Following the demise of the former Soviet Union, Iran was amongst the first countries to recognize the national independence and sovereignty of Kyrgyzstan; the bilateral diplomatic relations between Kyrgyzstan and Iran were established on May 10, 1992. Over the past twenty seven years, existing cultural commonalities have driven the two countries to a better knowledge of each other, and since the beginning of this journey Avazbek Abdurazakov has been a diplomat to make every effort imaginable. In an interview with the Ambassador of the Kyrgyz Republic, we went over the developments in the relations between the two countries as he told us about his first visit to Iran in 1993, and how important was the role of the late Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani for the expansion of bilateral ties.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Mr. Avazbek I. Abdurazakov,
Ambassador of the Kyrgyz Republic to the Islamic Republic of Iran
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
When did you start your carrier at the Foreign Ministry of Kyrgyzstan?
I joined the MFA of the Kyrgyz Republic in 1992, following the declaration of independence by our country. Before that I used to reside in Moscow.
Did you also study during your time in Moscow?
I am a graduate of the Oriental faculty of the Tashkent State University where I studied Persian language and literature. Upon completing university studies, I joined the “Progress Publishers”, a world-famous publishing house in Moscow which used to publish literary and social works almost in every language of the world including Farsi, Dari and Pashto. First, I started there as a proofreader, after some time I became a junior editor, then editor and finally, editor in charge of the Dari language version of the “Asia and Africa Today” magazine. The magazine, a well-known and popular one in its time, used to be published in Moscow for many years. Later in 1990 Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev said that there were no longer any need “in unprofitable enterprises and ideological institutions and that every state-owned enterprise should either go self-sufficient or be shut down”. Finally, the famous publishing house ended up as a chain supermarket store similar to “Hyper”.
Since I knew Farsi and Dari languages, I went to become a Dari language interpreter of the joint-stock Soviet-Afghan “ASTRAS” transportation and freight-forwarding company in Hairatan, Afghanistan.
Need to note that in 1990 I left the then Soviet Union for Afghanistan, but two years later in 1992, I returned to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The Soviet Union did not exist anymore.
When I came back in Moscow in a cold autumn of 1992 and reported my return to the central office of the “SoyuzVneshTrans” (SVT) company, I was proposed a job at the central headquarters of the company, since had good recommendations from my senior colleagues in Afghanistan, but I said that I wanted to help my newly independent country. So, I packed my stuff and left for Bishkek where I brought my CV to the MFA of the Kyrgyz Republic, introduced myself and said that “I knew Farsi and English languages, and if the Ministry happens to need me, I am ready to be at its service,” – and that is how and when I started my service as a young Kyrgyz Diplomat.
Initially, I served at the International Organizations Department and after that, was transferred to the State Protocol Department of the MFA. Later on, I was rotated to the Department of Asia and Africa and became in charge of the Iran Desk, and since then, I have been working on bilateral relations between Kyrgyzstan and Iran.
Considering your knowledge of Farsi, you sort of knew the atmosphere between Iran and Kyrgyzstan which is an important point.
Not at all. After Kyrgyzstan gained its independence, a completely new world was unveiled to us. We did not have an independent foreign policy before, because in the former Soviet Union it was decided and implemented by Moscow.
As a fledgling country with newly gained independence, we did not have much experience in foreign policy, and Iran was one of the first countries who recognized our sovereignty. On May 10, 1992, bilateral diplomatic relations were initiated between Iran and Kyrgyzstan.
When the country had just won its independence, we did not have much familiarity with your country, of course, and it is my thought that Iran did not know Kyrgyzstan, either, and that is why the first ten years of the relations between the two countries were mostly based on gaining more mutual knowledge.
In 1993, Iran opened its Embassy in Bishkek and three years after that, we opened our Embassy in Tehran. In the beginning, our Embassy was located in Kashanak area in the North of Tehran, exactly in the same building where the Cuban Embassy is situated presently. Afterwards, the Governments of the two countries made a deal that Iran would be provided with a building in Bishkek, and in return, we would be given a building here, in Tehran.
When did you first visit Iran?
