ASTANA – Hungary and Kazakhstan are geographically distant from each other. Hungary is in Central Europe and Kazakhstan is in Central Asia, but they share common traits, traditions and customs bestowed upon them by their nomadic ancestors, which bodes very well for the future development of multifaceted ties between the two nations, Hungary’s ambassador in Astana said.
The Hungarians’ nomadic past has strong links to Western Kazakhstan, according to Ambassador Imre Laszlóczki, who assumed office in November 2010.
More recently, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, during his visit in 2012, called President Nursultan Nazarbayev his older brother. This is not the only time relations between the two nations have been described as brotherly.
“In May 2013, when Hungarian economic minister Mihály Varga met with Kazakh Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov during the Astana Economic Forum, the two passionately discussed how to properly cook and serve sheep’s head, alongside other important issues,” the ambassador told The Astana Times.
The ambassador explained that Kazakhs and Hungarians have three distinguishing similarities. “Food. We also eat horsemeat. It might not be available at every market in Hungary, but it is still possible to find smoked, and even fresh horsemeat. We drink kumys, which is fermented horse milk and we eat cooked kuyrdak and a lot of lamb dishes. Transportation. Both countries are also nations of horses and horsemen. Housing. Both nations are inhabited by the descendants of those who used to live in yurts and play kobyz. In Astana, there is only one yurt producer, while in Hungary, there are over 20 yurt factories. Another trait is hospitality. Hungarians are very hospitable, like Kazakhs.”
According to the ambassador, “The Hungarian language belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of languages. Yet there are words like alma for apple, ata meaning dad, khan shatyr for the khan’s dome, aryk meaning water ditch, kish meaning junior, balta for axe and over 3,000 other words in Hungarian that sound alike in Kazakh.”
“There are approximately 200,000 people in Hungary calling themselves descendants of Kipchaks, a tribe that used to roam western Kazakhstan, now living in Hungary. Two Hungarian government ministers are Kipchaks. Of course, they are not exactly the same as the people who live in Kazakhstan today, but they share the same ancestors as the Kipchaks of modern Kazakhstan. Since we have only eight ministers, I usually say, a quarter of the Hungarian government belongs to you [Kazakhstan],” he said. “Hungary has kept very close ties with Kazakhstan and some even say that Hungarians are the most Westerly Kazakhs and Kazakhs are the most Eastern Hungarians,” he said.
Hungary and Kazakhstan have always had good bilateral relations, the ambassador explained. “Hungarians are the only nation in Europe with a nomadic history and we are very proud of it. We are the descendants of tribal nomadic cultures that once lived in western Kazakhstan, that in the eighth century went west hoping to expand their pastures. We, like Kazakhs, consider ourselves the descendants of Attila [the Hun], who had his headquarters near the Hungarian city of Szeged. This summer, a new monument in his honour is planned to be erected in Hungary.”
According to the ambassador, Hungary is very interested in facilitating Kazakhstan’s interactions with the European Union. “Kazakhstan has always been our main strategic partner in [Central Asia] and it is no coincidence we have our regional embassy there and Kazakhstan chose Budapest for its regional outpost for the Balkans and surrounding countries. The new Ambassador of Kazakhstan to Budapest is very active and does a lot for Kazakh businesses [in Hungary] in just about every regard.”
The diplomatic work in general can be divided into five main areas. It refers mainly to the relevant articles of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the ambassador explained. “The first is representing Hungary in Kazakhstan. I attend all Kazakh official events, receptions and other functions. Secondly, I am the one who is responsible for organisation of high level bilateral meetings. Third, I am entitled to legally collect political and economic information on the host country. Fourth, I offer consular assistance to Hungarian legal and physical entities, and fifth, which is by far the most interesting, is developing bilateral relations between our nations through every possible means. As for me, I consider the second and the fifth duties as most challenging and important.”
Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov visited Hungary in November 2013 in a trip that “was called historic by both countries,” the ambassador said. Four agreements were signed during that visit. They include a Joint Work Plan of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 2014-2015 that includes a visit by President Nazarbayev to Hungary in June 2014 and other high-level official visits to Hungary by the Speaker of the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament) Nurlan Nigmatulin, Chair of the Cultural and Social Development Committee of Mazhilis Dariga Nazarbayeva and Minister of Transportation and Communications of Kazakhstan Zhenis Kassymbek. Minister of Agriculture Assylzhan Mamytbekov, who has been invited three times previously, is also invited again. The second important agreement signed during Idrissov’s visit to Budapest was the Educational and Scientific Cooperation Agreement, according to which 40-45 scholarships will be provided to students by both countries. The third was a cooperation agreement between the Ministry of Justice of Hungary and the General Prosecutor’s Office of Kazakhstan. Finally, the fourth agreement was signed by Zsolt László Szabó, acting CEO of the Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA), and Nurbakh Rustemov, Kazakh ambassador in Budapest, who signed on behalf of Scramble News Agency. These agreements will also play major roles in future bilateral efforts,” the ambassador explained.
Before the global financial crisis of 2008, trade between the two countries totaled about $500 million, including $403 million in the Hungarian exports, but plummeted by a third after global economic slowdown. “As ambassador, I did many things to facilitate and increase trade between the two countries, including holding high-level meetings between government officials,” the ambassador said.
In 2012, export from Hungary to Kazakhstan totaled $156,2 million and $210 million in 2013. “Fifty-four million dollars was cut by the Finnish cell phone maker Nokia in 2012; after seeing losses, they shifted their business elsewhere. Now, our goal is to triple last year’s numbers and bring them close to $1 billion,” he underlined.
Among the main areas of economic cooperation, like trade, oil and gas sector, is agriculture, especially after the successful talks between Hungarian businessmen and Chairman of KazAgro Dulat Aitzhanov. Hungary is highly developed in the field of agriculture. “That includes heavy machinery, seed production, seeds that can provide better yield and withhold rigorous weather conditions, as well as the pharmaceutical sector. Hungarian pharmaceutical giant Gedeon Richter considers opening a factory in Atyrau in the future. The ice has been broken. I think it is possible to triple trade between our countries,” the ambassador said.
“However, in all honesty, Kazakhstan is not a very convenient market for Hungarian small and medium-sized businesses due to the large distance. It is quite difficult to have a business in Kazakhstan without physically being in the country,” the ambassador quipped.
Another goal the ambassador has is to open direct flights between Astana and Budapest. Although the “gray list” may pose challenges in this area, things are looking good. “We offered Air Astana the opportunity to fly directly to Budapest and even offered to cover their losses in the first six months’ expenses. Nowadays a low-cost Hungarian airline seems to be very interested in flying to Astana for 150 Euros (US$208) as well.”
For Ambassador Laszlóczki, who speaks Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, English and Italian alongside his native Hungarian, Kazakhstan is the seventh place he has lived at as part of his career. He had postings in Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Kuwait, Russia and Portugal. His personal impressions about Astana are all positive, except for those about the cold Astana winters that at times are too harsh and lengthy even for the locals. “I have many friends here, my stay here in Astana greatly exceeded my expectations.”
At the moment, the Hungarian embassy is working on bringing up to 50 Hungarian companies to EXPO 2017. “A special EXPO 2017 Committee has been established in Hungary and charged with fulfilling this task.”
According to the ambassador, the embassy is also planning to build a Hungarian House to serve as a cultural centre and a Hungarian store. They are also looking to move there the embassy as well. “We hope that during the visit of the Kazakh president to Hungary in June, we will be able to present a miniature model of the cultural centre that will hopefully open soon,” the ambassador said.
“I would like to wish all Kazakhs a happy Nauryz and with it being the start of a new year, I wish happiness and new successes,” the ambassador said.