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Kyrgyzstan|opinion & analysis|February 15, 2024 / 12:28 PM
People seem much more relaxed in Kyrgyzstan than in other places where I have lived - Swiss Ambassador Olivier Bangerter

AKIPRESS.COM - Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Swiss Confederation, Dr Olivier Bangerter in an interview with AKIpress spoke about current relations with Kyrgyzstan, projects, gold and family.

- What is the current state of Kyrgyz-Swiss relations?

- The state of relations is good and the dynamic of cooperation is constructive. Our presidents met shortly in December at the Summit on poles and glaciers in Paris. We had our political consultations in December in Bishkek with our assistant Secretary of State.

Kyrgyzstan and Switzerland support each other in all sorts of manners. In the World Bank & IMF boards, Switzerland is representing Kyrgyzstan and a number of other countries from Central Asia and Eastern Europe. This allows all of our voices to be heard better than if we were simply talking individually.

In the context of the United Nations, Switzerland is part of the Global Mountain Partnership and an active member of the New-York-based “Group of Friends on Mountainous Countries” chaired by the Kyrgyz Republic. This shows that our friendship and support go both ways.

Two years ago, we marked 30 years of diplomatic relations and this year we are planning to mark 30th anniversary of Kyrgyz-Swiss cooperation. 30 years ago, in 1994, the Swiss and Kyrgyz Governments signed an official cooperation agreement and after that Switzerland started to allocate funds for implementation of development projects in Kyrgyzstan. Among the first projects, one helped conserve forests, notably but not only Arslanbob, and in the other the SNB supported the NBKR; this actually started right after independence and still continues today; last year, we had the visit of the governor of SNB in Bishkek to celebrate 30 years of the KGS, a sign that the relation continues.

- How much money does Switzerland allocate for aid to Kyrgyzstan?

- This is a key part of the work of the Embassy.

Annually Switzerland allocates around CHF 20 million (22 mio USD) to Kyrgyzstan for development projects in all parts of the country. From 1994 to 2022, Switzerland has granted more than CHF 500 million ODA to Kyrgyzstan through technical, financial and humanitarian support. I do not have the final figures including 2023 yet, but we can safely estimate the actual total around 525 mio CHF, which is over 54 bio KGS.

- Where do Swiss donor funds go?

- First, all of Swiss funding to the Kyrgyz republic are grants, i.e. there is no need to reimburse them and obviously no interest rate. Sometimes we combine this with loans from World Bank or EBRD, but the Swiss contribution is always for free.

All these funds come from taxpayers in Switzerland and we have the obligation to use them for their goal, which is to improve the lives of the population of Kyrgyzstan.

The three main areas where we are working now are 1) everything that has to do with water 2) economic development 3) governance and access to services.

On water (water, infrastructure and climate change), we all know climate change and water scarcity are real issues. Last year, I visited the region of the Kirov reservoir at the end of the summer and it was impressively low. Switzerland takes very seriously the decision by the government to decide a state of emergency in the energy sector and to allocate much more funding for water supplies: this is a clear priority that we want to support. Our main action is to support the efforts of authorities to implement the water code and enact National Water Council’s decisions. This is all about managing all sources of water in a strategic way and be prepared for inevitable implications of climate change by reducing losses and using what is there better. The quality of drinking water and wastewater services impact the population’s well-being very directly. Switzerland assists in renovating and extending urban water systems improving safe drinking water and wastewater services. This is for instance the case in Bishkek, Karakol and Naryn cities.

Linked to water is hydro-energy – and energy in general; in 2023, we completed the renovation of At Bashy HPP, a major endeavour for us and a very successful one.

I will speak of disaster risk reduction projects later.

On economy, Switzerland assists small and medium businesses in different ways: promote greater access to finance, ensure business services are there. We can see the increased exports and performance for instance in textile, tourism, agri-business sectors. In some cases, we are very concentrated on a specific area, like in Alai for one of the projects that we are going to conclude this year. I can already announce that we will have two guests from capital, including the head of development cooperation for Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. It will be a good opportunity for the embassy to showcase our support to Kyrgyzstan.

