ASTANA – Britain’s Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Baroness Sayeeda Warsi visited Astana April 14-15 for high level and wide ranging talks with Kazakhstan officials, resulting in the signing of bilateral agreements expanding the legal basis for British military-related transit from Afghanistan.
Following talks with Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov at the foreign ministry, Baroness Warsi and Deputy Foreign Minister Alexey Volkov signed agreements on the transit of British cargo through the territory of Kazakhstan. The documents, requiring ratification in Kazakhstan, are of great importance for the effective and timely withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan this year.
“The withdrawal of troops does not mean the end of our involvement in Afghanistan,” Baroness Warsi said in an exclusive interview with The Astana Times after the talks as she sought to reaffirm London’ continued commitment to the region and to the stabilisation of the situation in that country. “This is the end of a chapter, not the end of a book… Our main priority is to see Afghanistan achieve success as a peaceful and stable nation.”
According to the Kazakh foreign ministry, in addition to Afghanistan, Idrissov and Warsi covered a wide range of issues on the bilateral and international agendas in their talks. The two officials noted the dynamic development of bilateral relations after the visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron to Kazakhstan in July 2013 and the meeting between President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the head of the British government in London the same month.
“The relationship [between Britain and Kazakhstan] has really become much, much deeper,” Warsi said in her interview. “The Prime Minister’s visit was a highlight moment and I see it as one my biggest achievements to ensure that the visit happened. The frankness of the conversation is now more apparent.”
During their meeting, Idrissov and Warsi stressed the importance of the work of an intergovernmental commission on trade, economic, scientific, technological and cultural cooperation which consists of specialized working groups and the Kazakh-British Trade and Industry Council (KBTIC). The next meetings within the commission are expected to take place during the Astana Economic Forum in May and at the traditional Kazakh business forum in London in October.
Trade and economic cooperation is a key component of bilateral ties. According to Kazakhstan’s Customs Control Committee, mutual trade reached $2.1 billion in 2013, including $1.5 billion in Kazakh exports and $0.6 billion in imports. Britain is the third largest investor in Kazakhstan, after the Netherlands and the U.S. According to the National Bank of Kazakhstan, the total amount of direct British investment in the country from 2005 to September 2013 amounted to $10 billion.
“The economic relationship has hugely developed. The intergovernmental commission is a testimony of that. Already, well over a billion pounds worth of deals have been done [thanks to the work of the commission] and further needs to be done,” Warsi said in the interview.
She also added that her meeting with National Bank Chairman Kairat Kelimbetov on April 14 focused on the issue of Islamic financing. “Britain has just announced its intention to issue a sovereign sukuk which is a big moment for us. And we host the Global Islamic Finance Investment Group of which Kazakhstan is a member. So I think there’s lots of new avenues that we’re exploring,” Warsi explained.
During their talks, Idrissov and Warsi also discussed further improvement of the visa regime and facilitating the process of obtaining a British visa for Kazakhstan citizens, as was agreed during David Cameron’s visit to Astana. They also discussed prospects for cooperation between Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom in the legal sphere, and Astana’s campaign for a non-permanent member seat at the UN Security Council for 2017-18.
According to the Kazakh foreign ministry, Idrissov and Warsi also noted mutual interest in seeing the resolution of the situation in Ukraine through diplomacy, including through the timely and effective conduct of negotiations between the EU, Russia, Ukraine and the United States in Geneva on April 17.
“We have consistently asked for the situation to be de-escalated, for Russia to return to direct talks with the Ukrainians to allow for these matters to be resolved face to face and we sinrecely hope that some progress can be made in Geneva on Thursday [April 17],” Warsi said in that regard in her interview.
Warsi, who is on a regional tour and is set to also visit Uzbekistan on April 16, also discussed the general view of Central Asia in London.
“One of the things that were important for me when I became responsible for Central Asia was to understand the uniqueness of each country,” she said. “It’s not just a bloc. Everyone has its own strengths and weaknesses, its own challenges, and our relationship with each country is very unique and very different.”
Asked if she would relate to a tongue-in-cheek term for Kazakhstan from several years ago of a “misunderestimated stan,” Warsi chuckled and said: “I think it’s misunderstood and it’s underestimated. And part of my relationship building was to make sure that it was understood better, and the potential was brought to the fore. The Prime Minister’s highly successful visit is testimony of the fact that it is better understood and we do recognise and we don’t underestimate it. And not just in relation to trade links, but internationally… [given] the relationship with Iran, the relationship with Afghanistan, the relationship now in terms of what’s happening in Ukraine… It is such an important regional player.”
Noting Kazakhstan’s past chairmanships in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Baroness Warsi said “Kazakhstan is increasingly playing its role as a serious international player and that’s why it’s important to have this strong relationship.”
As Minister for Faith and Communities at the Department for Communities and Local Government, another of her jobs with a domestic focus in Britain, Warsi also speaks up on issues of freedom of religion in her own country and discusses related issues with her colleagues on foreign trips. She said over time she, in a way, brought together the two jobs as their missions are closely intertwined and her work in the Foreign Office also includes the human rights brief.
“How we deal with minorities in our own country reflects on us internationally, and what we do internationally really has an impact on us locally,” Warsi said as she added that she had a chance to visit Astana’s famous Khazret Sultan mosque on one of her previous four visits in four years. “I’ve taken much of what we’ve done on freedom of religion domestically and I’ve tried to use it as a way of trying to work with other countries on how they deal with issues around the freedom of religion and belief.”
“I also think it’s important to speak up not just for your co-religionists. And I do not feel that people should be held accountable for their co-religionists,” Warsi said as she explained her stance against religious profiling and her efforts to prevent sectarianism and religious discrimination internationally.
In Astana, the host city of the triennial Congresses of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, Warsi was sure to find a sympathetic audience as she also met with the head of the secretariat of the Congress, Speaker of the Senate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and chairman of the Agency for Religious Affairs Marat Azilkhanov. She also met with Akim (Mayor) of Astana Imangali Tasmagambetov.