Interview with Eric Meyer U.S. Consul General in Almaty Kazakhstan - WorldMonitor

Interview with Eric Meyer U.S. Consul General in Almaty Kazakhstan

Today with us we have Eric Meyer U.S. Consul General in Almaty Kazakhstan. This is a great honor and a pleasure Eric to have you with us today and I’d like to thank you on behalf of the European Business Association of Kazakhstan and World Monitor magazine for accepting this invitation and giving...

Eric Meyer U. S. Consul General in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Today with us we have Eric Meyer U.S. Consul General in Almaty Kazakhstan. This is a great honor and a pleasure Eric to have you with us today and I’d like to thank you on behalf of the European Business Association of Kazakhstan and World Monitor magazine for accepting this invitation and giving our audience such a wonderful opportunity to discuss questions of interest to the business community with you.

Since September 2018, you’ve been serving as U.S. Consul General in Almaty. During your service were there any changes in social and cultural programs in relation to Kazakhstan?

Thank you, Julie, to you, EUROBAK, and to your board members for this invitation. It’s a great pleasure for me to be here and talk to all of you as I wrap my assignment here as Consul General. It’s been a great three years with some challenges along the way COVID challenges that we’ve all gone through. But I’m incredibly proud of the work of my team here at the U.S. Consulate and what we’ve accomplished despite some challenges.

This is our only consulate, by the way, in Central Asia. We have embassies in all the Central Asian countries, but this is the only consulate in the region. We do a lot here. Obviously,we’re focused on economic and commercial ties as Kazakhstan is kind of the economic capital in the region. But we’ve done a lot of good work on social and cultural issues as well, especially working with the government, but also with activists and community leaders on social issues related to  accessibility for example,persons with disabilities and people living with HIV Aids. As a matter of fact, I was just in Taraz a week and a half ago and we went to meet with an NGO that we’ve funded and partnered with to increase accessibility to their main sports complex, so those with disabilities could get in and out of the pool in an easier way.

We’ve worked on issues related to trafficking in persons, that’s an extremely important issue, an area where Kazakhstan has made progress, but they have more progress to go.. Gender-based violence as well. Our public affairs team put together a program recently on bringing awareness to gender-based violence. We’ve also worked at how to address the general stigma around mental health and suicide.

We have a number of programs like our Go Viral and 48 Hour Film Race, some of them had to be tweaked a bit due to the pandemic. But I’m really happy to say that a lot of our signature programs did continue, just with a slightly different format.

You did mention already about projects, but could you tell us more about the projects of the U.S. Consulate General in Almaty and what areas are the most attractive in terms of joint programs? And maybe you could cover how many projects had to be frozen due to the pandemic situation in Kazakhstan and around the world if you can?

Sure, yeah. Obviously, the pandemic did change how we engage with one another, but it didn’t change our commitment to advancing the goals that we have here. One of the things, our Go Viral program network and festival actually just ended yesterday. It was our fifth annual festival. The first few years it took place here in Almaty in person and this is a festival where we’re bringing together entrepreneurs and influencers to connect them with other people in the region. We had a lot of great guest speakers. This year was a hybrid format, so we had some in-person activities in Almaty, and some including in Dushanbe, Tashkent and Bishkek, but with a lot of workshops and speeches that were streamed online. We had several thousand registered for the festival which was great. And really, it’s interesting to see where this will go, because as I said it used to be just an in-person festival, but we’re realizing that we can reach more people and get more of a broad and diverse audience online and you are able to connect more people online. So, we’ll see where things go there.

But one of the main priorities has been, obviously, to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the years, we have given $86 million in health assistance to stop the spread of other diseases, like tuberculosis and HIV Aids, but with USAID and the CDC we also delivered about $6 million in laboratory equipment and supplies to the government of Kazakhstan related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We didn’t really freeze any programs, but we tried to be creative in thinking of ways we could continue with them. Like our 48 Hour Film Race, we couldn’t do in-person events, but we were still able to offer the program and do some workshops online. Obviously this year we’re not going to have a July 4th reception, but it will be an online event and we will have some of those online activities on our social media related to July 4th. So again, typically the July 4th would be a reception with contacts, but now we can share some of the content related to our Independence Day, which is coming up soon, online. So, we’ve just had to be more creative.

