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Ole Johan Bjørnøy: We Deliver the Same Message – Transparency and Lack of Corruption

«If you can combat corruption and nepotism and all these things, then business finds interest in going places»,  – said H.E. Ole Johan Bjørnøy, Norwegian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, in the interview to CABAR.asia analytical platform.


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His Excellency Ole Johan Bjørnøy, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Norway to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Photo: CABAR.asia

CABAR.asia: Norway is a developed small country in the north of Europe. Although, geographically, it is quite far away from Central Asia, there are many similarities shared between our countries. What are those similarities? Is there a common thing Norway shares with a particular country in Central Asia or the region as a whole?

Well, Central Asia is not a homogeneous region. The countries are different; to some extent very different in many ways. That goes also for the Nordic region, the five Nordic countries.

If I will be specific, for instance, Kyrgyzstan shares a similarity in terms of gender issue, which also distinguishes Kyrgyzstan somewhat from other countries in the region. The role of woman is more prominent here, countries where women economically active have a higher living standard. As I have heard, 70-75% of tax payers in Kyrgyzstan are women. That would not be the case in other Central Asian states because the role of woman is much lower there, and women are not out at public life. Kyrgyzstan is on top in that regard.

What about other countries in the region?

Kazakhstan is second, and Uzbekistan with Tajikistan are equal in ranking. Then, when it comes to other areas, I think there is a common interest in working of international rules, the UN rule-based system. That also goes for positive/neutral Turkmenistan that has no alliances.

Each country in Central Asia have found areas under the UN rule-based system that they prioritize. Tajikistan has for example taken on a role in the UN Water Decade and Uzbekistan is paying much attention to the Aral Sea in a UN context. Turkmenistan is also playing a role in that regard. Kazakhstan is putting emphasis on disarmament and non-proliferation.

What are the priority areas of Norwegian foreign policy in Central Asia? What are the directions of your work? Is it collaboration with a government or population in the region?

We work in different areas. With Kyrgyzstan, to mention one, we, alongside with UN and EBRD, are supporting the country in the efforts of cleaning up the radioactive tailings after the Soviet uranium mining. The mining activities, besides Kyrgyzstan, took place also in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

We also send Norwegian experts. For example, we were up at the seismic station in Ala-Archa gorge in Kyrgyzstan, where we measure earthquakes and nuclear testing. For that, specialists visited the region last month. It is related to the CTBT treaty – the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. As we see, it is not so that you can separate multilateral cooperation between our countries from bilateral one.

When it comes to business, I always quote a former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during his lecture at Nazarbayev University “Money goes where money has confidence”. If you can combat corruption and nepotism and all these things, then business finds interest in going places. That is the case as well, we cannot push business.

Have you got any business or investment in any of the five countries in the region?

We have some in Kazakhstan in energy sector. I know there have been some contracts in the mining sector in Uzbekistan, but it is a trade. As we know, investment often comes as a result of how the trade has proven itself.

So, one of the directions of your work are ecological projects (waste management issues, the climate). What are the other priority areas of Norwegian foreign policy in Central Asia? Are there any projects in, let us say, civil society, education or other spheres?

We have a directorate for higher education cooperation between the universities around the world. AUCA has the project with one Norwegian university. Kyrgyz Financial University cooperates with another Norwegian university in tourism; the technical university – in the mining sector with another Norwegian University.

We also support OSCE Academy both financially and supplementary [we conduct guest lectures there]. Our directorate coordinates the startying up of contact between universities.

What about countries other than Kyrgyzstan to show a bigger picture? Do you have a single project in Tajikistan?

It, more or less, is the same, but, as I started off with, our work cooperation is most developed with Kyrgyzstan, and least – with Turkmenistan – because it is difficult working there. In-between there, we have different activities – with Tajikistan it is a water management, which is a priority from the [Tajik] president and falls under sustainable development.

What about Pamir energy?

Pamir energy provides selling energy produced in Tajikistan to Afghanistan. That’s one project that is very economical in this regard. We cooperate with the Aga Khan Development Network in Gorno Badakshan in Tajikstan and Badakhshan in Afghanistan and it is very promising regarding sustainability and economic viability.

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Norway is known for its developed economy and the best positions in various ratings such as the lowest corruption level and the happiest people. What can Central Asia learn from Norway? For example, the fight against corruption or other outstanding Norway’s indicators?

