NUR-SULTAN – In February, Kazakhstan and Germany celebrated the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, a milestone in their bilateral relations. The Astana Times spoke with German Ambassador to Kazakhstan Monika Iwersen to find out more about the key milestones achieved during these years and the outlook for the future.
Before being appointed to Kazakhstan in September 2021, Iwersen served for four years as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan. “I’m not new to the area,” she told the Astana Times.
As the two countries celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations, there is a special bond that connects them well beyond this period and that is the large German diaspora. In the 1940s, almost 450,000 Volga Germans were deported to Kazakhstan and before the collapse of the Soviet Union there were around one million ethnic Germans living in Kazakhstan. Many of them moved to Germany in the 1990s, while around 200,000 remain part of Kazakhstan’s diverse ethnic makeup.
“There has always been a group of Germans here, even before the Second World War, when many of them were deported here. They have formed a bridge between our two countries. This is the case until today. We have quite a strong ethnic group of Germans here,” Iwersen said.
She noted that Germany was not only among the first to recognize the new independent state of Kazakhstan, but also to establish an embassy which opened in December 1992 in Almaty.
The support that Germany has provided to Kazakhstan since 1991, according to Iwersen, has been multifaceted, ranging from development cooperation in the early years to strong economic partnerships in later years.
“You have person-to-person contact. I hear of so many marriages between Germans and Kazakhs. You have students with scholarships or with their own resources [studying in Germany]. You have work and exchange programs, and cooperating universities. I think over time you have such a tight network of people who have experience, either Germans here or Kazakhs in Germany, that’s another piece of the strong networks we have. Over time, it builds trust and knowledge about each other, and there can always be more,” Iwersen said.
Strong economic relations
The diplomat praised the economic ties, stressing that the economies of Germany and Kazakhstan complement each other.
“I think our two economies complement each other very well in terms of what Germany has, what Kazakhstan needs, and what Kazakhstan has, what Germany needs. We can see that to this day there are strong economic relations,” Iwersen said.
The recent Kazakh-German business forum demonstrated the huge interest of German companies in Kazakhstan, attracting more than 60 delegates from Germany, the largest delegation since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Over the past 17 years, the volume of foreign direct investment from Germany has reached nearly $5.5 billion, according to data from state-owned Kazakh Invest. Last year alone, German business investment reached $323 million, while trade turnover reached $2.2 billion, up 6.4% from the previous year.
“I would say we are seeing some new dynamics now and that has to do, of course, with the reforms that were announced after the events of January. At the forum we had, there were more than 60 representatives of German companies. It was a very mixed group – those who were already investors here, others who are curious to see the opportunities and learn more, and a third group, due to what we call geopolitical developments, are looking also a presence in Central Asia,” Iwersen said, noting that investors are feeling a “new openness and new momentum in the talks.”
She is optimistic about the business prospects. More than 900 German companies work in Kazakhstan.
“The general trend that we can see in our two-way trade is that the numbers are up, and we have to see at the end of the year how much of that is an increase in the volume of goods being traded or if it is because a large percentage of what we get from Kazakhstan is oil and gas and prices have gone up, so it could drive up trade numbers, prices and numbers without increasing quantity. I guess for 2022 we’re going to see a significant increase because if you look at the new numbers they’re up 25% from 2020 to 2021. So I think we’re seeing the post-COVID effect and renewed mutual interest said the ambassador.
Asked about the potential impact of Western sanctions imposed on Russia on Kazakhstan, Iwersen was firm in stressing that there would be no significant effect.
“What is very important for us is that the Kazakh government has made it clear that it will not allow Kazakhstan to be a country through which sanctions can be circumvented. This is very important for trust and for economic relations as well. We see measures being put in place to prevent this,” Iwersen said.
German support for Kazakhstan’s reform program
Iwersen said Germany supports Kazakhstan’s broad reform program. She welcomed Kazakhstan’s determination to speed up reforms after the tragic events of January, and not the other way around.
“In some parts of the world, we would tend to get tough and tough, but on the contrary, we are trying to introduce reforms and open up in many areas and go in the opposite direction. I think that’s remarkable in itself. We respect this approach very much,” the ambassador said.
She expressed hope that media law would be reformed in Kazakhstan to allow for greater freedom of the press and encouraged greater attention to the protection of human rights. Iwersen mentioned the important role of the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany, noting that following the nationwide referendum on June 5, the Constitutional Court would also be restored in Kazakhstan.
“As you may know, the Constitutional Court is the institution Germans trust most in our country. It can be an important factor in people’s lives and in securing their rights. I would be very interested to see how it goes here. And we certainly have a lot of expertise that we could offer as well,” she said.
The nature of German investment in Kazakhstan is unique, as more than 80% of investment is in the non-resource sector, which directs the country’s efforts towards economic diversification and a green agenda, particularly relevant for Kazakhstan which is committed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. .
Germany has also set itself the long-term goal of becoming largely greenhouse gas neutral by 2045.
“I know this is a challenge, especially for countries with a very heavily fossil fuel-based economy. This is one of the reasons why Germany, through GIZ [German Agency for International Cooperation]supported Kazakhstan in formulating its decarbonization strategy, which is still being finalized,” she said.
German companies are also active in Kazakhstan in the development of renewable energy sources. One of the biggest projects comes from the Svevind company to build a green hydrogen plant in the Mangistau region.
“For us in Germany, this is kind of a solution to many of our challenges in terms of phasing out oil and gas and using gas as a transition energy for a while, while switching completely to renewable energies. We will need a lot of green hydrogen in the future, and we will not be able to produce all this electricity locally in Germany. We are looking for partners worldwide. This is a project that would have a lot of meaning with Kazakhstan because all the conditions are there in terms of wind, solar and hydropower,” said Iwersen.
In addition, German companies also want to contribute their expertise in renewable energy and energy efficiency, which are essential for decarbonisation.
Cultural and educational exchanges
To mark 30 years of diplomatic relations, the Embassy recently held a competition where participants were invited to share their views on what bilateral cooperation between Kazakhstan and Germany would look like in 2052. The Embassy is also planning a big pub quiz to see what people know about Germany, as well as a film week and a youth football tournament in the fall.
In the field of education, Germany and Kazakhstan are cooperating in the development of dual vocational education, in order to raise the level of vocational education in Kazakhstan. Currently, dual education is implemented in more than 400 Kazakh colleges with the participation of local enterprises in 80 specialties and 160 qualifications.
Many young people in Kazakhstan choose Germany as a destination to continue their higher education or learn the German language. Some start as early as third year in one of the 15 PASCH (Schools: Partners for the Future) partner schools in Kazakhstan.
The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) offers scholarship opportunities to almost 100 Kazakh students each year and the German-Kazakh University of Almaty offers quality education in various fields, in cooperation with German universities.
Speaking about her overall impression of Kazakhstan, Iwersen said she found the people here “very welcoming, hospitable, open and friendly”.
“A good number of them have ties to Germany or a good impression of Germany. It also makes my job easier. It’s a pleasure to be an ambassador here,” said Iwersen.