ASTANA – Kazakhstan and Belgium share a parallel destiny and common values of peace, reflected in the diverse traditions of the two countries, said Henri Vantieghem, Ambassador of Belgium to Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, in an exclusive interview with The Astana Times.
From trade and investment to cultural exchange and political cooperation, Kazakhstan and Belgium have many things in common that shape the future of their regions and beyond. In August 2022, the two nations marked 30 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations.
“During these 30 years of diplomatic relations, many milestones have paved the way for the strengthening of an always promising and exceptional friendship between our countries. This important moment in our relationship has been celebrated throughout the year with different events, from an exhibition of Belgian comics to movie nights, a reception at my residence that gathered all friends of Belgium in the summer, and an artistic contest,” said Vantieghem, who has been on his mission since September 2021.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev paid an official visit to Brussels in November 2021, which was his first official visit to Europe since the pandemic. During the trip, the President met with several Belgian leaders, including King Philippe and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, as well as European Council President Charles Michel. The discussions focused on trade, investment, energy, and climate change.
“Since President Tokayev’s official visit to Belgium in November 2021, our bilateral cooperation has continued to flourish,” he added.
Just three months following Tokayev’s visit, Kazakh Minister of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tileuberdi visited Brussels to intensify the bilateral ties and reaffirm the country’s commitment to developing multifaceted cooperation.
“In January 2022, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs met with Minister Tileuberdi. Later on, political consultations took place in Astana in October 2022 in the presence of our Director General for Bilateral Affairs, Mr. Jeroen Cooreman. As the capital of the European Union, Brussels also regularly hosts high-level visits from the Kazakh authorities with EU officials,” said Vantieghem.
The ambassador commended the ongoing reforms in Kazakhstan.
“Since the establishment of our diplomatic relations, Belgium has been very active in the dialogue with the Kazakh authorities for the promotion of human rights. We identify, together with all the European Union member states, encouraging signs in the efforts of the President of Kazakhstan towards the New Kazakhstan,” he said.
Belgium is among top investors in the Kazakh economy
The European Union is Kazakhstan’s top trade and investment partner. Belgium’s direct trade with Kazakhstan reached $514.5 million last year, according to the latest data from the Bureau of National Statistics. Trade between the two countries in January this year amounted to $47.9 million.
According to the data from the National Bank of Kazakhstan, Belgian investments reached $1.3 billion in the first three quarters of 2022, up from $1.1 billion in 2021.
“The commercial relations between Kazakhstan and Belgium are robust. Our country is in the top 10 of the biggest foreign investors in Kazakhstan. The main export and investment sectors for Belgian businesses in Kazakhstan are medical equipment and drugs, logistics and transport, agriculture [animal food], and, of course, our Belgian specialties, beer and breweries. Our daily efforts with my team aim to increase the exchanges in these sectors and to develop a new field of cooperation between Belgium and Kazakhstan,” said Vantieghem.
Kazakhstan primarily exports non-ferrous metals, wool, textile products, base metals and products, as well as products of chemical and allied industries.
To facilitate trade cooperation, Belgium established a Trade Office AWEX in Almaty in 2007. In 2021, a Chamber of Commerce for the countries of Benelux – Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg – was launched. The AWEX Trade Office organized a multisector trade mission to Kazakhstan the same year.
The next trade mission is scheduled to take place in the first half of 2023.
“Those are only a few examples of our dynamic bilateral cooperation, which also translates into multilateral fora. At the moment, both Kazakhstan and Belgium are members of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, as well as the United Nations Economic and Social Council in New York,” said the ambassador, whose country has served as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 2019-2020, a two-year role Kazakhstan completed at the end of 2018.
Transport and transit
Vantieghem noted Belgium supports the development of new trade routes, such as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, also known as the Middle Corridor, looking at the bilateral relations through the lens of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Kazakhstan and the European Union that entered into full force in 2020 and cover at least 29 areas of cooperation. The route goes from China through the territory and ports of Kazakhstan and onwards to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Türkiye, then to the countries of Europe.
“We stand ready to facilitate the exchange of expertise and know-how of the main Belgian actors in the field of transport, including the famous ports of Antwerp and Bruges,” said the ambassador.
Diversification of transit and transport routes, towards which Kazakhstan is set to invest at least $25 billion by 2025, is also in line with the EU vision reflected in its Global Gateway Strategy.
A key upcoming event, he noted, is the EU – Central Asia Business Forum, scheduled in Almaty in May.
Tolerance is in our DNA
Beyond common goals in trade, investment and transport, there is much more that the two nations share, said Vantieghem.
What he called a “parallel destiny” is the two countries’ fate to be surrounded by “countries with great influence or even empires in the past… with the same consequences.”
“Belgium is at the crossroads of Western Europe, situated between powerful nations: France, Germany, and the United Kingdom at the edge of the Channel and the North Sea. Similarly, Kazakhstan is located between the huge territories of Russia and China and has a long coastline on the Caspian Sea,” said the ambassador.
This geographical location made people open and tolerant to each other.
“Tolerance is in our DNA. We are used to balancing the influence of our big neighbors. We might be perceived as more modest in our ambitions, but on the contrary, we are ready to defend very strongly our independence and specificities,” he said.
A strong desire for peace is also common among people in Kazakhstan and Belgium.
“Kazakhstan and Belgium are very close in their strong desire for peace and share a great sense of popular tradition, as illustrated, for example, by Nauryz here in Kazakhstan and the Carnival festivities in Belgium,” he added. “Domestically, the population of both countries is very diverse, gathering various communities, different religions and several official languages. As a result, the people of Kazakhstan and Belgium have both developed a strong sense of compromise, a culture of dialogue that is key to avoiding violent conflicts.”
Culture and people-to-people contacts
“Our embassy regularly organizes cultural events to promote Belgian culture, gastronomy and tourism. For example, we take part every year in the Printemps Francophone, together with other French-speaking embassies, and show a Belgian movie to celebrate the French language. In the past, we also organized an exhibition about Belgian comics. The Belgian Red Devils, or our famous Belgian biking team, are quite famous in Central Asia,” said the ambassador.
The two countries have also developed extensive cooperation in education. Many Belgian professors are teaching at Kazakh universities.
“In turn, an increasing number of Kazakh students go to Belgium to study. I strongly encourage all interested students to consult the Study in Belgium website,” he said.