Kazakhstan, the largest Central Asian country, and India, the largest South Asian country, have been trading and diplomatic partners for years. Kazakhstan even backs India’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Now, both the countries are keen to widen horizons of their partnership, even in areas hitherto unexplored like defence cooperation, infrastructure development and tackling terrorism. Such is the newfound warmth in relations between the two countries that today (Sunday), a musical band of Kazakh National University of Arts will perform live in New Delhi to mark the 24th anniversary of the Kazakh independence from the Soviet Union. Bulat Sarsenbayev, ambassador of Kazakhstan to India, reveals the reasons behind this warmth and talks of the future of India-Kazakhstan ties to MUHAMMAD ANAS. Excerpts:

Q. Kazakhstan is India’s biggest economic partner in Central Asia and after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the country in July this year, this partnership is expected to consolidate further. How do you see India-Kazakhstan relations?
A. Kazakhstan established diplomatic relations with India 23 years ago. There is a daily flight from New Delhi to Astana, the Kazakh capital. Apart from sharing various common stands on international issues, both the countries have cemented their trade ties in recent years. Today, the volume of India-Kazakh trade stands at $1.3 billion. This is actually higher than the overall volume of trade exchanges among all five Central Asian countries.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kazakhstan in July, both countries inked five major pacts which revolve around military cooperation, cooperation on tackling international terrorism, improving defence ties, increased supply of uranium to India and enhancement of educational and recreational tourism in both the countries.
We hope by 2019, when the Modi government completes its term, we will be able take our trade volume over five times higher. One very small step indicative of it will be increased flights on the Delhi-Astana route. Soon, there will be 10 flights a week on this route. Besides, works on all other mentioned cooperative projects have also gone into planning mode and visits of delegates from both the countries are being finalised. To add more, during 2015-19, Kazakhstan will supply 5,000 tonnes of uranium to India.

Q. After PM Modi’s visit, the much talked about Indo-Kazakh project is the construction of the Mudra Port in Gujarat where Kazakhstan is said to have sought building a container terminal. Analysts say it will help Indian firms enter Eurasian markets. Please elaborate on this.
A. The Mudra Port project will completely change the paradigm of India-Kazakh relations. The Kazakh National Railway Company is in talks with the Adani Group of India to build the said container terminal at the port. Once operational, it’ll open the Gujarat coast to the transport corridor in Central Asia. We already have the 800 km Kazakh-Turkmenistan-Iran economic corridor in the operational stage. It is linked to Bandar Abbas port of Iran. Thus, you can imagine how beneficial it will prove to India, and to all those countries connected through it, from business and other points of view. This corridor will take Indian products to markets in Central Asia, Europe and Russia.

Q. How will your government help Indian firms, including small firms, to do business in or through Kazakhstan?
A.  We are opening 80% of our private sector for foreign firms. We are even gradually lifting all legislative restrictions to facilitate this. Actually, the establishment of the Astana Financial Centre is a step in this direction only. It’ll help foreign companies to comprehend and deal with business laws in Kazakhstan.
You asked about small Indian firms. There are already around 500 small Indian companies doing business in or with various Kazakh business units. Recently, we had organised a road show in New Delhi in partnership with FICCI to showcase business opportunities for small firms in Kazakhstan.

Q. In India, the problem of terrorism is one of the major security concerns. And Kazakhstan has not faced any major terror-related problem in recent times. How will it help India tackle terrorism?
A. Today, no problem is local, it’s all global whether it is business or security problems. In Kazakhstan, we actually recently faced a very dangerous terror threat. I can’t share much detail about that, but all I can say it made us very worried. In 2013, we even formulated our Law on Terror legislation which aims to stem extremism and use of violence by possible radical outfits.
With India, we are working to constitute a joint Special Working Groups which will share expertise, communication and other knowhow to prevail over this menace.
More importantly, we are targeting to end poverty and economic deprivation in both our countries through a plethora of planned joint business ventures. These efforts will definitely bear fruit as like crime, terrorism, too, is directly linked to poverty and opportunity vacuum.

 Q. You admit the “presence” of terror threat in Kazakhstan. Even recently, some youths from neighbouring Tajikistan and Kysgyzstan were reported to have joined the dreaded Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Do you fear any such possibility of terror-tilt among the youths in Kazakhstan?
A. We dealt with a serious terror threat on our soil some time back. And we terminated it. But we are living in a globalised world where all problems travel from one place to another. We are very serious about tackling terrorism and extremism. As I mentioned, our anti-terror law is quite capable of dealing with any such threat. Besides, we have trained the armed forces to ride out any such menace. I myself have been a soldier and I say this from my understanding as a soldier. Though right now, Kazakhstan and other parts of Central Asia are not direct target of such groups. Overall, the government of Kazakhstan is determined to maintain its status as a bastion of peace, security and peaceful economic progress in the heart of Eurasia.

Q. Though Kazakhstan doesn’t border Afghanistan, but because of it being in close proximity, do you fear any movement of Afghan militants and drug peddlers into your country? Especially after the withdrawal of Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan by the end of next year?
A. Some of them slip into Kazakhstan. We have faced this problem. But we are capable of stopping wrongdoers, and even teach them lessons.

Q. In India, most terror-related incidents in recent past have been linked to Pakistan, and even to the Kashmir issue between the two countries. How will you articulate the Kazakh’ position on this?
A. To be honest, I am not an expert on South Asia and neither do I hold any brief on this issue, so I will not comment with full authority. All I can say that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan and they must settle it amicably. I have recently visited Kashmir and I was pleasantly surprised to see some families there who still follow Sufi traditions espoused by 12th century Kazakh Sufi saint, Khoja Akhmet Yassawi, popularly known in Kazakhstan as Hazrat Sultan. My family also traces its roots to this great mystic. I hope we find solutions through teachings of these mystics. I am delighted to say that both India and Kazakhstan share and celebrate Sufi culture which is an anathema to terrorism.

 Q. Please tell us about the Kazakh musical concert in New Delhi on 6 December.
A. A music group of the Kazakh National University of Arts will perform at the Nehru Stadium this Sunday to mark the 24th anniversary of the Kazakh independence from the Soviet Union. The event is titled “Kazakh Eli Classic”. Among the musicians will be Aiman Mussakhodjayeva, internationally acclaimed violinist and dean of the university. He has been conferred “People’s Artist of the Republic of Kazakhstan” honour by the Kazakh government and is the highest rated artist of the country. I hope Delhi will enjoy it.

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