One project that is starting is about providing short-term skills development to youth. When discussing with the ministries of education and of labour, we identified that formal & longer-term are well covered, but that there is still a gap in terms of offers for courses that last a couple of weeks and respond to the need of specific businesses. One example that we always hear is that the country is short of people who can sew clothes – a major export commodity here. But it is only one of them. So, we will work with the government and private companies to set up very targeted short-term courses. The goal is not a big diploma but that young people can be employed quickly. The country needs both types of training, and we chose this area so as to avoid duplications with what ministries are already doing or planning.

On governance and access to services, we support the work of partners like DPI (Development Policy Institute), the Union of LSGs (ULSG) and the Academy of Local governance (LGACA) with one goal: allow members of LSGs to better serve the needs of the population of their municipalities. The goal is to ensure that LSGs are able to work well and that all citizens are able to participate in decision-making processes at the local level that have an impact on their lives, as enshrined in Kyrgyz tradition and legislation.

In my first year, I could see first-hand in Jalal-Abad how it works; in December, our Assistant Secretary of State was quite impressed by the results when she visited Alamedin municipality. This work will be even more important in the months to come when the Administrative Territorial Reform is put into effect over the whole country.

On health services, we back the government in its strategic efforts to strengthen the primary health care system, improve health management systems and to modernizing medical education. You may have seen recently that the Ministry of Health announced the start of the republican campaign "Be Responsible!" targeting men aged 18 and above to identify risk factors that can lead to noncommunicable diseases. Throughout the month of February, men are encouraged to visit local primary care facilities for medical consultations. This is an initiative we support because NCDs are the main cause of deaths in the country, and most can be prevented or at least managed.

In addition, we also have a regional programme of promotion of the diversity of cultural creation in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is the most dynamic cultural scene in the region, with very different forms, from the more traditional to more avant-garde. Our support is there to help cultural institutions develop projects.

Check our social media this year for information on past and current projects.

- What is new in the cooperation programme for 2022 - 2025?

- One thing we start, one thing we start stopping. We start Disaster Risk Reduction activities (DRR). We realise that with climate change there will be more floods, more droughts, etc. We are starting two projects. One is to support the World Food Program here and the Ministry of Emergency Situations. We have a world-class Swiss expert who will come at least twice from Dushanbe and give consultations. This applies to Batken, Osh, Jalal-Abad, Naryn oblasts.

The other is the Naryn Urban Resilience Project (NURP). Together with the Aga Khan Foundation, we help the city of Naryn. I think this project is being implemented successfully.

Another project we have started to stop is health. We have achieved a lot in recent years. Further steps already require huge investments.

We have made strides in medical waste management, including in small towns. We help patients with non-communicable diseases. These are heart attacks, oncology, respiratory diseases. All these diseases can be prevented or at least managed.

The results are really good and the Ministry of Health can continue the programme.

- Does Kyrgyzstan have a commitment to support Switzerland's candidature to elected bodies of international organisations?

- To answer honestly, not at the moment – but maybe Switzerland has some commitments?! Usually, we would only make mutual commitments when the country is to be elected. When it is a person, as in many international organizations, or about a resolution, we always discuss on the merits of the case. This is why Switzerland for example recently supported a resolution launched by Central Asian countries on the effects of climate change.

The common membership in the constituencies in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), is a very important pillar of the relations of Switzerland with the countries of Central Asia and beyond. Kyrgyzstan was among the first countries to join the Swiss Constituencies at the IMF and WB in 1992. Switzerland also represents Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Serbia, and Poland in these voting groups. As you know, the IMF and World Bank are key institutions in the international financial architecture – by being together, we have a say in how they work. Both institutions provided substantial financial and technical support to the development and transition processes in Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan.

Switzerland chairs a constituency at the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which includes Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Switzerland thanks for the trust that those constituencies members placed in her.

Switzerland plays a double role in this region: it is a donor country and, at the same time, it represents the interests of receiving countries in the major international financial institutions. This approach shall be pursued in the future.

- Are private investments from Switzerland coming to Kyrgyzstan?

- Swiss private investment to Kyrgyzstan are not big. In 2022 USD16.4 million only (data of Kyrgyz National Statistical Committee), i.e. less than 2% of the total FDIs inflows into the country. This still puts Switzerland at 9th rank in that year.

I hope our relatively strong presence in the country through development programs will also help provide some opportunities for Swiss investors. Given the structures of our respective economies, Swiss investments could encompass the following areas: banking and financial services; textile; agricultural products; construction of small and medium hydroelectric power stations; tourism.