Yes, we can relate to that need to be creative. And it’s been an interesting journey when the geography of an event significantly improves because you can have people joining from all over the world in one place now. So, it’s been an amazing development in this regard. But obviously nothing can replace your 4th of July party at the residence where you shake hands with other human beings.

It’s true; you are right. We can do so much online, but it does not replace the in-person contact and we still need to do that. Very true.

How many US citizens live in Kazakhstan today? And what are the most frequent questions or issues they raise while living and working in Kazakhstan, in particular during the pandemic, which is not a very easy time to be outside of your home country?

We have about 3,000 U.S. citizens in Kazakhstan, and Julie you probably would not be surprised that our U.S. citizens frequently seek our help on issues that probably a lot of your EUROBAK members have questions on as well, such as Kazakhstan’s sometimes unclear and frequently changing immigration procedures and residency policies and getting in and out of the country. And of course, questions related to travel between Kazakhstan and the United States. So those are among the main issues.

U.S. citizens are also asking us about how their vaccination status will be received in the United States and recognized. At this time, currently U.S. entry policy does not take vaccination status into account, but we require documentation of a negative COVID-19 test or proof from recovery of COVID-19. As we’re seeing around the world, I just read this weekend that Europe may be opening up, all of this is changing by the day, so it’s hard to keep up with all of the changes. But while the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our ability to issue visas here, both at the Consulate in Almaty and at the U.S. Embassy, we are still accepting applications for all types of visas, non-immigrant visas, like student visas and business visas and of course immigrant visas. But we’re also hearing from U.S. citizens, and maybe you’re hearing this as well, that it’s hard for foreign nationals to come into Kazakhstan because they’ve suspended the visa-free travel regime for European nationals and U.S. citizens, and so they have to apply for visas, which is fine, but we’re hearing that a lot of U.S. citizens are having issues getting visas and permission to come in.

Yes, it’s been a bit of a challenge, and we as an association had to talk with the government on the topics and in many cases assist our companies in getting the permission to enter. Yes, we can understand that we all feel a bit of the frustration that exists in this regard.

Eric, you did mention the U.S. doesn’t require the vaccination passport to enter, just the confirmation the person has recovered and that means the antibody test? Is that what you mean?

I believe so. It’s proof of recovery. What I can do is get back to you on what paperwork is required and we can share that with you. It’s either obviously a COVID-19 test or proof of recovery, but we’ll let you know what that is, whether it’s anti-body or something from a doctor.

That would be very interesting. I’m sorry for popping that question, this is something that is very valid and of great interest to the audience.

During the 30 years of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s independence, we’ve reached a good and mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and Kazakhstan, thanks to a clear policy built by Elbasy Nursultan Nazarbayev and continued effort by the current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. In what areas is this cooperation especially beneficial and fruitful, do you think?

This year we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary of ties between the U.S. and Kazakhstan and we’re very proud that we were the first country to recognize Kazakhstan’s independence. And we’re taking this kind of time to look back at what we’ve achieved over the years and where we want to go for the next 30 years. But really what our partnership is built on is not changed; it’s built on a commitment to security, development and prosperity as well as fundamental freedoms, not only in Kazakhstan but in Central Asia. We’re looking to strengthen these over the years to come.

American businesses were also just talking about, on an economic side about how we were among the first to invest in Kazakhstan, and we’re proud of the large economic and social benefits that have resulted from our companies that have had partnerships in Kazakhstan. And we’re hoping to increase more of that investment. We did have the first U.S. Secretary of Commerce visit a couple years ago, which was great, but we’re trying to deepen and expand our countries trade. Recently I’ve gone to meet akims (mayors) in Kyzylorda, Taraz, and Turkistan, and we’re trying to make it even more significant. Here at our consulate in Almaty is our foreign commercial service. They are based here at the consulate, not at the embassy in Nursultan, and our foreign commercial consular Dean and his team are working very hard on these efforts as well.

On a non-business side, Kazakhstan is also a valued partner and global leader in non-proliferation and security; we work very closely with them trying to create a more stable and secure world. So, it’s an exciting year. And there will be more on our social media about our 30th anniversary and also again looking at ways we can continue to enhance this. But I’m really happy to say that our cooperation has been fruitful just in so many different ways – security, economic, business and cultural.

