The Astana Times recently sat down with Spanish Ambassador to Kazakhstan Manuel Larrotcha Parada who discussed a wide range of issues concerning the relationship between the two countries.
Well, my impression is very positive. I have to admit that when I was proposed by my foreign minister to come to Kazakhstan and become the ambassador of Spain, I had some hesitation. I was not familiar with the country. I was lucky because I am a very good friend of the previous Spanish ambassador here and he had occasionally told me about his experiences in the country. He had been extremely happy here in Kazakhstan. After two years here in Kazakhstan, I can say without any sort of doubt that Kazakhstan is a much better country when you work here then when you are abroad. Out of ignorance, many people in Western Europe, when you say, “I am in Kazakhstan,” they say, “Oh, it must be very difficult.” Well, what do you mean difficult? It is far, but the same can be said about Spain. If you ask a Kazakh citizen about Spain they will say, “It is very far.” Everything in life is relative, but Kazakhstan is a country where life is comfortable and people are pleasant in general.
And there is one thing that is a very strong point in favour of Kazakhstan that very few people talk about and it is safety. Safety to the point that no matter whether you are a man or a woman, you can walk on the streets any time of the day and can be sure that nobody will disturb you. It is a healthy exercise of personal freedom.
Obviously, you travel to other regions as well. How would you assess the development of the rural areas?
Well, development in Kazakhstan is now confronting the difficulties that any new nation has. I mean, Kazakhstan became independent and the country inherited a worn out infrastructure from Soviet times. But obviously, when you have a country of such dimensions and you have to modernise and update all that infrastructure, the process will take time. I don’t know how many millions of kilometres of roads, but I think the government has put in place good programmes that little by little, year after year renovate roads, highways, railways. But those things don’t happen overnight. If Kazakhstan were like Slovenia or like Malta or like Cyprus, it would be easy. But when you have millions of kilometres of roads and railway, the process will take not only money, a lot of money, but also a lot of time.
What kind of sectors in the economy can Spain and Kazakhstan cooperate on?
In my view, with a lot of common sense, the government has been studying high-speed trains. Spain now has the largest high-speed network in Europe. I can proudly say that our trains are better than the French, better than the German, but it is an extremely expensive proposition. That is something that the Kazakh government has understood and they said, “We know that we can have a high-speed train between Almaty and Astana but that would be a money losing machine.” Simply because there is not enough population. Instead, using Talgo’s technology, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy is operating high-speed trains that can run on older rails.
The success of Talgo is bringing new companies from Spain to settle here in Kazakhstan as suppliers of Tulpar-Talgo. This will create jobs for Kazakh people, they will bring technology and suppliers for Tulpar-Talgo. That is a good example of what we can do together.
We can also work together in the agriculture sector. Water is a precious commodity in Spain, but we have developed very efficient techniques for irrigation. We do not throw water onto the fields; we have underground pipes that drop water every 10-15 seconds, enough to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and fruits for all of Europe.
The same can be said in terms of tourism. The World Tourism Organisation, which is an agency of the United Nations, is headquartered in Madrid. I always say that Kazakhstan has oil, Spain has no petroleum, but we have our own oil. The main industry in Spain is tourism. We have 47 million inhabitants and this year we will receive 63 million tourists. Tourism is good from an economic point of view, obviously, as it creates a lot of jobs.
What do you think about Kazakhstan’s candidacy for a UN Security Council seat?
We are supporting it. We have already committed our support. We said it very early when the candidacy was made public. The UN Security Council is supposed to be a body where some political, cultural and regional equilibrium is present. How is it that a country from Central Asia has never been in the UN Security Council? I mean, you have an excellent record of contributing to world security, you got rid of those nuclear weapons, you are campaigning with us for the abolition of the death penalty, you have all the credentials to be in the UN Security Council. So from the very outset we have committed to Kazakhstan, our vote will be for Kazakhstan.
I think the bid has a lot chances to win. You have an excellent diplomatic service that will be able to present your case to the international community. You have also excellent relations with the five permanent members, which is very important. When you look around, if there is a country leader in Central Asia, it’s Kazakhstan. By definition, whether you like it or not, as I say, you are doomed, like the United States, to be the leaders in this region. It is not your choice, by definition you will have to bear the responsibility of leading the region. And you are assuming the responsibility very seriously. That’s why the candidature to the UN Security Council, in my view, should be a done deal.
What cultural programmes is the embassy engaged in?
The problem here in the embassy, for cultural activities, is that we have a little budget. So you have to be witty. So what we are doing is building up partnerships with our own companies here and they are responding enthusiastically. We have managed to make our companies understand that every single euro they invest in cultural activities in Kazakhstan is an investment for the future of the company.
Now we have an interesting event in Karaganda. In 1949-1954, we had 180 people who were prisoners in a labour camp, 14 people died, the rest were repatriated to Spain in 1954. The 14 people who died, we want to honour their memory. So we are building a monument in Karaganda. It is being built thanks to the generosity of Spanish companies who operate in the Karaganda region.
With our own budget we will bring Yerzhan Kulibayev, the violin player. I think Mr. Kulibayev will make it to the very top. He’s not 30 yet, and he’s already played everywhere, and we are very proud that he has made his musical career in Madrid. His musical education is still taking place in Madrid. We’ll be bringing him to the Astana Opera on Oct. 13. We will pay for his travel expenses and hotel and honorarium as a professional, but the Kazakh side will be providing the venue, which is the best.
How do you see the future of the bilateral ties generally?
We have not touched on institutional relations. We have been talking about commerce, culture, but from the institutional point of view there is something very interesting. It is the good relations that exist between the two countries. Not only governments but also at the institutional level. Everybody knows that the former king of Spain and President Nazarbayev have a personal friendship, which dates back many years. When they get together it is not the President of Kazakhstan and the king of Spain, it is Juan-Carlos and Nursultan having a cup of coffee and telling each other their concerns, their successes, their happiness, their issues, so true friends talking to each other. So when you have such strong foundations, building up institutional relationships is very easy. We feel at the institutional level we are very well received, our proposals are always welcome. But this is a two-way street. My government feels well treated and whenever there is an opportunity to help Kazakhstan, my own government tries to respond in kind. As long we are so well treated, we feel we are obliged to reciprocate.
I am quite enthusiastic that economic changes are going very well. From one year 2012 to 2013 they have more than doubled. We are talking about 1.2 billion euro in trade turnover. That shows that there are a great number of companies that are doing business or trading with Kazakhstan but also coming here and investing, taking root, and settling here.
Everything is part of the same, it is a parcel. It is difficult to see the economic activity growing if you do not feed the economic machinery with good cultural feelings and institutional relations. But I think we are on a good track. Goodwill is prevailing both in Madrid and Astana. We are betting on Astana for sure. Beyond the UN Security Council, we are betting on Kazakhstan as, perhaps, the only country in the region that will be able to provide stability and show leadership. All in all, I think that relations are in pretty good shape, but there is a lot of room for improvement and we have to remain ambitious.