Estonia Strengthens Ties with Kazakhstan Across Multiple Fronts 

ASTANA – Estonia views Kazakhstan as a significant player in Central Asia and aims to bolster cooperation in various sectors, including economy, education, and beyond, said Ambassador of Estonia, Toomas Tirs, in an interview with The Astana Times. Tirs elaborated on the historical connections between the two nations and the evolving dynamics of bilateral relations.

Ambassador of Estonia Toomas Tirs.  Photo credit: The Astana Times

Mutual heritage

Highlighting the historical ties between the countries, Tirs emphasized the significant migration of Estonians to Kazakhstan in the 19th and 20th centuries, contributing to the establishment of communities such as Petrovka village in the Akmola Region.

“Petrovka village was the first Estonian settlement in this area, established in 1893, contributing to the local economy and integrating well with Kazakh communities,” he said. “Within a decade, its population had grown to 350 residents”.

Toomas Tirs, Ambassador of Estonia and Aiman Nakispekova, the Astana Times journalist during the interview. Discussing a wide range of ongoing reforms in Kazakhstan, Tirs highlighted the country’s progress in improving its business climate, particularly in areas such as e-governance, transparency, and investment protection. Photo credit: The Astana Times

Coexisting harmoniously with local Kazakhs, they achieved a modest level of prosperity, owning livestock such as horses, goats, and even camels. However, they lacked Estonian language instructors for their children and Lutheran priests, which they sought to enrich their community. They thrived in their new environment, as evidenced by historical documents and archival newspapers.

Despite facing challenges during the Soviet era, Estonian communities persevered in various regions of northern Kazakhstan, leaving a lasting legacy. Tirs acknowledged the shared history of both countries, including the unjust internment of Estonians in Joseph Stalin’s camps, while also emphasizing the positive relationship characterized by mutual respect and cultural exchange.

Efforts to maintain cultural connections persist, with initiatives such as showcasing Estonian films and performances to residents. 

Tirs expressed admiration for the survival of communities such as Petrovka, which have preserved the Estonian language and culture for over a century despite their remote location from Estonia.

Trade, economic cooperation, and digitalization 

According to data from the Bureau of National Statistics, the volume of mutual trade between Estonia and Kazakhstan in 2023 increased by 29%, reaching $157.5 million. Investments from Estonia to Kazakhstan amounted to $6.7 million in the first three quarters of 2023.

“Trade between Estonia and Kazakhstan primarily revolves around transit, facilitated by Estonian ports and railways. Kazakhstan exports commodities such as oil products, coal, fertilizers, and grains, while Estonia primarily exports machinery and processed goods,” said Tirs.

He stressed that this economic partnership has experienced significant growth in recent years, aided by shifts in trade routes due to geopolitical factors. However, both countries remain committed to upholding international sanctions and ensuring that trade practices adhere to legal standards.

“We pay significant attention to legitimate trade and want to be sure that there is no circumvention of sanctions,” he said. 

“I am pleased that the Kazakh government takes this issue seriously to prevent any circumvention. However, despite challenges, trade has increased almost fivefold over the last two and a half years,” he noted. 

Discussing a wide range of ongoing reforms in Kazakhstan, including in the sphere of economy and investment, Tirs highlighted the country’s progress in improving its business climate, particularly in areas such as e-governance, transparency, and investment protection. These reforms have garnered international acclaim and contributed to sustainable growth despite some challenges. 

“These reforms have improved various registers, eased business operations, and adjusted tax rates,” said Tirs. “The establishment of the Astana International Financial Centre, as an instrument to guarantee the higher quality of investment protection for businesses, is a positive step that promotes Kazakhstan as an investment destination or place to do business.” 

Tirs emphasized that the impact of reforms lies in their implementation, citing Kazakhstan’s digitization efforts as a prime example where the country has achieved significant results. 

“Digitalization in Kazakhstan, such as the ease of payment methods, has facilitated access to e-government services, reducing the need for people to visit Public Service Centers for official documents,” he added. “Implementing these reforms effectively benefits the people and sets a good example to other countries in terms of ease of doing business.”  

According to Tirs, Kazakhstan has adapted Estonia’s expertise in digitalization to suit its own needs. In the era of global technological advancement, he commended Kazakhstan’s banking services for promoting digital and government services.

“In some aspects, your government has been very brave. I see you are progressing as well as we are, or perhaps even faster and more boldly in certain aspects,” he said. 