When you say 30 years ago the United States recognized independence of Kazakhstan, we actually remember that time, coming from the Soviet times it meant the whole world was turning around. And in the 30 years we’ve come a really long way, changes in perception and mentality in how countries can cooperate and benefit from their cooperation.

Eric, you did talk a little bit about the business community. It is a big business community in Kazakhstan. What has the business community  been through this past year? And how is the situation developing at the moment?

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly created challenges for us all. Not only American businesses but all companies. But it’s created some opportunities as well, especially in IT and E-commerce. I hosted a lunch with IT and E-commerce industry leaders, right before the pandemic, and it was interesting chatting with them and hearing about their businesses. I just heard that one of them is planning to start in the United States, and they’ve already sent some employees there and are looking to do a full start-up in the U.S. That was really music to my ears, hearing about that expansion. I think that particular opportunity was in a way tied to COVID.

The foreign commercial service here at the consulate gets a lot of questions from businesses looking to enter the Kazakhstani market, and we do have some major American companies that are working to build factories here in Kazakhstan. So, things are looking positive, but I will also note that, and your members know this as well, the competition for investment has increased, I mean it’s always increasing.

In terms of drawing American companies to Kazakhstan, a lot of work needs to be done to create a more favorable environment. One of the things, of course, is ensuring that regulations are predictable and transparent, and that they are applied equally to everyone. One area that is particularly relevant is tax policy and tax enforcement. We very much welcome President Tokayev’s vision of a tax policy that is designed to attract foreign investment. But we have heard some concerns from international companies that the tax burden is a bit onerous, and the enforcement is a bit uneven.

The other area is corruption, and I’ve talked about this publicly. As a matter of fact, I was the only diplomat to speak publicly at an anti-corruption conference I believe it was in November or December. I talked about some of the things that Kazakhstan might consider doing to take action against corruption. Kazakhstan is making progress, but of course work remains.

As I wrap up here , I am leaving optimistically. I’ve always been impressed with the economic potential of Kazakhstan, but, as I’m sure your members are well aware, there are always challenges, there are always ways and things that could be done together to attract more business here. But o I’m optimistic that as we get through the pandemic too, things will improve.

That’s great Eric and thank you very much for raising the issue of corruption you said you are the only diplomat let alone for a business to raise issue with corruption. On this topic in particular it is absolutely necessary to have diplomatic support when raising this kind of question. I know what I’m talking about. Over the years we’ve faced some of the interesting facts and stories that we went through.

Last year, American businesses were interested in investing in agriculture and were actively developing the Turkistan region and Shymkent, as it is city of republican significance. But the situation with the pandemic slightly disrupted these plans. Could you share how will this situation develop in the future when this pandemic is hopefully all over? And are there any other industries that could be attractive for US companies wanting to invest?

I just travelled to Turkistan and Shymkent in May, just about three weeks ago.Despite all the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, I really was amazed at the number of changes that had occurred – the new airport and the tourism infrastructure that has been built up there. But one of the things that is primary goal, and I should have mentioned this earlier, and maybe I touched on it, is regional connectivity. An interconnected Central Asia, without  boring your members on one of our policy initiatives which we call C5+1 – the five countries of Central Asia plus the United States. Our goal is to create a more prosperous and interconnected Central Asia. This region has a lot of great potential for that. And one of the things I saw on my trip, for example, on both sides of the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan borders, is that these countries really could benefit a lot from more connectivity. There’s talk of the Shymkent-Turkistan-Tashkent high-speed train, the Silkway visa regime that could help facilitate tourism. And I’ll say just going back to the Go Viral and the 40-Hour Film Race these are fun programs but these are all programs going back to our goal of trying to create a Central Asia that is working together and interconnected, whether it’s trade across the border, or it’s entrepreneurs and filmmakers that are sharing ideas and best practices.

But getting back to that region, Kazakhstan’s geography and climate are very similar to many parts of the United States that have strong agricultural sectors and so we’re already working in this sphere to help American investors interested in operating in Kazakhstan. We actually have a department of agriculture attaché in Nursultan and we’re looking at adding a position here at the consulate in Almaty as well. So, I think there is a lot of potential in the agricultural sphere and we’re seeing that here and Washington is seeing that as well.

