«Institutions and individuals all need to play their roles openly and in line with the law. This is very much a challenge for the UK as well as Kyrgyzstan and other countries that believe democracy is best foundation for a fair and prosperous society», – said His Excellency British Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic Charles Garrett, in the interview to CABAR.asia analytical platform.
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CABAR.asia: You have been working as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan since the summer of this year, and you probably already managed to get comfortable here in the country. What do our countries have in common and vice versa?
I am definitely comfortable here. Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful place to live and work. I am still learning about the country and its people. But it is already clear that there are some interesting similarities and a long list of differences.
A fundamental similarity is that both the UK and Kyrgyzstan, uniquely among Central Asian states, believe that democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law are the best foundation for society. It is true that the UK has been developing democracy for longer than Kyrgyzstan. But there is no “end state” of democracy. All democratic societies, including the UK, are constantly seeking to strengthen their democracy. That brings our two countries together and forms the basis of much of our collaboration.
As for the differences, the first-time visitor to Kyrgyzstan sees them immediately. There is so much that is different, from the geography (Kyrgyzstan’s highest mountain is more than four times higher than ours) to the food (Kyrgyz like few vegetables and large amounts of meat, Brits like the opposite). Kyrgyzstan’s weather is dramatic and extreme. The UK’s is mild. You have an elected Head of State; we have a hereditary monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Kyrgyzstan’s culture is based on the nomadic way of life; the UK’s is not. But if you look underneath these differences, another important similarity is clear: the warmth and hospitality of both Kyrgyz and British people.
You speak Russian very well and often speak phrases in Kyrgyz. Where did you learn Russian? Do you read books in Russian?
Thank you! I love both languages. I spent much of my childhood in Moscow. Although I didn’t learn Russian at that time, the experience opened my eyes, and I took it up as soon as I could at school in Britain. I also studied it at university in London and then in Moscow. Moreover, the Foreign Office gave me more tuition before I came out here.
Kyrgyz is something completely new to me. And it is a beautiful and intriguing language, I hope to learn more of it while I am here. I strongly believe that one cannot truly understand a country or its people if one does not have some feel for the language.
British Ambassador Charles Garrett reads poetry in Kyrgyz. Video: Charles Garett’s Facebook page.
I do read books in Russian. I have many Russian classics – Pushkin, Chekhov, Mandelshtam and others – at home. The one I read most recently was a short story, a really beautiful one about life and love in Kyrgyzstan – Osennie Tsvety by Zuura Sooronbaeva.
What are the priority areas of British foreign policy in Kyrgyzstan? Could you please tell us about the ongoing projects of UK in Kyrgyzstan?
Britain collaborates with Kyrgyzstan because of our shared interests, especially in security and prosperity. And our projects here reflect that. Our Department for International Development is just starting a new project to establish business innovation centres in Kyrgyzstan to provide small and medium-sized businesses with the advice they need to grow. That is important because SMEs generate employment and are a powerful driver for the economy.
We are also collaborating to strengthen democracy by helping to improve the way the Zhogorku Kenesh works. As part of this project, we hope to strengthen the links between MPs and the voters. Media freedom is another key part of a strong democracy, and we are working to promote impartial media in Kyrgyzstan.
We are working with government to strengthen policy formation and to improve coordination between ministries and agencies. Another project is working with young people across Kyrgyzstan to reduce their vulnerability to extremist and nationalist pressures. Elsewhere, we are working with border communities to improve their access to water, strengthening local economies and reducing the risk of inter-community and cross-border instability.
The UK has now been collaborating with Kyrgyzstan in these and other areas for over 20 years. Our total annual spending is around £35 million through DfID, other programmes and through international organisations. Our bilateral collaboration is really excellent, and we are committed to supporting Kyrgyzstan’s continuing development.
One part of our collaboration that I am particularly proud of is our Chevening Scheme. Under Chevening, Kyrgyz students receive scholarships for postgraduate studies in the UK. These students become part of a global network of young people from around the globe. Kyrgyzstan is really well represented by its students, and we are looking forward to picking another group to go to the UK next year. If anyone is interested, the deadline is 5 November and the details are on the Embassy website.
Is there a British business, investments in Kyrgyzstan? If so, in which sectors? What can prevent investing in our country?
The most significant British investment in Kyrgyzstan is in the mining sector. A London-based company “Chaarat” is developing gold mines in the Chatkal region, which we hope, will bring significant economic benefit to Kyrgyzstan. Mining is an important sector in the British economy. Our companies are active around the world. So, apart from “Chaarat”, there are also many consultants and other firms bringing their knowledge and experience to the development of this sector in Kyrgyzstan.
The single most important factor preventing greater investment in Kyrgyzstan is the fear of corruption. I hear this regularly from businesses looking to invest in Kyrgyzstan. Attracting foreign investment is a fiercely competitive market. Investors almost always have a choice of different countries into which they can place their money. Kyrgyzstan has made good progress in some areas to make itself more attractive, for example showing improvement in the last couple of years in the Ease of Doing Business rankings. If Kyrgyzstan really is determined to increase its attractiveness, then tackling corruption, showing foreign investors that their money can be safe here, is the priority.
What is the level of trade between United Kingdom and Kyrgyzstan? What does usually Kyrgyzstan export to United Kingdom? What imported from UK?
The UK is in fourth place behind China, Russia and Kazakhstan. Stats. Much the biggest part of that is exports of gold, which is traded in the London markets. Gold exports are a key contributor to the Kyrgyz economy, so I am very proud of that UK-Kyrgyz connection.
After the UK withdraws from the European Union, are some agreements with Kyrgyzstan still valid? Or do they need to be re-signed? For example, the GSP + duty free mechanism.
The process of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is of course still going on. There remain many unanswered questions, especially around the UK’s future relationship with the remaining EU member states as well as around the UK’s global engagement. Many of these questions will not be finally confirmed until later in the process, but it is our intention that the benefits of the GSP+ arrangements should continue after the UK has left the EU. The UK is determined to build on its role as a global player.
Recently, in your twitter account, you said that Kyrgyzstan needs to develop a creative economy. Please tell us more about this.
Kyrgyzstan already has a vibrant creative sector. That was something I had not expected before I came here. However, it should not be a surprise to anyone. Creativity flourishes in an atmosphere where people are free to express their views and to exchange ideas. That is a strength of Kyrgyzstan, and not just in Central Asia. There are many start-up communities in Kyrgyzstan. These are largely the result of what I would call organic growth – creative entrepreneurs who want to make a business out of their idea. The creative sector is the fastest growing in many economies, including the UK, and I think it has real potential in Kyrgyzstan. It is exciting from an economic perspective because the sector is dominated by small businesses, usually the most effective way to create new jobs.
United Kingdom has a rich history and respect for tradition. For example, the history of British parliamentarism. What can Kyrgyz parliament learn from the British experience?
You are right: our parliamentary history goes back a long way, more than 800 years. Perhaps the single most important point about democracy is that it needs constant attention, constant strengthening, constant improvement. It is very much a journey, not a destination.
In order to protect and develop democracy, everyone in the country needs to play a role. Citizens need to use their right to vote. MPs need to take a serious and active role in parliament, not just debating issues and voting, but contributing to committees, ensuring they are holding the government to account and communicating transparently with the public. A free media needs to play its role, asking difficult questions of MPs, scrutinising their actions, informing the public. The Electoral Commission and the judicial system are also important in ensuring elections are run smoothly and legally. For all this to happen, institutions and individuals all need to play their roles openly and in line with the law.
This is very much a challenge for the UK as well as Kyrgyzstan and other countries that believe democracy is best foundation for a fair and prosperous society.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.