By Aarti Tikoo Singh
New Delhi, Jan 13 | Kazakhstan is India’s biggest economic partner in Central Asia and a crucial strategic partner. In an interview with IANS, Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to India, Yerlan Alimbayev, explains the significance of the recently-held parliamentary elections and political reforms in his country and how it will strengthen the bilateral relationship with India.
Here are the excerpts:
Q: There was a lot of attention on Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections. How were the national polls in Kazakhstan different this time?
A: On 10th of January 2021 we’ve held parliamentary elections to the Majilis (Lower house of the Parliament). These elections were pretty vanguard not only for Kazakhstan but, I would say, the entire Commonwealth of Independent States region. First of all, the Parliamentary elections were held in the era of global COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that, the whole election process took place in line with public safety measures, such as mask wearing, social distancing, protective personal equipment etc.
Another important thing is that the polls were the first parliamentary elections since President Tokayev succeeded Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned in March 2019. The systemic and political reforms that President Tokayev’s administration has introduced since he stepped into the presidential office in June 2019, were given a chance to flourish in the major elections.
The reforms include a 30 per cent quota for women and youth in the party list, the welcoming of a culture of opinion and opposition, and the formation of a parliamentary opposition institute. The last elections for the Majilis were in March 2016.
My sincere gratitude to the Indian election observers who were represented as a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization team and Indian Embassy in Nur-Sultan, who also visited some polling stations as observers.
Given that Kazakhstan and India are strategic partners, I truly believe that further evolutionary democratisation processes will strengthen our bonds even closer. The renewed composition of the Kazakh parliament will focus on quality legislative support for social and economic reforms in the country.
Q: How has the relationship between India and Kazakhstan evolved since 1992?
A: India has historic relations with Central Asia and Kazakhstan holds a special place in the region. Our bilateral relations are growing and expanding every year. Diplomatic relations were officially established in 1992. In 29 years, the President of Kazakhstan visited India five times and Indian Prime Ministers visited Kazakhstan five times. Leaders of our countries meet on annual basis, including multilateral platforms like UN and SCO.
Relations between India and Kazakhstan have exhibited considerable dynamism and momentum over this period. India was one of the first countries to recognise Kazakhstan as a free, sovereign state after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
First President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev chose India to be the first foreign country for a state visit in February, 1992 after the independence. This decision demonstrated the deep respect and admiration in which Nazarbayev and the Kazakh people hold India as a country endowed with a glorious past, having a vibrant present and blessed with a bright future. This visit was followed by a regular exchange of visits and meetings at the highest political level as well as at ministerial and official levels.
In 2009, cooperation between our countries was brought to a higher level by signing the Declaration on Strategic Partnership. At present we are working on arranging the first state visit of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2021 as soon as the situation with the pandemic stabilises.
Currently, Kazakhstan is India’s main trade partner in Central Asia. The bilateral trade turnover exceeds the total trade turnover of India with the rest of the states of the region and equals to $2.3 billion as of 11 months of 2020.
However, the full potential of this partnership has not been realised. The reasons are internal, regional as well as international. An exciting window of opportunity beckons the two countries to take the partnership to a qualitatively newer and higher level. There is a need for the governments, corporates, business representatives, academia, civil society and the common people of Kazakhstan and India to actively play their roles in order to achieve the full potential in cooperation between our countries.
Both Kazakhstan and India stand today at the threshold of what promises to be a new, more dynamic and vibrant phase in their relations.
Q: Indian exports to Kazakhstan have remained lower than Kazakhstan’s exports to India. Which are the areas in which this trade deficit can improve?
A: Kazakhstan is India’s main economic partner in Central Asia. As a result of the work carried out by our countries, the trade turnover in January-November 2020 reached $2.3 billion. The main export goods from Kazakhstan to India are: crude oil, uranium, silver, ferroalloys, hydrogen, inert gases and other non-metals, asbestos, steel, titanium and other metals. In turn, India exports to Kazakhstan medicines, refractory ceramic building materials, telephone sets, equipment for sorting and grinding soil, tea, medical devices and devices, vaccines, blood serums, nitrogen heterocyclic compounds.
We have six Joint Working Groups in the economic areas: on trade and economic cooperation, textile industry, IT, military-technical cooperation, science & technology, transport and logistics. We also have the Kazakhstan-India Business Council which serves as a great instrument for cooperation. We are working on institutionalisation of cooperation in space and medico-pharmaceutical spheres as well.
There is a need to implement joint national and regional projects with India in the field of medicine, pharmaceuticals, new technologies and finance using the capabilities of the International Technology Park of IT Startups ‘Astana Hub’ and the Astana International Financial Center. One of the measures to balance the trade deficit is the signing of a Free Trade Agreement between India and the Eurasian Economic Union and its member states. At the moment the document is under consideration by the parties.
In general, it is expected that the future agreement will cover such issues as rules for determining the country of origin of goods, measures to protect the internal market, technical barriers to trade, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, customs procedures and trade facilitation, intellectual property, competition, public procurement, e-commerce, and sectoral cooperation. These measures will increase mutual trade in many sectors of the economy, as well as balance the trade deficit caused by India’s imports of oil and petroleum products from Kazakhstan.
Q: India and Kazakhstan have been talking about a defence deal. What’s the status on our defence cooperation?
A: An indicator of high cooperation in the military-technical sphere between Kazakhstan and India is the implementation of joint peacekeeping activities within the framework of the UN Mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL). In August 2020, the fourth rotation of the Kazakhstan peacekeeping contingent as part of Indbat took place. Currently, the Indian side has confirmed the extension of the fifth rotation of the Kazakhstan peacekeeping unit (February-August 2021).
At the same time, there is a high potential for further increasing cooperation between our countries in the military-technical field. On an ongoing basis, the leadership of the defence departments of Kazakhstan and India, as well as leading military-industrial companies, take part in military exhibitions of both countries. In particular, ‘Kadex-2018’, ‘AeroIndia-2019’, and ‘DefExpo-2020’.
Q: How crucial is Iran’s Chabahar port for strengthening of trade relations of Kazakhstan and India?
A: Central Asia is a unique region connecting all four parts of the Eurasian continent. Since ancient times, this region has provided the shortest route between Europe and Asia. Today, the Central Asian territory has become an important link in the land corridor connecting the East (China) and the West (Europe) due to the railway crossings opened through the Dostyk and Khorgos stations, the Khorgos Dry Port, as well as the expansion of Aktau and Kuryk ports.
The next stage in the transit potential development of Central Asia should be the formation of the Central-Asian transport and transit economic corridor ‘North-South’ through the territory of Kazakhstan to connect Central and South Asia with the richest regions of Europe, the Urals, Siberia and the Far East. It so happened that almost all available transport corridors have a strongly marked geopolitical effect.
Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian countries, is a continental-landlocked country that does not have access to the seas and seaports. And this is an obstacle in mutual trade between Kazakhstan and India, creates difficulties for our economy, especially in terms of cargo transportation of goods.
It is cheaper to deliver products to their destination by sea than by land transport. In this context, the project being implemented in Chabahar presents favourable prospects. Many business representatives of Kazakhstan had to abandon the supply of products and raw materials from India only because of the lack of cheap and optimal delivery routes.
In this regard, the Kazakh side offered India services for the organisation of a multimodal logistics service from Kazakhstan and Central Asian countries through Iran to India with optimal delivery times. Proposals were also presented to conduct a joint study on the development of the Central Asian transport and transit economic Corridor ‘North-South’.
We hope that in the near future all relevant issues will be resolved and we will all witness the implementation of this project, which will certainly lead to the strengthening of trade and economic ties between Kazakhstan and India.