In terms of transparency and lack of corruption, Denmark is at the top. It is the least corrupt country in the world, I think we are in the fourth place. With other Nordic countries, we wonder among ourselves how much Denmark paid to get the first place [in corruption rating]. That is a joke. We have oil industry, which makes us very internationally connected. And again, I would like to quote and refer to my colleague, Dr. John Mikal Kvistad, who has co-written the white paper on Norways role and interest in multilateral organizations and lectured it at the different universities in Central Asia. We deliver the same message and reveal the same answers to the questions you are asking here – corruption fight and transparency.

Relating to Kyrgyzstan again, we have project here with Statistics Norway and Norwegian Mapping in launch since 2005. We work with business registers and people, and mostly in the countryside – 63-65% of those activities are being implemented in the countryside. We held the project together with Kyrgyz Statistical Bureau.

Referring back to business and trade, what is the level of trade between Norway and the countries of Central Asia? What can Central Asian countries export to Norway? What can be imported from Norway?

Central Asian states import equipment related to the energy industry. It is not limited to Norwegian equipment because Norway has a very open economy that is what drives Norway forth. Hence, we are very interested in most bilateral cooperation. Some of the equipment are purchased elsewhere, but Norway tries to modify itself to fit into the needs here. We are as already mentioned engaged in hydroelectric powers, and we also have made feasibility studies for development of that sector here. But the seems to need adjustment to attract the foreign investors. Politicians here must think of consumers and remember what happened in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 during the rise in prices [for electricity]. That’s a balance in that regard. What can these countries sell to us? We are an oil and gas producer, so we export the same thing as three of these countries do export themselves (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan). Norway is the second biggest exporter of a natural gas to Europe after Russia.

We have so-called generalized system of preferences system with Central Asian countries, i.e. the countries get tax/customs reduction on export to Norway. However, as you know, that has to be accompanied by standard certificates, by veterinary certificates. A good example of what is not utilized and what can be exported from Kyrgyzstan is walnuts. You have Turkish companies coming to Kyrgyzstan and buying walnuts at low prices; and what we buy in Norway are Turkish nuts. That happens often when the middleman is a profit-taker, not the producer.

Is it possible to export dried fruits from our region, especially Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan?

Yes, if you have veterinary and standard certificate.

It is hard to obtain those certificates.

That is the problem. There is a new project in some of these countries that work on standardization. I understand the European Union is involved in the issue of veterinary standards.

GSP Plus?

GSP [Generalised Scheme of Preferences] Plus is the EU, just Norway-Switzerland has GSP agreement with several countries in the region since we are outside of EU politically Norway is in a way in EU economically. Without the right to vote, as my colleague says. We pay but cannot vote since our membership in the European Economic Area that we are part of to get access to EU markets is organized that way.  

From left to right: Dr. John Mikal Kvistad, Senior Adviser of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norwar; H.E. Ambassador Ole Johan Bjørnøy; Abakhon Sultonnazarov, IWPR Central Asia Regional Director; Ermek Baisalov, CABAR.asia Editor of analytical materials. Photo: CABAR.asia

Since Norway is a developed country, it appears as destination country for migration. Many people want to go to Norway, work & live there. Recently there was news that several dozen illegal immigrants from Central Asia and the CIS were expelled from Norway. What do migrant workers in Norway do? How to make their life easier, integrate into society? How can we assist migrants?

That’s true. That was an issue, when 68 nationals of this region – one Russian, two Kyrgyz and rest Kazakhs – had to return back because they were cheated here by some bogus employment company; they were promised certain work in Norway. The labor market in Norway is very strongly regulated to protect laborers’/workers’ rights. As you know, this is an issue here as well with the labor unions. You might have heard what has happened in UK: the labor unions were demolished. If you are outside the EEA area (basically EU), then you have to have a specialty that cannot be found in Norway. So, if you have a programmer from Bangalore or very experienced person from here that nobody else can match in certain field, then you’ll get a work in Norway. It is not about getting unskilled labor to Norway if you are outside of the EU area. We have construction boom, which is taking all over the world now, there are lots of workers from Poland, the Baltic Countries, not from Ukraine because it is outside of the area. That is the way it works.


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. 

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