ASTANA – The Netherlands is Kazakhstan’s largest foreign investor and the third largest trading partner in Europe. Yet, the country’s new ambassador in Astana thinks there’s much more that can be done to expand trade and investment ties further, and to bring the two countries closer together.
“First, I want to double the number of Dutch businesses in Kazakhstan,” said Ambassador Hans Driesser as he outlined priorities for his term in Astana in an exclusive interview with The Astana Times. “Currently, we have more that 60 Dutch companies working in Kazakhstan. About 40 of them are based in Almaty. That number must be doubled. We would like to see more Dutch businesses in Astana as well.”
“Second, I want to double the number of Kazakh students studying in the Netherlands, and young politicians and governmental officers we interact with by having a programme for them in Holland. There is a strong and steady flow already, but I want to double it,” he continued. “In 2016, I will be 65 and my term will probably have finished, but I will still work towards this goal: I hope to take part in EXPO 2017, which is my third goal. I want to see a considerable amount of Dutch businesses from all sectors of the economy participating in EXPO 2017, not only as representation, but as permanent fixtures in Kazakhstan.”
Such expectations are based on both solid economic fundamentals and assessment of the two countries’ potentials and mutually combining interests. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s upcoming visit to The Hague at the end of March should give a major boost to efforts to develop relations across the board.
In 2012, the Netherlands-based companies invested $8.5 billion in Kazakhstan, more than 30 percent of the total foreign direct investment that year. The two countries have enjoyed stable growth in bilateral trade, consisting mainly of oil, chemicals and machinery. In 2012, imports from the Netherlands to Kazakhstan reached $286 million, while exports from Kazakhstan to the Netherlands surged to $7.3 billion. The year of 2013 showed similar trends.
“The bulk of trade consists of Dutch oil imports; a variety of products including machinery and specialised services also occupy a large share of trade from the Dutch side,” said Driesser, who arrived in Astana in November 2013. “Such services mainly pertain to agriculture and water management. And, of course, Shell is here and I would call it the trailblazer of Dutch investments and exports.”
Speaking of potential new areas for cooperation, the Dutch ambassador listed water management, both in the energy fields and in municipal settings, as well as agriculture, including both horticulture and animal husbandry.
“In terms of agriculture, greenhouses are key,” he said. “I had a meeting with the [Kazakh] minister of agriculture and we went over our existing cooperation efforts. The Dutch greenhouse company Dalsem is working on some greenhouse projects south of Almaty. And an egg and chicken farm near Almaty is also a major ongoing project.”
All of the areas of cooperation are expected to be reviewed and explored further during the visit by President Nazarbayev to The Hague on the eve of the March 24-25 Nuclear Security Summit which is expected to bring together more than 50 heads of state and government and leaders of international organizations.
The Dutch are preparing to welcome the Kazakh President with the audience with King Willem-Alexander, a meeting with Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a round table discussion with business leaders and a presentation of the Dutch expertise in green economy, the ambassador said noting the close involvement in the minutiae of the visit by his Kazakh counterpart in The Hague, Mainura Murzamadiyeva. According to Driesser, only a few heads of state will have the same reception afforded to them prior and during the summit.
A few memorandums of understanding on agriculture are to be signed during the visit, according to the ambassador. Other memorandums to be further negotiated and possibly signed cover areas such as space cooperation, establishing a business council and cooperating on environmental management. The ambassador sees great potential in Kazakhstan’s efforts to diversify foreign investments in the country, including in light of the Kazakhstan 2050 strategy.
“Holland is small. We export, as we must. For instance, 40 years ago all roses came from greenhouses in Holland, but not anymore because Holland invested in Africa, especially Ethiopia, and is now exporting from Ethiopia through Amsterdam to New York, China and, yes, Kazakhstan. That is what I call an investment. We are very interested to see similar things happen in Kazakhstan,” Driesser said.
“Kazakhstan is a very rich country. You have wide open spaces and plenty of land, but on the other hand, the distances are a challenge. There are 17 million residents, like in Holland, but your country is about sixty times bigger. So as they say, from stable to table, from acre to baker in every element of the expression, I think the Dutch can advise on and maybe execute projects.”
The Netherlands and Kazakhstan see eye to eye as far as nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament are concerned, the ambassador continued.
“[Nuclear responsibility] is one of the biggest challenges of our time,” he said. “We are small players.There are some big ones out there, but when working together, we small players become big. On the bilateral level, we have worked on nuclear waste cleanup, but we need to do our utmost in a variety of issues to tackle and address nuclear issues, including spreading awareness,” he said.
The ambassador found Kazakhstan’s nuclear heritage “striking” and stressed the importance of initiatives such as The ATOM Project, describing it as “appealing and moving.” “We need to constantly have this on the agenda. We are on the same page here. We need to raise more awareness!” he said.
The Dutch as a seafaring nation have been to many places around the world, the ambassador explained, yet but to an average Dutch citizen, Kazakhstan is still an unknown territory.
“Our foreign minister’s visit to Astana in early February and your president’s visit in March will help spread knowledge about Kazakhstan and are good first steps in Kazakhstan’s attempts to market itself in the Netherlands,” Driesser said as he went on to explain his views on what the country’s strong selling points are or should be.
“Kazakhstan is a good country in the making,” the ambassador said. “Everybody [in the West] understands where you are coming from and you make quite an impression.”
“Your president once had a dream; now look around and here it is: Astana. This city is amazing. Astana is not a paradise,but what was here even 10 years ago? It is a starting point. Then, Kazakhstan is a developing, emerging market.You have everything the world needs in the soil: oil, gas, uranium, you name it, the whole periodic table of elements is here in the ground. You are the ninth largest country in the world and your location is strategic: it is not land-locked, but land-linked in the heartland of Asia, the continent of the future. You are coming from a difficult, moving history, which is also a rich one.”
“You can be honest about the transition process.You can say, we are coming from point A and moving ahead and there are uncertainties.There are challenges in the fight against corruption. We all know this. Another challenge is in stovepipe bureaucracy. Don’t deny it, but put it on the table and continue demonstrating leadership with ambition: by 2050, Kazakhs want to find themselves in the top 30 developed countries in the world. Say there is quite a long road ahead of us, but we are ambitious!”
Asked about the news about potentially renaming Kazakhstan Kazakh Eli as another step the country can make to improve its international standings, Driesser said such news hit even Holland. “My reaction to that news was a very simple one: Let the Kazakh people decide,” he explained.
This past winter was the first Astana winter in the ambassador’s long career. Previously, he held the post of project manager in the reorganising of the Dutch diplomatic network’s economic efforts. Before that, he served as head of the defense support section at the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands to NATO in Brussels. Having graduated from the University of Leiden (Dutch Law) in 1974, the ambassador has spent most of his career in diplomacy.
Driesser has also learned to adapt to new environments, and he was well prepared for Astana winters. “I thought to myself, ‘I am a Dutchman! Bring it on!’ So, some Sundays were quite cold, and I could only walk for about an hour outside. But what is the problem?”
The ambassador is not going to limit himself to working in Astana, though, and is planning to go around the country, including to Atyrau to meet the largest Dutch community in Kazakhstan consisting of some 250 citizens, and Almaty, with 70 Dutch nationals.
“I have plans to travel even more as I realise that Astana is not typical Kazakhstan and that Almaty has much more to offer, as well as Shymkent and Turkestan and other cities,” Driesser said.
Coming from a country famous for its omnipresent bicycle culture, the Dutchman lamented the lack of bicycle racks and specially designated lanes on Astana roads. But, he said, once the snow melts, he and his wife will be the first to hit the road on their bicycles.