It was in May, 1993 when I came here as the member of an advance team from the MFA of Kyrgyzstan to make necessary arrangements for the first official visit of our President to Iran. There were no direct flights to Tehran back then, and we had to drive to Almaty first, and then get on a flight to Ashgabat. The Iranian Embassy in Ashgabat provided our team with a minibus that took us to the Bajgiran border. There, Iranian colleagues from the Representative Office of the Iranian MFA in Khorassan Razavi province welcomed us and took us to Mashhad. We spent a night in Mashhad and the next day got on a flight from Mashhad to Tehran. Upon arriving in Tehran, we stayed at the MFA Guesthouse close to the Niavaran Palace. This was my first trip to Tehran, which took quite a long time, comparing to the present days.
The railroad between Mashhad, Sarakhs and Tajan was not launched then, either. The late Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani made every effort to launch it and developed roads and air corridors, too. He was a diligent man of strategically wide vision and thinking, may God rest his soul, and he will certainly remain in the history of bilateral Kyrgyzstan – Iran relations as well as in the history of relations of Iran with all post-Soviet countries, Central Asia and Caucasus.
Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani was the first Iranian President who visited Bishkek in October, 1993 and cut the ribbon at the entrance of the Embassy of Iran to open it. I was a young officer of the MFA then and the memories of that day are still alive and fond to me today as well. During Mr. Rafsanjani’s visit, over 12 agreements in the fields of road transportation, air communications, customs, taxation, etc., etc. were signed and laid foundations for strategic agreements and cooperation between the two countries.
What changes have there been in the relations between Iran and Kyrgyzstan over the past years?
In spite of the ups and downs in the foreign policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Kyrgyzstan which can happen between any two countries, the path has continued and developed consistently and in quite a sustained way.
The common ground between us is, in fact, that we are neighbors in this vast and ancient region which is the common house to all of us. And we must always pay attention to the interests of our neighbors, understand them and consider them in our foreign policy. In doing so, we ask ourselves what the interests of Iran are, and hence, there is the consideration thereof on our part.
In the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, how much were the borders drawn basing on the ethnicity of population? And to what extent the principle of ethnicity of population effected the ethnic composition of population in Kyrgyzstan?
An interesting question. Even today, we cannot assert that national policies of Moscow in the sphere of culture were very bad ones. On the contrary, those policies were aimed at the development of national literatures, cinema, music, theatres, sports and, finally, at the development of national cultures of the former Soviet Republics.
For instance, the Kyrgyz cinema made progress and gained fame during Soviet years. A world-famous Kyrgyz writer, Chyngyz Aitmatov, gained international recognition and fame in Soviet years. As well as many other famous writers, poets, singers, musicians and artists in other republics of the former Soviet Union. Naturally, after the demise of the Soviet Union, those policies were transformed into national cultural policies of the newly independent and sovereign states.
Presently in Kyrgyzstan, the Government does many efforts to preserve national and traditional aspects of our culture. The last year, 2018, was the Year of celebrations in honor of Chynghyz Aitmatov. Also, in the years of 2014, 2016 and 2018, our country three times has successfully convened World Nomad Games with the aim of preserving and developing ancient and traditional sports.
In these years, the World Nomad Games were held on the shores of the Issyk-Kul Lake where the national team of Iran successfully took part and won a number of gold, silver and bronze medals. You may have heard the name of the Issyk-Kul Lake; it is a beautiful lake, which looks like an eye from above and that is why they call it the Eye of the Planet Earth. Also, the lake has other allegoric name: the Pearl of the Central Asia.
That lake is a beauty which is considered to be a touristic attraction of Kyrgyzstan?
Yes, we are a touristic country. Issyk-Kul has amazing strips around and does not freeze in winter. Issyk-Kul means “Hot Lake” and is deemed to be a very famous resort for tourists, the annual number of whom is two million. This year had a very hot summer, and we had tourists from Asian and European as well as neighboring countries, including Iran, who had come to Issyk-Kul to cool off. As I have said, the World Nomad Games have been held for the third time there in 2018, and the next round will be held in Turkey.
What is the ratio of Russian and Uzbek ethnic groups among the people of Kyrgyzstan?
Nearly 8 % are of Russian descent and another 16 % are Uzbeks.
Today more than 80 various nationalities and ethnicities are living together in Kyrgyzstan. Our Government has announced before that “Kyrgyzstan is the home to all of us”, and that means that in Kyrgyzstan we do not agree with any forms of discrimination, and the rights of all ethnicities, religions and schools of thoughts are equal. We have Muslims, Christians and Buddhists; there is freedom of speech and our people are all at ease.
