NUR-SULTAN – Kazakhstan and North Macedonia have seen many improvements on the eve of their 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Chargée d’Affaires ad interim of North Macedonia in Kazakhstan Viktorija Chavkoska spoke about the progress in the bilateral relations between the two countries in an exclusive interview with The Astana Times.
Kazakhstan and North Macedonia share a history of similar challenges in establishing their sovereignty and building up their economies after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the former territory of Yugoslavia. This interview highlights how bilateral trade started to steadily develop after the opening of the embassies of Kazakhstan and North Macedonia in 2013 and 2018, respectively. Chavkoska also sheds light on the prospects for bilateral cooperation in the tourism and energy sector.
Although the pandemic created many barriers to developing greater cross-border cooperation, the two countries are hopeful that they will be able to continue intergovernmental negotiations, promoting business and tourism, as well as revising their visa regimes.
How would you describe the state of relations today between Kazakhstan and North Macedonia?
The sweeping changes in international relations that started by the end of the 20th century strongly impacted both countries, being an essential element of their respective processes of becoming new subjects of international law, which after the fall of communism started modernizing and transforming themselves into democratic societies from within, establishing themselves as such at the international stage, as well. Against such a background of fast-paced changes, both countries had to react quickly and establish bilateral relations with as many countries as possible. The Republic of North Macedonia established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Kazakhstan on 1 June 1995. Hence, today we are very happy to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of continual building and consolidating our bilateral relations. Finding a common ground and deepening bilateral relations require a long process of getting to know each other’s cultural and societal matrices. In geo-political terms, North Macedonia and Kazakhstan share a number of similar lines of opposition to processes of building their respective identities as independent states, while the regions we belong to are rather challenging for both of our countries.
As confirmed by the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries, Mr. Zhernovski and Mr. Baimukhan, in their telephone conversation on the occasion of the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, our bilateral relations are featured by friendship, mutual understanding and a shared interest in their expansion and deepening. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that it is only through cooperation that the world can resolve common problems, reaffirming as well that the multilateralism concept is of exceptional importance for preserving the unity of global action. Thus, the cooperation between our two countries in the multilateral setting has been progressing favourably as well, especially under the UN and the OSCE.
What can Kazakhstan offer to the businesses of North Macedonia? Are there any companies with the participation of their capital coming from North Macedonia registered in Kazakhstan?
The two countries have a relatively low bilateral trade volume. It is evident that the opening of our Embassy in Nur-Sultan has had a favourable influence on increasing the bilateral trade volume, with 2017 marking the highest volume of exports from the Republic of North Macedonia to the Republic of Kazakhstan, featured as well with reduced deficit. This is based on exports of motor vehicles for transportation of 10 or more persons (diesel or semi-diesel vehicles). If we add to the volume of bilateral trade the contracts of our companies in the service sector (IT and construction industry), which cover large amounts, this would certainly change the overall picture of the state of trade of our economic cooperation.
Our companies present in the Kazakh market are mostly in the service sector and according to information available to the Embassy their annual turnover is higher than EURO 2 million. This includes construction works (for example, Ading Novatech, BO & CO, etc.), as well as IT companies (Aspect, for example) which have a number of contracts with Kazakh companies and institutions.
The Embassy has had a number of meetings with business persons, interested in investing in several sectors in the Republic of North Macedonia and with the assistance of our relevant institutions business persons and tour-operators have visited the Republic of North Macedonia. Furthermore, a Delegation of North Macedonia participated in the 16th International Tourism Fair in Almaty, where they presented our business and tourism potentials before the largest tour-operators and media outlets covering the Fair. A representative of the Agency for Tourism Support and Promotion attended this event, as well; while other members of the Delegation were the General Director of the General Tourist Company and President of the Tourism and Hospitality Chamber, part of the Association of Chambers of Commerce of the Republic of North Macedonia, then the General Director of the Aurora Tourist Company, who also serves as the Vice-President of the Tourism and Hospitality Association at the Chamber of Commerce of the Republic of North Macedonia; the General Director of the Fibula Air Travel Company, the co-owner of the Simonium Travel Company and coordinator of the group of agencies for incoming tourism and Mirjana Sultanbekova, owner of the Wellness Holiday Agency in the country, which has a branch office in Kazakhstan and who also serves as the Vice President of the first common Association.
The process of attracting foreign investors is long and demanding and requires strong commitment and attention to needs and expectations of companies.