- Kyrgyzstan exported 9.9 tonnes of gold in January-September 2023. Of these, 8 tonnes went to Switzerland. Do you have information for the whole year? What is the reason for the interest in our gold?

- Gold is the main element in our bilateral trade. The reason is simple and is two-fold. First, the NBKR uses Swiss financial institutions to sell some of its gold on international markets and get foreign currency. This is then used to repay national debt and to conduct interventions to shore up the KGS. Second, Switzerland has a watch and jewellery sector, and we need to import gold for that. So, any company active in this sector will source its gold where it wants and Kyrgyzstan is a possibility among many others.

I do not have the final figures for the whole 2023 yet, but there was more than what you say later in the year. 12.7 tons January-November. 1

- What is the trade turnover between our countries?

- Kyrgyz and Swiss statistics differ a bit for 2022 (there are no data yet for 2023). If we take gold out of statistics, Kyrgyz data say 10.2 mio2 (decrease from 2021) and Swiss data says 14.5 mio (increase from 2021) – 14.5 mio CH exports and 0.9 KG exports. The difference is a technical issue as we count different things, but my colleagues who follow these things in capital say a discrepancy over 4 million is normal.

The breakdown of trading goods has not been changing over the last few years. The main traded goods grouped by the main economic categories are as follows: pharmaceuticals; machines; raw materials and semi-finished products. But this is, to put it very simplistically.

- Switzerland also imports agricultural products, honey, dried fruits from Kyrgyzstan. Are there any figures for them for 2023 compared to 2022? Are there any new directions in imports from the KR and what are they?

- So far, I have not been informed of new products that Kyrgyz entrepreneurs would export – but they do not need to pass through me. Part of the issue is the distance which makes prices higher – in both directions. Our cheese and wine exporters face the same issue. This explains why the bulk of Swiss exports are pharmaceuticals and machines, high value-add merchandise. To be fair, we face the competition of big markets much nearer Kyrgyzstan, like Central Asian countries, China, Korea and Japan and I can understand that Kyrgyz exporters would prospect there first.

- What Swiss business is represented in Kyrgyzstan? What are the Swiss primarily interested in when they consider investments in the Kyrgyz Republic? How many joint ventures are there?

- Most Swiss companies are operating in Kyrgyzstan mainly through their regional hubs in other (neighbouring) countries, or have a small team of Kyrgyzstani representatives. Recently, two new Swiss companies (Bartholet and Nestle) have started exploring the market and may enter it as per Government’s call. But in general, Swiss investments have remained modest over the last decade. This is due to a combination of factors, including distance, lack of knowledge about the country and its possibilities, competition with other investors better placed geographically, past negative experience of small investors, and a perception that it is a high-risk market.

The latter is due in part to the lack of corresponding banks (due to the banking system as a whole not complying with international standards in terms of Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Financing Terrorism (AML/CFT) issues).

Kyrgyzstan has a number of advantages that do not yet offset the perception of risk, including the most liberal tax regime in Central Asia3 region and a good, cheap and accessible internet. I hope that some of the companies currently showing an interest in Kyrgyzstan will go ahead and have a good experience, because ultimately, this will be the main driver. We could see a diversification of sectors because almost all Swiss investments are now directed to the following two sectors: i) telecommunication and information technology and ii) finance and insurance. There are no joint (Kyrgyz-Swiss) venture companies in Kyrgyzstan.

- Are there agreements on projects at the government level?

- There are no joint economic projects yet, but I have good hopes that we can restart the Joint Economic Commission soon.

- What do you see in Kyrgyzstan's sanctions policy?

- We monitor our bilateral trade very closely. So far, we have not found anything that could arouse suspicion. Switzerland has strict export controls. All Swiss products are used in Kyrgyzstan. In this respect, I feel better. As far as I know, Kyrgyzstan does not buy sanctioned goods from us.

There are no issues with gold either. Gold has been sold by the National Bank for many years before, we know where it comes from.

- Does Switzerland have a position on freedom of speech in the KR, in particular the law on foreign agents?

- Switzerland is deeply committed to the protection of all fundamental rights and recognizes the importance of freedom of opinion and religion. This is something that has historically made Kyrgyzstan unique in the region. And I am glad of recent statements by H.E. the president and high-level officials on issues such as violence against women or the freedom of speech.

