Central Asia – a bridge between Europe and Asia
The Embassy of Finland in Astana handles relations with not only Kazakhstan but also with Kyrgyzstan, which is Finland’s partner in development cooperation. The increasingly frequent exchanges of visits and the growing interest in the cooperation opportunities available in Central Asia keep me busy, says Soili Mäkeläinen-Buhanist, Finland’s Ambassador in Astana.
How would you describe the current situation and the biggest challenges in Kyrgyzstan?
Thirty years after gaining independence, Kyrgyzstan is still a poor country that relies on assistance and is made vulnerable by harsh natural conditions. Russia is a traditional strategic partner for the country, although economic relations with China have grown in importance. Remittances from migrant workers in Russia account for about 30 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has harmed Kyrgyzstan’s economy. However, Kyrgyzstan is rich in natural resources, such as gold mines and water resources. Climate change is a major challenge for Kyrgyzstan. It aggravates extreme weather conditions, such as drought, and makes essential livelihoods difficult.
The coup that followed the annulled parliamentary elections in October 2020 led to a presidential election where Sadyr Japarov was elected as the new president. Under Japarov, Kyrgyzstan has increased the power of the presidency. Lately there have been signs of a narrowing in the freedoms of Kyrgyzstan’s civil society, which traditionally have been fairly liberal. Another cause for concern is border disputes with neighbouring countries that sometimes escalate into violence.
How is Finland supporting Kyrgyzstan?
Thanks to long-standing development cooperation, the relations between Finland and Kyrgyzstan have traditionally been good, and maintaining the good relations is important at the political level, too. Finland started development cooperation with Kyrgyzstan immediately after the country gained independence in 1991. Current projects advance gender equality, human rights and the rule of law and promote sustainable management of natural resources and climate resilience. The Finnish Meteorological Institute, for example, is supporting Kyrgyzstan’s authorities in development of weather and climate services. In addition, we are supporting Kyrgyzstan’s economic growth through an Aid for Trade project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I am glad that the Embassy, too, is able support small projects with its own Fund for Local Cooperation. The projects allow us to take a peek at the civil society, and we want to be promoting especially the status of women and girls in a society without effective gender equality.
How do you see the future of Kyrgyzstan?
Kyrgyzstan’s future is linked to its capacity to mitigate the challenges created by climate change. The best scenario is that investments in the green transition will open opportunities for a more sustainable and inclusive economic growth and improve the wellbeing of the people. Kyrgyzstan has been the most democratic country in Central Asia, and I hope that the country continues to tap on the power of the civil society to develop Kyrgyzstan.
I want Finland to be involved in supporting sustainable development in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan both bilaterally and through the EU. People here see Finland as a good partner. It is reassuring that Finnish companies are more interested in the market opportunities in Central Asia now that the Russian markets are inaccessible. Last year, the Embassy in Astana started processing visa applications from both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It will serve as Finland’s regional centre for visas and residence permits in Central Asia, which will increase Finland’s importance in the region.
What has uplifted you personally in Kyrgyzstan and what can we learn from the locals?
Every time I visit Kyrgyzstan, I am impressed by the country’s marvellous nature and its mountains and by the overwhelmingly welcoming people who are proud of their own culture. The country is still off the beaten track as a tourist destination, but it is constantly evolving. Impressive nature and cultural experiences and friendly service are available for every taste. I am also impressed by Kyrgyzstan’s strong women. Throughout history up to the present, they have given their all and tackled difficult tasks to boost their country’s development.
In this series of articles, Finland’s ambassadors tell news from countries that are key partners of Finland’s development cooperation.
Text: Milma Kettunen