Furthermore, the Kazakh businessperson, Mr. Rakishev, being one of the dominant owners of the Central Asia Metals Company, in 2017, took over the ownership of the Sasa Mine, under a US$402.5 million deal, which also envisages additional investments in the Mine. Although the company is officially a UK registered company, the capital is Kazakhstan capital; in addition, some of the leading experts in the Mine are also from Kazakhstan. A number of Kazakh business persons, owners of construction companies and representatives of international corporations, are interested in investing the construction industry in the Republic of North Macedonia, i.e. in buying or constructing hotels in Skopje and in Ohrid, or are interested in opening representative offices for Macedonian marble and construction materials to be marketed on the Kazakhstan market, being also interested in recruiting Macedonian construction workers to work on construction sites in Kazakhstan, then in construction of a glass manufacturing factory and for manufacture of construction panels, etc.
In 2015, in Skopje, with a view to expanding the business relations, Macedonian and Kazakhstan citizens established the first common Association for Cooperation. Business persons from the two countries are founding members of this Association.
What do you think can be done to further strengthen bilateral cooperation?
The hitherto favourable development of the bilateral relations and the fruitful cooperation between our two countries is also reaffirmed by the solid contractual relations framework, which needs to be applied in the practice, with a view to taking advantage of the concluded treaties to pursue shared interests, especially in terms of investments and in the area of tourism.
Considering the geo-strategic position of Kazakhstan (and of the other countries in the Caucasus Region and in Central Asia), the Republic of North Macedonia has a strategic interest in long-term economic presence on this market. However, considering the specific features of the country, in order that companies from the Republic of North Macedonia could successfully position themselves on the market, they need strong institutional support by the Kazakh side.
The energy sector would be of primary interest for cooperation with Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan should be seen as a large market that would be easier to enter, compared to West European markets. Furthermore, Kazakhstan is also an important source of raw materials, especially power resources.
In 2018, following the appointment of Mr. Mukashev, a renowned business person from Almaty, as the Honorary Consul of the Republic of North Macedonia to Kazakhstan, the first Honorary Consulate of the Republic of North Macedonia to Kazakhstan was opened in Almaty, in the building of the first the MFA (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) of the Republic of Kazakhstan, a building that has been proclaimed as a cultural monument. The high-ranking delegation in attendance of this significant event was headed by Mr. Zhernovski, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of North Macedonia. The Appointment of an Honorary Consul of our country to Kazakhstan is another impetus to the development of the cooperation between the two countries, in all areas of mutual interest.
How did the pandemic affect the development of the bilateral relations?Considering the current situation with the global pandemic, then the postponement of the general elections in the Republic of North Macedonia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the internal political and economic developments in the Republic of Kazakhstan, following the depreciation of the dollar, the two countries have had to face numerous challenges. The interdependence of countries is growing, in light of the fact that even great powers are not able to face emerging challenges alone, exacerbated with global pandemics and the COVID-19 virus crisis, the ramifications of which jeopardize the very fabric of all societies, in terms of economy, social situation, but primarily affecting the public health. Even in these challenging times, the Embassy has continued to actively work on the strengthening of the political and economic relations with the Republic of Kazakhstan, despite all problems arising from the corona virus pandemic.
With a view to maintaining the balance in our relations, we have again raised the issue of mutual abolishment of short term stay visas. For several consecutive years now, the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia had been adopting decisions unilaterally abolishing short stay visas for citizens of Kazakhstan, until June 2018, when visas were again introduced, while expecting reciprocal abolishment of short term stay visas by Kazakhstan. However, there was no such decision made by the Kazakh side.
This issue remains to be considered, for it touches upon all areas of cooperation, while having a strong impact on the deepening of our relations and especially on the intensification of the business and family relations. As I have said earlier, the general elections in our country were postponed for 15 July. However, it is expected that following the general elections and the formation of the new Government, there will be an inter-institutional initiative raised to start negotiations on the conclusion of a possible Agreement on mutual travel of citizens of the two countries without visas for short term stays of up to 30 days. Currently, both countries have a favourable position regarding this issue, the completion of which has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have continued to promote our economic cooperation, i.e. having considered possibilities for investments with Kazakh Invest, the Ministry of National Economy, with a view to intensifying the bilateral trade and advancing and taking advantage of tourism potentials. I regret to say that this process is not proceeding without difficulties at this period and had to be postponed again owing to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Honorary Consul Mukashev has helped us define the methodology for approaching companies that have the potential for making direct investments, yet this activity too had to be postponed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In this period, we have also discussed the possible term for convening the first meeting of the Mixed Committee, in pursuance with the concluded Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation, so that the Commission could be formed and start its activities. Upon the initiative of Kazakhstan, the first meeting will be held in Skopje, and will be attended by the Minister of National Economy, Mr. Ruslan Dalenov, personally. During my term of office as the Chargé d’Affaires, a. i. our Embassy has had excellent communication with our colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, as well as with colleagues from the Kazakhstan Embassy in Budapest, which is the non-resident Kazakhstan Embassy to our country. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their kind cooperation.