You need to note that Kyrgyzstan is located in a special geographical position, along the way of the ancient Silk Road. It was along this Road where interactions amongst various civilizations such as Buddhists, Muslims and Christians always used to take place; and we were right there. There are remarkable Islamic, Christian and Buddhist monuments and today we highly value our history and pay great respect to our historic and cultural past.
In a way, you are referring to the Dialog of Civilizations, the initiative which was brought up by the former Iranian President, Mr. Khatami as to oppose the concept of the Clash of Civilizations. It was well received by the UN members.
I was here during Mr. Khatami’s Presidency and met with him a few times. I am a fan of the Dialog of Civilizations myself.
Do you have any specific memory from your meeting with Mr. Khatami?
I remember he showcased an entirely new face of Iran to the world; an open, bright, positive and very constructive display. All cultural figures in Kyrgyzstan respect and value him dearly. He had an official visit to our country and received an honorary doctoral degree at Bishkek State University. Mr. Khatami gave a speech to the students of Iranian studies, and we have very fond memories of him. Even a school was built in Kyrgyzstan during Mr. Khatami’s Presidency. Our people will always remember these things.
What was your position at the Embassy of Kyrgyzstan in Tehran back then?
I was the Minister Plenipotentiary and B-person at our Embassy back then. We were young idealists those days…
You have great people and I always enjoy working in Iran. One of my first memories goes back to when I was 35 years old. We used to get around by car, and once near Mashhad, our car broke down. We did not know what to do. A truck pulled over and the driver lent us a hand. A wire was discorded in the car generator and he fixed it for us. I wanted to pay him for it, but he said no and that we were his guests. I really liked his philanthropic manner. I know that all Iranians are hospitable, because they come from a noble, ancient culture and civilization.
How are the Ambassadors selected in Kyrgyzstan?
At the initial stage, the nominees are selected and recommended by the MFA of Kyrgyzstan, after a recommended Ambassador receives Agrément from the Government of the destination country, he goes to the Committee for International Affairs and National Security of the Parliament. The Committee looks into the resume of the nominee to know what he has done before and what capabilities he possesses as to whether he really can represent the country abroad. After that, MPs make their decision and confirm (or not confirm) the nominee. Then, the President of the country signs decree appointing the nominee as the Ambassador.
Each Ambassador should go to the Committee for International Affairs and National Security of the Parliament at least once a year to report on what they have done, and I did so last month on my visit to Bishkek. We have the procedures in our country, while other countries might not. We call it as the Presidential-Parliamentary system of governance.
What questions are frequently asked at the Committee for International Affairs and National Security?
They ask what we have done last year to expand bilateral ties; what projects are in progress; how increased or decreased the trade volume with Iran is; and why that is.
Before going to the Committee for International Affairs and National Security, however, we send our report to the Parliament through the MFA. They read the report and after that, summon me and I explain whatever the committee requests from me to explain.
There are various figures regarding trade exchange volumes between the two countries. How are the bilateral economic ties now?
According to the National Statistics Agency of our country, the trade exchange volume between the two countries in the year of 2018, comparing to 2017, have increased by some 70 %. It was much less before, and I believe the main problem is the lack of direct flights as well as costly logistics between the two countries. We should take into account, for instance, that hiring a twenty-ton refrigerator truck from Mashhad to Bishkek would cost you around USD 6300 to USD 6500. And if you want to export foodstuff from Iran to Kyrgyzstan, whatever it may be, say, shrimps or seabass or chickens, its’ final cost will be very high, while the same truck from Moscow to Bishkek would cost you USD 2300, – which is one third of the foregoing cost only. Surely, the transportation costs are a factor that has set back the trade volume between the two countries. Rail transportation is available, of course, but there is the problem of railway wagons’ deficit.
Over the past years, “Kayson Company” was involved in road construction projects in Kyrgyzstan. Are Iranian road constructors still active in Kyrgyzstan?
The “Kayson Co.” has built Bishkek-Osh road and restored a number of streets in our capital, Bishkek. Presently, Iranian road constructors are not working in Kyrgyzstan, but this year, in Osh, which is the second largest city of Kyrgyzstan, and we call it the Southern Capital of the country, a project of building Osh Sport Complex is in progress with the help of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It started after the Nowrooz holidays and so far the progress has been 60%.
The contractor of this project is the ”Nikoo Abnieh Alborz” construction company, its General Manager is Engineer Parviz Mohebali who works tirelessly at the project site and said that the project is expected to be completed by the end of this year, if God wishes.
In what fields do other Iranian companies work in Kyrgyzstan?
