ASTANA – December marks a quarter century of diplomatic relations between Kazakhstan and Latvia. To highlight the anniversary, Latvian Ambassador Jurijs Pogrebņaks spoke about what has been reached and what is ahead for both countries.
“I would like to congratulate all the people of Kazakhstan on last year’s 25th anniversary of independence and congratulate all friends of Latvia in Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan’s friends in Latvia on the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. And it is only the beginning,” he said in an interview with The Astana Times.
“We share some common pages of history. Perhaps it gives us additional opportunities to understand each other better, to develop the political dialogue and to respect our different cultures,” he added.
All five Latvian presidents have visited Kazakhstan in the last 25 years, two during the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit and Astana EXPO 2017. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Latvia in 2006.
“And there is an open invitation to President Nazarbayev to visit Latvia again,” added the ambassador.
The visits have given strong support to various relations between the countries.
“In parallel, we have established everyday working relations between the governments. We have an intergovernmental commission, which is meeting regularly. We have established a special mechanism of cooperation between the business circles of both states, which is the business council. In general, it gives a very good base. I have to mention the wide legal basis and the agreements we have concluded between the states. It gives a legal platform for cooperation in all the spheres of our bilateral relationships starting with political dialogue, but also including business, cultural and educational exchanges,” said Pogrebņaks.
The diplomat noted the cooperation between the countries is developingh not only on a bilateral level, but also on the international one.
“Latvia, being a member of the European Union since 2004, recently held the Presidency of the EU Council [in 2015] and one of the priorities in foreign policy was to help European relationships with Central Asia and Kazakhstan in particular. I should remind you that during our presidency, the institution of the EU special representative for Central Asia was re-established and reintroduced. During 2015, the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was signed between the EU and Kazakhstan and Latvia was the first EU member to ratify the agreement,” he said.
Pogrebņaks emphasised this shows Kazakhstan has a very good friend within the EU.
“After 2015, we continued to be active within Central Asia and making EU policy towards the region and we consider that the EU’s new foreign policy strategy should pay additional attention to the Central Asian region and it should be properly tackled in the strategy as well,” he noted.
Latvia is the newest member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and can offer its experience to Kazakhstan, which is seeking to become a member of the organisation in the future, he added.
Latvia is a leading partner in the EU’s Border Management Programme in Central Asia (BOMCA), which has started its ninth phase since its founding in 2004. BOMCA is led by Latvia in cooperation with consortium partners Hungary, Lithuania and Portugal.
“This is the first time when our countries are using not only EU money for the project, but also providing their own financial instruments,” he said.
Latvia currently has two embassies in the region – in the Kazakh capital and in Tashkent. Few EU countries have more than one.
Kazakhstan is Latvia’s main trading partner in the Central Asia region. According to Latvian data, last year’s turnover was 122.6 million Euros (US$145 million), which included both products and services.
“Services take a bigger part and this shows that it is already modern business relations, because in modern society services provide additional value to the old relationships. Of services, the first place goes to transportation. The tourism sector and commerce services are also growing within the service package,” said Pogrebņaks.
Latvia exports food products, electronics, mechanisms, transport and tractors and chemical industry products, including pharmaceuticals, to Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan exports mostly agricultural products, including canola (rapeseed), melons and watermelons, as well as metals.
Data for the first half of 2017 shows trade increased 20.9 percent compared to the previous year. More than 60 Latvian companies are registered in Kazakhstan, while more than 200 Kazakh companies are in Latvia.
Latvia seeks to strengthen cooperation in traditional areas, such as transportations and logistics, which “pays special attention both in bilateral relations and in multinational context to develop a connection between Asia and Europe in general,” said the ambassador.
“We can play bigger roles in providing these connections between two parts of the continent or fostering trans-Eurasian transportation. The visit of Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis to Astana during the expo and Kazakhstan’s First Deputy Prime Minister Askar Mamin’s visit to Riga at the end of September gave new impetus for the cooperation in the transit and transport spheres,” he noted.
“The first container train was launched from the Chinese province of Urumqi though Khorgos dry port to Riga’s seaport and further on to Western Europe, and we see great potential in the cooperation of the railway connections in the future as well. As you know, we can provide the distribution of goods for the Baltic region and Scandinavia,” he added.
The nations are also cooperating in green economy.
“We are ready and our organisations and ministries have already been getting initial contacts for the past year and a half and are starting to develop possible cooperation within water management, energy sufficiency, soil treatment, waste recycling and restoration of the forests,” said Pogrebņaks.
Information technologies and communication is the fastest growing industry within the Latvian economy and also an area where the country is looking to expand ties.
“During the last three months, we had good progress in working on some bilateral projects. The memorandum of cooperation between the two related ministries is under the process of preparation,” he said.
Latvia also sees an additional possibility to enhance cooperation in education. The number of Kazakh students in Latvian universities continues to grow, reaching 358 last year.
Information technologies, communication and the space industry are other directions for cooperation.
“We don’t have a big space industry such as in Kazakhstan, but we have niches where we can provide additional added value to the industry here as well. It can be about programming issues or application issues, because we cooperate with the European Space Agency. We have six drone producers. They specifically designed drones for the sports competitions,” he said.
As for the priorities of his term, Pogrebņaks noted in addition to developing all existing and possible fields of cooperation, he would also like the two countries to learn more about each other’s culture, history and traditions.
To mark the anniversary, the Latvian envoy will deliver a lecture on diplomatic relationships at Eurasian National University. The embassy will soon launch an exhibit dedicated to Latvian achievements in the 20th-21th centuries, including Minox cameras, the heart drug Meldonium, drones, JZ microphones and citric acid. A bigger exhibition is planned next year as part of Latvia’s centenary.
The exchanges between Riga and Astana as sister cities are contributing to the Latvian-Kazakh relationships, said Pogrebņaks. Air Baltic, the country’s national carrier, is planning to re-establish direct connections between the two states next spring which is meant to link even more closely the people of Latvia and Kazakhstan.