserve. I also visited Gabala – an absolutely unique city, which in addition is the host of the annual international music festival of classical music, jazz and mugham. During the winter, I was lucky to become acquainted with the Shahdag Ski Complex and the national health resort in Naftalan. All these places really made an impression. Of course, one cannot forget to mention Baku, which has its own energy, charm and allure. On weekends, I especially like to stroll along the Baku Seaside Boulevard, go down to Torgovaya Street [Ed. note: unofficial name of the central street of Fountain Square], or dive into the historical atmosphere of Icheri Sheher [Ed. note: old city]. I like to try various dishes of the Azerbaijani cuisine – they are very tasty and create the mood perfectly. The most important thing for me, is that everywhere in Azerbaijan, I clearly feel that I am in a fraternal country for Kazakhstan. I am very grateful to the Azerbaijani people for it.