Education and tourism

Estonia and Kazakhstan have fostered close ties in the realm of digitalization, with exchanges of expertise and collaborative efforts spanning two decades. Kazakh universities have also engaged in partnerships with Estonian institutions, particularly in IT fields.

“One area where we could further collaborate is the startup environment because Estonia is renowned for its active startup community. We have 11 unicorns and the IT sector, including startups, constitutes over 10% of our economy,” said Tirs.  

He also underscored Estonia’s success in primary and elementary education, which has attracted interest from Kazakhstan and led to visits from Kazakh education authorities, institutes, and school directors. 

“Our education is highly regarded, boasting exceptional results in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) studies. Estonia ranks sixth or seventh globally in reading, math, or natural sciences. We are pleased that Kazakhstan is interested in our experience in this field. Last year, 63 school directors from Almaty visited Estonia and Finland to learn about our practices,” he pointed out.

Estonian higher education also appeals to Kazakh students, with approximately 120 currently studying in Estonia. Overall there are around 200 students from Central Asia enrolled in the country’s universities. Bilateral cooperation and programs like Erasmus Plus facilitate student and teaching staff exchange. 

Tirs emphasized the potential for increasing exchange, particularly considering Kazakhstan’s untapped tourism potential, suggesting promoting lesser-known destinations in Kazakhstan to Estonians.

He regretted that many people are unaware of Kazakhstan’s marvels and advocated for increased advertising of the country’s tourism potential and enhanced flight connections with Europe.

“The tourism sector is crucial for the economy, and a cooperation agreement between the European Union and Kazakhstan, which foresees visa facilitation between Kazakhstan and Europe for the Schengen area, is a step in the right direction,” said Tirs.

He also mentioned that in February, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed the ratification of the agreement between Kazakhstan and Estonia on the readmission of individuals, which is an important step in ensuring cooperation on migration issues.

“The more agreements like this are signed between Kazakhstan and European states, the higher the chances of negotiations on visa facilitation. Building trust between Kazakhstan and European states regarding migration issues is crucial, and I am pleased to see your government taking it seriously,”  Tirs noted.

World Cleanup Day

According to Tirs, modern society, especially the young generation, is increasingly concerned about environmental issues such as clean air and water. 

Environmental awareness is growing globally, with initiatives such as World Cleanup Day originating in Estonia to address littering and promote environmental stewardship. It began in 2008 and has since become a global movement.

“The initiative was started by an Estonian IT businessman who noticed excessive trash in forests or areas where people had illegally disposed of garbage. He developed an app where users could tag locations of garbage on Google Maps. In the spring of that year, 50,000 people participated in the cleanup efforts,” said Tirs. 

In 2018, the initiative became a global movement, highlighting the message that society refuses to tolerate living among trash and strives to combat “trash blindness,” where individuals ignore litter because they feel no personal responsibility. 

“Annually, we organize this initiative in September, with significant interest and participation from eco-activists, NGOs, the government sector, and others,” Tirs added. “The number of participants continues to increase, reflecting a growing awareness and commitment to environmental issues.”

While larger cleanup events occur in September, smaller initiatives involving students and schools take place in the spring to raise awareness and encourage participation among young generations. 

Estonia’s NATO role and Kazakhstan’s resilience

Tirs stressed the importance of preserving each country’s strengths, ensuring security, population well-being, and economic development. 

He mentioned Estonia’s role as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Contact Point Embassy in Kazakhstan, which involves facilitating information for visitors from organizations such as NATO, Kazakh institutions, or universities seeking information about NATO.

“Estonia views NATO as a security organization focused on ensuring stability. The country’s decision to join NATO 20 years ago was driven by the desire for security and reflecting on the past few years, it has proven to be the right decision,” he explained.

He suggested that Kazakhstan’s resilience is crucial for maintaining its status as a world middle power. He recommended strengthening social protection systems and leveraging assets such as digitalization to enhance its regional and global influence.

“Kazakhstan’s leadership prioritizes resilience, both internally and externally. By strengthening social protection systems, promoting civic engagement, and leveraging strengths like digitalization, the country can enhance its influence and contribute to regional stability. Initiatives like aiding other countries in digital governance showcase Kazakhstan’s capabilities and foster positive relationships. Overall, capitalizing on internal strengths while actively engaging with regional and global partners will increase Kazakhstan’s prominence,” said Tirs. 

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