We very rarely speak publicly about these issues, because between friends, you raise issues face to face or not at all, and we consider Kyrgyzstan a good and dear friend. So, where we have concerns, we have shared them with the appropriate authorities. Where we think we have expertise, we have offered it as well. I can safely say that dialogue on this has been very constructive – but it is the responsibility of the Jogorku Kenesh to determine which laws are good for the country, not ours.

You mentioned the draft law on NGOs. We are closely following it, because about two thirds of our grant funding is implemented through such organisations. So, the NGO law may have consequences for our ability to deliver our assistance. We have concerns but I trust MPs to take good decisions for Kyrgyzstan.

- Civil society criticised the UN, which invited MPs Narmatova and Mazhitova to Geneva in November. One deputy is the author of a bill on foreign agents, the other wants to regulate what citizens should wear. Some NGOs called not to issue visas to such deputies. Are there legal mechanisms in Switzerland for such steps?

- Swiss privacy law forbids me to talk about specific visas cases.

- Tell me in general whether there are mechanisms

- Do you want me to repeat my answer?

- No, I don't. What do you think our countries have in common?

- Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan are both mountainous countries; this has shaped our culture in ways that are often similar. In many parts of Switzerland like in many parts of Kyrgyzstan, farmers bring their cattle up to the mountains for the summer and down to the valley for winter. It is a life where people had to develop qualities of resilience.

We are also both geographically diverse countries; I myself do not come from a mountain area, but from an area not unlike the northern shore of Lake Issyk Kul. The northern shore of Lake Geneva is a region where we grow a lot of fruits and especially grapes: as a student I spent some of my holidays harvesting, which is a back-breaking work. When I first visited Issyk Kul oblast we stopped to meet a farmer who is growing apples. The landscape and the challenges of this production reminded me of my own experience; the main difference for the workers is that you harvest apples standing up, which is much better for your back. This is just a personal example, but I think that people living in Switzerland and people living in Kyrgyzstan might relate to such experiences.

Also common between our countries is the diversity of people, languages, religions, etc. It is interesting for me to try to learn the Kyrgyz language. If you have seen my publications in social media, you have already realised that I speak a little Russian and speak Farsi well. I am very happy to learn one of the Turkic languages and to understand the culture better.

The Swiss experience shows that diversity is a strength, even if it takes some effort. Switzerland regularly ranks first in terms of innovation, and I am convinced that this is because we cultivate this diversity. In recent years, I have attended official events on "Kyrgyz Jarany" and on interfaith harmony. In my experience, I believe that both topics are very important for the future development of Kyrgyzstan.

- What surprised you in Kyrgyzstan?

- It may not be a surprise, but I like the way people seem much more relaxed than in other cities I have lived in. Bishkek has a very unique feel for me – I have lived for some months in Russia and here I recognize the Soviet heritage in many buildings, but this city is unique. And scenery is awesome all over the country. Some of my favorite places are Sary Chelek and Arslanbob, but I have had so many good moments all over the country.

I admire the hospitality of the local people. How nice they are! I’m received everywhere in Kyrgyzstan with open arms and heart. I like to interact with local people as much as I can. Actually, it was one of main reasons for me to start learning Kyrgyz language and be closer to local people.

I love the food! There is not much to add (I could make a long list of dishes though), but I really love it.

- How did your family adapt to life in Bishkek?

- Very well! Before this position, I was heading the Swiss representation in Afghanistan and it was a relief for me to be reunited with my family again in safe and beautiful Bishkek. When we were talking about a new posting, our youngest son said he was ready to live outside of Switzerland, but he had one condition: he wanted it to be a place where he could ride horses. He did not know anything about Kyrgyzstan at the time, but since then he has been riding regularly in the beautiful area near Ala Archa National Park. I have done so as well, but less regularly because I am less free in the week-ends than he is.

- Do many Swiss dream of serving in the Vatican's Swiss Guard?

- Around 20-30 are admitted each year into the 135-strong unit (23 in 2023).

Applicants must be men, 19-30, 174cm, Swiss, Catholic, have a professional degree or a high school diploma, have finished basic military training, be single at recruitment (they can be married later) and have a good reputation. Minimum service is just above two years. It’s a lot of criteria.

A bit less applicants in recent years, but also due to a pressing lack of workers in the economy; many want to seize opportunities at home.

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