They work in various fields. A permanent trade fair of Iranian products is on in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and the nanoproducts of Iran, for instance, nanopaint as well as other construction nanomaterials are present there at the fair. Iranian petrochemical and construction materials are quite popular in Kyrgyzstan due to their good quality and modest prices. Kyrgyzstan exports lamb meat, beans and other agricultural products to Iran.
Some reports tell us that auto parts are being exported from Kyrgyzstan to Iran. What parts are we talking about?
I think the auto parts exported to Iran are exported within the Eurasia cooperation framework.
How large was the trade volume between the two countries in 2018?
Our statistics show USD 36 millions for 2018, while Iranian customs show $44 millions, but, in my view, the Iranian customs add to the final cost of imports the freight charges and added value, as well.
Is that why the numbers between the two countries are different?
Yes, imported lamb meat, for example, are evaluated at the Iranian customs in Tehran along with the freight charges, but the Kyrgyz customs in Bishkek airport when evaluating the exports’ value, calculate it without freight costs and added value.
Last year, an expert delegation from Kyrgyzstan visited Chabahar to render an estimate of transportation. What was their assessment?
Yes, a delegation from Kyrgyzstan visited Chabahar last year. It is a good port and has a suitable location. The only thing they said was that there is no railroad between Zahedan to Chabahar. Fortunately, I recently heard that the Supreme Leader permitted the withdrawal of 300 million Dollars from the National Development Fund of Iran to build a new railway between Zahedan and Chabahar, and as it has been announced earlier, by the end of 2021 the new railway will become operational. We hope that with the completion of the new railway, our access to the Sea of Oman will be further eased.
So far, are the cooperation agreements between Osh province of Kyrgyzstan and Khorasan Razavi province of Iran being implemented today?
Yes, they are implemented. Osh and Khorasan Razavi provinces are sister- or twin-provinces. Recently, the Governor of Khorasan Razavi province has visited Kyrgyzstan along with the Interior Minister of Iran, Mr. Rahmani Fazli, bilateral negotiations and consultations were held with the Kyrgyz counterparts, and I hope that the cooperation between the two provinces will develop more actively once Mashhad-Bishkek flight is launched.
Kyrgyzstan can reduce the aerial transportation costs to Iran with the help of its neighboring countries. Has there been any negotiation in this regard?
Kyrgyzstan is the member of one regional family, and this vast region is home to all of us. So why should we not cooperate? We should cooperate and help each other, and we must understand problems and interests of each other in our region.
The vision of the late Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani was a very conceptual and strategic one. He emphasized that we should cooperate in this region to make progress together and there is no other way than this. The late Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani had a very broad and strategic vision of the future development of the region.
Mr. Rouhani met three times with the President of Kyrgyzstan and there are numerous cooperation MOUs signed between the two countries. Is it not better to prioritize the implementation of these MOUs?
Of this, I can refer to his official visit in December 2016 when I was just appointed as the Ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to your country. Before and after his official visit to our country, President Rouhani also two times attended Summit meetings of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Bishkek. And during each visit to Bishkek he had good meetings. On his official visit in 2016, a long-term “Program of bilateral cooperation in the fields of trade and economy, transport, culture, etc., etc. for the period of 2016 – 2026 was signed between the two countries, and I hope, with mutual efforts, we will put into practice everything that was planned.
So far, have been the projects of building hydropower plants in Kyrgyzstan discussed by the two countries in 2016, implemented?
So far, not yet.
In September, 2019, Mr. Rahmani Fazli visited Kyrgyzstan and one of the issues he discussed with the Kyrgyz side was the problem of the lack of direct bank ties between the two countries. Has a working banking mechanism between the two countries been devised, so far?
You know that banking issues are a very sensitive ones. Banking experts of the two countries should find and propose ways. Diplomats cannot do that. Diplomats can only facilitate negotiations between banks and help along the way. I hope that this problem would be solved some time in future.
In 2016, we witnessed signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two countries to fight drugs illegal trafficking. Kyrgyzstan has good experiences in that area. Did the cooperation start between them?
We have a regular exchange of delegations in this field between the two countries, and the Minister of Interior, H.E. Rahmani Fazli, has recently paid a visit to Kyrgyzstan and a comprehensive bilateral Agreement on cooperation has been signed between the Governments of the two countries. The signed agreement concentrates on bilateral cooperation in combating illegal drugs’ trafficking, production and distribution as the key priority.