Are there prospects to strengthen humanitarian and cultural cooperation?
Attracting the interest of citizens of another country, strengthening the relations, starting from education reforms over to scientific cooperation, encouraging people to see your own country as an attractive destination for tourism, for studies, for e-learning, prompting them to buy your products, to understand and accept your values and culture is a great challenge for any country.
Our cultural cooperation has been progressing and advancing in the last years. Thus, there have been many artists participating in cultural events and festivals organized in the two countries (theatres, folk dance groups, opera singers, classical musicians, poets, etc.). Other forms of cultural cooperation have contributed towards forging closer cultural ties between the two countries, while helping open a new page in advancing the overall bilateral relations. I could emphasize the following as the more prominent activities in this respect: Days of Macedonian Culture, an event organized in 2016, under which there were two gala concerts of the ethno-music group Synthesis, accompanied by the symphonic orchestras in Almaty and in Nur-Sultan, then the participation of the ethno-music group Ljubojna in the Music Festival in Nur-Sultan, the concert of the Chamber Orchestra of the National Philharmonic in Almaty and in Nur-Sultan, the opening of the Macedonian literature corner at the Kazakhstan National Library in Nur-Sultan, and of the Kazakh literature corner in Skopje, then participation of leading musicians, opera singers and theatre groups from the Republic of Kazakhstan in festivals in the Republic of North Macedonia. Upon the initiative of North Macedonia, with the help of the Department for Support of the Diplomatic Corps and the city of Nur-Sultan, there was a successful tree planting event organized, in which all diplomatic missions in Kazakhstan took part, helping thus the establishment of the Park of Diplomacy. Furthermore, on the occasion of the World AIDS Day, upon our initiative, in cooperation with the KAZGUU University in Nur-Sultan, the Department for support of the Diplomatic Corps and the Transfusion Medicine Institute, a blood donor action is organized each year at the premises of the University.
North Macedonia as a travel destination is not popular among Kazakh tourists, and vice versa. What do you think can increase the interest in tourist flow between the countries?
One of the ways to prompt the interest is to well design the public diplomacy concept, which would help apply proactive public diplomacy policy that would follow current developments, in pursuance with our strategic goals; then being proactively designed, such a public diplomacy policy would help define an agenda of topical activities and events, with the aim of emphasizing the core messages and influencing the perceptions; this would also help build long-term relations even with geographically distant countries, so that our traditions and values are recognized and so that we could learn lessons from their traditions and values. This requires dissemination of much more information about a country (information that would tackle the interest of people, create an image about the country, change the negative perceptions), demanding as well enhancing the respect for a country (creating positive perceptions, succeeding in bringing others closer so that they could see issues of global importance from the same perspective).
Economic diplomacy is one of the most important contemporary tools used in the pursuance of modern day diplomacy. Thus, as of the opening of its Embassy in 2015, the Republic of North Macedonia has been continually promoting its tourism potentials, at numerous events and meetings organized by the Embassy. Hence, our country has been often present in Kazakh media. According to information available to the Embassy, there have been more than 100 media events, of which about 20 TV interviews, as well as on web portals and in newspapers, more than 20 media stories about our country, a number of appearances on TV programs on national TV outlets, a dozen of statements to Kazakhstan media outlets given during various events in Nur-Sultan and in other cities, then publication of information about the activities of the Embassy, as well as about the bilateral relations with Kazakhstan in TV news broadcasts and web portals (for example, the mega interview for the prestigious tourism magazine Mir Puteshestvi, published by the Kazakhstan Tourism Association). There have also been stories broadcast by the national TV stations – STV and TVK, focusing on the tourism potentials (the two TV stations had their representatives taking part in the tourism info-tours in the Republic of North Macedonia).
Statistics show that despite the fact that the number of tourists is not that high, in the period following the opening of the Embassy until presently, the number of tourists has increased significantly in the last years, i.e. by more than 3,000 tourists. Of course, as I have said earlier, the visa free regime is a key precondition for a more dynamic cooperation, another important precondition being the opening of an Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Skopje.