New Italian Ambassador Seeks to Diversify Long-Standing Ties

ASTANA – Stefano Ravagnan, Italy’s new ambassador in Astana, has plans to reinforce and formalise his country’s long-standing engagement with Kazakhstan, expanding the two countries’ traditional energy links into increased trade and richer cultural and people-to-people ties.

photo Amb. RavagnanThe ambassador, who arrived at the end of August, acknowledges that energy is the base of the relationship. “Energy is essential, of course,” he said in an interview on Dec. 2. “We have more or less 10 percent of our oil coming from Kazakhstan, so it’s quite an important part of our energy consumption.” Italy is Kazakhstan’s third-largest trade partner, following only China and Russia.

Italy’s energy multinational, Eni, has had a presence in Kazakhstan since 1992, and during Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s June visit inked a new deal with KazMunayGas to explore the Caspian Sea’s Issatay exploration area. The new agreement shows that the complications of the delayed Kashagan oil project haven’t curbed Italy’s appetite for Kazakh oil, the ambassador said.

“I think it’s proof that there’s not a loss of enthusiasm. Of course, Kashagan is a complicated issue, there were all these technical problems,” Ravagnan said. “But the oil here – you have a lot of oil. But it’s not the Emirates or Qatar; it’s not the easiest oil. So we have to reset the plans.”

There is also room for expansion. “I think our goal should be diversifying our presence,” the ambassador said. “I think that we can enlarge the portfolio of our people.”

The ambassador has set several priorities for diversifying his country’s activities in Kazakhstan, the first of which is to establish a trade office in Astana. Italy’s trade office is in Almaty, but during the Kazakh-Italian Business Forum in Astana in mid-November, it was decided to open a second office in the capital. “One of the main results [of the forum] is that our deputy minister acknowledged that we have to be more present in Astana,” Ravagnan said. “This is my first goal: to have structural reinforcement, which is badly needed.”

“I was impressed by the presentation made by KazNex during this business delegation,” the ambassador noted. “I mean, of course you have to promote … but you also have data, and numbers are numbers, and when you see these numbers, put together, one after the other – frankly speaking, it’s quite surprising, the results. … I think that everyone was really impressed by that.”

Ravagnan also wants to make cultural exchanges between the two nations more frequent and formalised. “The second goal will be to have higher level cultural activity, which as of now is mainly autonomously organised by institutions here, like Astana Opera. … From our side, we’re not in a condition to organise big things because of resource issues. We don’t have so many state resources, but we have many enterprises and sponsors, so [my goal is] to organise a few big events – two or three in a year, no more – but to have a real impact, more than having small things here and there.”

This includes arranging exchanges of art and history exhibits. “I’d really like to organise a good Kazakh exhibition in Italy,” Ravagnan said. “There are very interesting things [in Astana’s national museum] that I think would fit the Italian taste.” The exchange would go both ways, of course: Ravagnan has his eye on a collection of Roman sculptures he thinks would be interesting to Kazakhstan’s museum-goers.

Despite appearances, Ravagnan says, he’s not a centraliser. “I think that culture should be as much as possible people-to-people, without embassies, ministries, whatever. But at the same time, we cannot be completely absent. Our role should be to give a stimulus,” he said.

The flow of information is about to get such a stimulus. The Italian news agency AGI has just begun to employ a correspondent here for what Ravagnan thinks is the first time in 20 years. “The flow of information is absolutely limited,” he said. “This is another goal, to have a better presence in the press here.”

He also hopes to deepen the teaching of Italian language and culture. “Abylai Khan University offered to work on an Italian institute, so I jumped on that offer and now I’m working on that,” Ravagnan said. “Because the teaching of Italian here is very weak.” With teachers spread across the country and English the main foreign language being promoted, the Italian language must change strategy. “I think that the only possibility is to have a kind of stronghold. A point of excellence, where you teach not only language but culture. … Of course, it takes time, but this is a priority,” he said.

So things are changing between the two partners. A new stage is coming, driven by Kazakhstan’s evolving strategies and the general opening of the country, Ravagnan predicted. Russia’s economic problems and political conflict with Western countries and the ongoing situation in Ukraine are in some ways playing in Kazakhstan’s favour, he said, adding that there’s “a renewed interest in Kazakhstan.”

Kazakhstan’s own economic progress is also, of course, a main driver of interest. “At the end of the first stage of the State Programme of Accelerated Industrial and Innovative Development, in a sense, it’s a time of results – and the results are very positive. Of course, not everything is fine … but when you present to the Italian business world the achievements of this country over the past five years, also considering that we don’t have anything comparable in terms of growth of gross domestic product, of course, they are absolutely astonished. In a sense, I think it’s a bit of a rediscovery of this relationship,” Ravagnan said.