Iran has honed skills and experiences in this field. Kyrgyz experts are often surprised by large volumes of drug seizures by Iran, whereas in the Central Asia, there are 10, 20, 50 or at most 300 kilos seized so far. I hope the Iranian and Kyrgyz Interior Ministries shall form a joint working group to fight such evil.
Is there any counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries?
Yes, relevant ministries and agencies of the two countries cooperate with each other.
Iran’s Attorney General, Mr. Montazeri has visited Kyrgyzstan in October. Was there any special achievement?
He was invited to attend a meeting of Attorney Generals of SCO by his Kyrgyz counterpart, in Bishkek, where bilateral and multilateral meetings and discussions took place.
We have witnessed simplification and facilitation of the Kyrgyz visa issuance regulations during your presence here. Can visa be completely lifted between the two countries?
When I arrived in Tehran three years ago, the first problem I noticed was that Iranian travelers, businessmen and tourists had to receive certified invitations from Kyrgyz counterparts and receiving institutions in order to be able to visit Kyrgyzstan, and sometimes, it took 45 days to receive such an invitation. The visa issuance process took quite a long time, too. I thought that was not a practical approach and that previous procedures should be reformed. I immediately wrote a report to the MFA of the Kyrgyz Republic and reiterated that we needed to remove existing obstacles. The Government reviewed the case and it was decided that the red line for visa issuance procedure must take at most five working days and to reduce visa tariffs in half, so it is 30 Dollars now.
And with regard to the issue of visa cancellation, your Foreign Minister Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif earlier has met with his Kyrgyz counterpart in Tehran and discussed this matter. Our MFA has reported its proposals to the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic, and it is being presently considered by relevant agencies of our country.
Presently, both countries’ holders of Diplomatic and Service passports do not need visas for up to 30 days. But since April 2017, in addition to easing visa issuance and reducing of visa tariffs, we began issuing E-Visas visas for Iranian nationals, meaning that on the website of the Consular Department of the MFA of the Kyrgyz Republic, you just fill out a form, upload your picture and you can travel to Kyrgyzstan from any part of the world. Also, at international airports of our country, including “Manas Airport” in Bishkek, travelers are given instant visas upon their arrival. And Iranian nationals can obtain Kyrgyz visa at international ground border posts of our country.
How many Iranian companies are registered in Kyrgyzstan whose intention is to make investment and provide services?
There are many Iranian companies and businessmen in our country. If we look at the statistical figures of 2018, so far 257 private Iranian firms and companies have been registered in Kyrgyzstan, while only 64 of them are operative now. For example, there are Iranian companies in the “Bishkek Free Zone” that produce detergents, soap as well as tomato paste.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the main importers of Iranian paint.
Yes. Iranian paints and construction materials are popular in Kyrgyzstan. I myself used Iranian building materials while building my house in Bishkek due to their good quality.
There are numerous mines in Kyrgyzstan. Do you still extract uranium?
Actually, we have the whole periodic table of Mendeleev in Kyrgyzstan. Production of Uranium in Kyrgyzstan goes back to the times of Stalin and the former Soviet Union. It is no longer extracted now. Recently the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan has adopted a Legislative Act prohibiting production and enrichment of Uranium in our country.
With regard to the fact that I am interviewing you just few days ahead of an official ceremony and reception dedicated to the 28th Anniversary of the National Independence and Sovereignty of the Kyrgyz Republic, I shall be glad if you care to add anything that has been left out of our discussion.
Soon we shall be celebrating the 28th anniversary of the National Independence and Sovereignty of the Kyrgyz Republic, and I would like to use this opportunity and reiterate once again our friend, the I.R.Iran and its people have always been with us since the first days of our independence and followed an ever-friendly policy towards Kyrgyzstan.
We have historic, cultural and long-rooting commonalities and understand each other well. Kyrgyz people can easily find a common language with Iranians. It is the opinion of Iranian and Kyrgyz tourists that we have many cultural similarities. We have good will and a positive approach toward each other and it is my hope to witness such friendly relations at the 28th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.
I believe that in this vast region, we are all one family. We must think of a better, brighter future of this region and work for it. We should avoid any conflict and try to make a better life for the future generations and protect them from seeing the badness, because war cannot be good, and in the first day of wars, innocent civilians are killed, since they do not know the art of fighting. Therefore we, as diplomats, and reporters should make every effort to prevent such occurrences from happening.