Interview: Erlan Idrissov

Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United Kingdom

AlthoughKazakhstan’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, H.E. Erlan Idrissov, came from a creative and academic background (his father was a renowned Kazakh journalist, writer, and academic), he chose a very different career path. His father instilled in him the belief in the power of words, spoken, written or expressed otherwise. And words, or rather the art of mastering them, are an essential element of diplomacy. This belief guided Idrissov to where he is today. Educated at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which at the time was the cradle of Soviet diplomacy, so started his path of diplomacy. OCA Magazine finds out more about how this particular ambassador is forging ahead despite the global headwinds.

OCA Magazine: Based on your experience, what have been the most successful projects that have strengthened the relationship between the UK and Kazakhstan?

Erlan Idrissov: The two states have been developing their partnership ever since Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991. The UK was among the first states to recognise Kazakhstan as an independent country and has been our partner ever since. Throughout the years, our main focus has been on commercial and investment co-operation. Today, the UK is one of Kazakhstan’s ten largest trading partners and one of the six largest foreign investors. Over the past 14 years, the inflow of direct investment from the UK to Kazakhstan has exceeded £10 billion.

The Joint Statement on the Strategic Partnership, adopted by the leaders of the two states in 2013, has helped solidify the Kazakh-British relationship even further, including our current work on a new strategic partnership agreement. The state of our partnership is being reviewed annually on a senior political level through the sessions of the Kazakhstan-UK Strategic Dialogue.

The Kazakh-British Intergovernmental Economic Commission is yet another important mechanism that helped institutionalise our bilateral economic dialogue and cooperation. Six meetings of the Commission have been held so far, with the next one scheduled for the end of this year.

There is also the bilateral Business Council co-chaired by Akhmetzhan Yessimov, Chairman of the Board of Samruk-Kazyna National Welfare Fund, and Baroness Emma Nicholson, UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy for Kazakhstan. It is an additional effective tool of forging trade and economic cooperation between our two countries.

A great example of our joint success is the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC) – an unprecedented hub of English common law and best international business practices built in the heart of Eurasia with the help of our friends from the City of London. It has become an important platform for attracting investment, with a full range of relevant world-class financial instruments and services. Investors operate in favourable conditions and with the support of effective institutions, including an independent regulatory mechanism, the AIFC Court and the International Arbitration Centre – all chaired by esteemed British lawyers.

Our cultural cooperation has also been bearing ripe fruit throughout these years. The most recent project was the translation and printing of the two anthologies of contemporary Kazakh literature (poetry and prose). The project was implemented by Kazakhstan’s National Bureau of Translations and Cambridge University Press, which is both the oldest printing and publishing house and the oldest university press in the world.

OCA: What are the main areas of co-operation and relationships that you see between the United Kingdom and Kazakhstan?

EI: As I mentioned earlier, economic and investment cooperation has always been our core focus, but our exchange is not limited to that. We intend to enhance our long-term strategic partnership, spanning the whole spectrum of our relations, including but not limited to trade, investment, digitalisation, education, science and art.

In light of the UK’s vision of a new Global Britain, the goal of developing stronger economic ties with new promising destinations outside Europe is an important priority. Kazakhstan has the potential to become that kind of a partner, with its stable economic and political system, strategic positioning between Europe and Asia, and eagerness to embrace British investment and expertise. We do look forward to seeing our relationship grow from strength to strength in the post-Brexit era.

OCA: How do you think the world will change after the COVID-19 pandemic? What will that mean for your role as an ambassador?

EI: The pandemic has already changed our lives dramatically. Hundreds of thousands of people have sadly died, millions have lost their jobs, homes, or businesses, economies are aching, reserves are drained, and social inequalities have become striking. We have gotten used to the new normal of social distancing, face coverings and working remotely.

It is a completely different world we are living in compared to what it was just seven months ago. COVID-19 has forced decision makers around the globe to re-evaluate everything. In the face of this unprecedented threat, the natural instinct of any government would be to focus on protecting its own economy, healthcare system, supply chains etc. However, the global challenge calls, first and foremost, for a global response. Today, international co-operation and co-ordination, mutual understanding and support are more important than ever. In this new world, diplomats globally need to think of innovative ways to build new bridges and enforce the existing ones, and that is what we are all currently doing.

OCA: The most famous figures in Kazakh culture – Abai Kunanbaiuly and Abu Nasr al-Farabi – celebrate their anniversary this year. What has been planned in terms of events and recognition for them in the UK?

EI: We have already hosted several exciting events to mark the 175th anniversary of Abai Kunanbaiuly and the 1,150th anniversary of Abu Nasr al-Farabi, the great philosopher and scholar of the East. For example, in July the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies was kind enough to co-host with us an international online symposium on al-Farabi and his legacy. The event gathered scholars from the UK, the US, Germany and Kazakhstan who presented their research on the legacy of al-Farabi.

In a similar vein, Cambridge University Press (CUP) and the Kazakh Embassy have recently co-hosted an online conference, where poets, writers and experts from the UK, Kazakhstan and the US joined a fascinating discussion on Abai’s wisdom. CUP is also working with Kazakhstan’s National Bureau of Translations to translate and publish Abai’s poems and Words of Edification. The project is unique in that for the first time in history, Abai’s writings are being translated directly from Kazakh into English and adapted by Sean O’Brien and John Burnside, both celebrated British poets, to create a very authentic translation. The project is now in full swing, and we are expecting the publication and the official launch later this year.

Abai’s legacy also includes several dozens of songs, which sound dear to every Kazakh heart. So, we decided to introduce the music of the Great Steppe to the English-speaking audience by publishing a separate book of Abai’s songs in English. The verses will be adapted to the music and accompanied by musical scores and QR codes linked to recordings of Kazakh-language performances.

Finally, to commemorate Abai’s anniversary, we also launched The Power of Abai’s Poetry World Challenge, featuring prominent British figures reciting Abai’s poetry, while an online concert later this year will include performances of Abai’s songs by Kazakh and British singers.