ASTANA – Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó is set to visit Astana later in February. Ahead of his visit, in an exclusive interview with The Astana Times, the minister spoke about the historical closeness between the two nations and the modern status and future of bilateral cooperation in politics, economy, culture, education and tourism, as well as his country’s views on Kazakhstan’s relations with the European Union.
How would you assess the overall dynamics of bilateral relations between Kazakhstan and Hungary, in particular, the political ties between our countries?
Both Hungary and Kazakhstan have mutual sympathy for each other. The common cultural roots are obvious; our traditions still exist through the descendants of the Hungarian Cumans, who are known as Kipchaks in Kazakhstan.
In addition to the existing sympathy, we are witnessing further developments in our political relations, too, which after a declaration signed by our prime ministers last summer, were deemed of strategic importance. Regular meetings between the leaders of our countries are taking place. In 2012, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Astana, in 2014, Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Karim Massimov paid a visit to Budapest and now a future visit by the Hungarian Prime Minister to Kazakhstan is being planned.
Last year, on Oct. 17, consultations between the Hungarian Prime Minister and President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev on the establishment of a Hungarian-Kazakh investment fund were held in Milan. Through a mutual agreement, both Hungary and Kazakhstan will invest $20 million in the fund. An important step forward will be the upcoming launch of a joint financial fund, as the focus of its work will be the support for small- and medium-sized enterprises, which is a priority for both Kazakhstan and Hungary.
Hungary has consistently supported Kazakhstan’s aspirations to deepen relations with the European Union, as well as its intentions to complete the process of its accession to the World Trade Organisation, which we hope will happen in the near future.
In our relationship, cooperation in preserving our common cultural heritage is becoming more important. In order to support further development in our cultural relations in the near future, we will organise a Hungarian National Day in Almaty. The purpose is an in-depth introduction of Hungarian culture and food to the local people.
How would you assess the current state and prospects of trade and investment cooperation between Kazakhstan and Hungary?
We pay great attention to the development of our trade and economic relations. Kazakhstan is our biggest partner in Central Asia, our foreign trade turnover in 2013 exceeded $261 million and we see much room for improvement in this area.
Kazakhstan’s impressive growth record and its ambitious plans (Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy, EXPO 2017) make a good basis for achieving new results. In a number of sectors, such as agriculture, food industry, energy and power equipment, medicine and pharmaceuticals, machinery, the construction industry and the development of urban infrastructure, logistics and transport, innovation, manufacturing, tourism, environmental protection, water management and energy-saving technologies, Hungary offers competitively priced products of high quality that use world-class technology, which can help Kazakhstan in attaining its goals. The Hungarian government has been supporting Hungarian enterprises participating in Kazakh state programmes.
The Astana Economic Forum is very important to our trade relations. Every year, high-level officials from Hungarian government bodies participate in it. On a regular basis since 2008, the Hungarian-Kazakhstan Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Cooperation meets. The Hungarian Government emphasises the development of bilateral business ties. We opened a house of commerce in Astana in May of 2013 in hopes of increasing trade ties. Besides that, the Hungarian Eximbank opened a credit line of $50 million in order to promote small and medium Hungarian enterprises in Kazakhstan.
Close links also exist between the chambers of commerce of our two countries. Just a few weeks ago, a chamber of commerce from Kazakhstan visited Hungary. In the course of the visit, a document on deepening cooperation was signed.
Every year, the number of joint ventures and projects grows and thousands of Hungarians are employed in Kazakhstan’s oil industry, continuing the tradition formed over the last third of the 20th century with the joint development of oil fields in Tengiz.
What is Hungary’s attitude towards plans to sign the agreement on an extended partnership between Kazakhstan and the European Union?
An outstanding example of close bilateral political cooperation is Hungary’s comprehensive support in deepening the partnership between Kazakhstan and the European Union. Last year in Budapest, we held a large joint seminar on this topic where we were honoured to welcome Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov. We think that such events will be held in the future. We welcome cooperation between Kazakhstan and the European Union and hope that it will rise to a new level as a result of the extended partnership.
The number of Kazakhstan students in Hungarian universities is growing. What is the situation and prospects for cooperation in education?
Recently, more and more Hungarian teachers have been teaching in Kazakhstan’s higher education institutions. Students from Kazakhstan are already studying in Hungarian universities. Deepening cooperation in this area is supported by activities, such as the Central Asian and East European Forum on Higher Education held last spring at Al-Farabi University in Almaty. The Hungarian Tempus Public Foundation participated. They brought together representatives of 13 Hungarian universities.
In order to establish long-term cooperation in this field, last year we concluded a bilateral agreement in education and science with Kazakhstan; as part of this agreement, our countries host 45 scholars from each party annually. At the moment, 107 students from Kazakhstan are studying in Hungary.
How do you assess the potential for tourism exchange between the two countries for Astana’s EXPO 2017? What are the prospects for the opening of direct flights between Kazakhstan and Hungary?
Our bilateral cooperation in the field of tourism remains undeveloped. We support cooperation between our travel agencies, the exchange of experience and mutual participation in the activities undertaken by the two countries. I am convinced that holding EXPO 2017 in Astana is a remarkable event, which not only opens doors for Kazakhstan in entering the international arena, but it may also boost our bilateral cooperation in the field of tourism. In April 2017, we will mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Hungary and Kazakhstan and I believe that it is necessary to take advantage of the fact that this significant date coincides with EXPO 2017 in Astana.
The level of development of Hungary and Kazakhstan’s relations, as well as the intensive cooperation of representatives of the private sectors of our countries increasingly justifies the need for direct flights between Astana and Budapest. Preparatory work aimed at achieving this goal has already started at the expert level; all necessary documents are being processed. I am sure that the launch of direct flights twice a week will give an additional boost to our multifaceted ties.