When we had our reverse trade mission with the secretary of commerce a couple of years ago, there was a lot of interest in agriculture. But climate change has also become an important issue in the Biden administration and so American agricultural technology we think could be a huge opportunity for Kazakhstani farmers not only increasing yield but using less water and other resources. Water as you know is an extremely important issue as well. So, there’s a lot of potential in the agricultural sphere.

That’s really, really great to hear because a lot can be done and there is huge potential not only in Kazakhstan, but, you are absolutely right, in the C5 countries. Talking about connectivity, C5+1 in 2020, before the pandemic, the governments of our countries were talking about the possibilities of direct flights, which is a big thing here. In your opinion, do you think we have a realistic chance of resuming this discussion?

I don’t know if you know this, maybe I mentioned it in our meeting, but I used to work in the airline industry. Twenty years ago, before I became a diplomat. So, the airline industry is near and dear to my heart. And there’s a symbolism in having two countries connected by a direct flight, and that would be a very exciting venture.

Kazakhstan and the United States are working to ratify the Open Skies Agreement, but there are is a number of issues that have to be resolved before a direct flight starts. We’re working with our federal aviation administration on various safety and security issues. Whether or not a direct flight is commercially viable is probably a question and those types of trends change over time because it’s been a challenging time in the airline industry. But hopefully that is something we could look forward to in the future, so we will see where things go. But it’s a multi-step process, really on both sides, to get the approvals for a direct flight to the United States. So hopefully in the future I will definitely come back and take that flight if it does start.

I can only imagine the duration of that flight

Well, that’s a good point you’re right because you need the right aircraft to operate that flight, a long-range aircraft it’s true. It’s not only on the government side but whatever airline that operates that flight would need an airplane to be able to fly it nonstop. Or some countries do flights where it stops on the way but, of cours,e the goal would be a nonstop flight at some point.

Well, the future isn’t that far. You never know what’s going to happen in a year or so.

Eric, you said that after the airline career you joined the diplomatic service and throughout your professional career, you’ve served in many countries around the world such as Cambodia, Finland, Argentina and Egypt, could you please share your opinion on professional interactions with the embassies of these countries. Do any particularities in mentality, culture, religion, political views, geographic location  affect the relationships between the countries and their representatives?

That’s a good question. Often when people look at where I’ve served. You’ll meet some of my colleagues they will focus their career on Europe or a particular part of the world. I started in Argentina, Finland, Cambodia, and Egypt – so a diverse group of countries. But before coming here to Kazakhstan I worked at our headquarters in Washington D.C. on policy for Central Asia, so I had, as we say, a ‘30,000-foot view’ of our engagement and policy in Central Asia. And it really was a dream for me to come to Almaty to be a diplomat. I had come here as a tourist two times before and so Almaty was at the top of my list in terms of consul general positions when I was coming to work.

But you have to adapt in every country. When I was in Finland, we were very focused on business and economic ties. They were not a NATO country, but we still had some defense cooperation. In Cambodia we were focused on human rights and economic ties as well. But it really varies by country.

One of the things we do, in answer to your question, in terms of adapting, I’m very proud to say that U.S. diplomats come for the most part to our assignments with quite a bit of training, not only in language, but also area studies, political and economic training. We have components at our foreign service institute to give us background on cultural sensitivities and religion and a basic background on politics and economics and language training as well. As a matter of fact, my successor who is coming as consul general studied Kazakh for a year; we are training more and more diplomats on Kazakh. We’ve seen in some of the travels that I’ve done, in Taraz and in Turkistan that we’re doing more and more engagement with the Kazakh language. So even in the time I’ve been here for three years, we’ve seen great change, with the language for example. That’s a great question thank you for asking that.

Was there any experience or maybe a story that is very special in your memory during your service as a diplomat? Maybe you could share?

I’ve had so many across the years. When I look back on my time here in Kazakhstan for three years, this particular position as consul general, running the activities of the consulate and doing public affairs activities, it’s an all-encompassing job. Where in prior positions, I’ve been more focused as a section chief on a particular area. What I’ve really enjoyed the most here in Kazakhstan is the opportunity I’ve had to interact with the people. We did a video for Navryz with a well-known Kazakhstani actress Gaziza [Gaziza Abdinabiyeva]. She was introducing me to some Kazakh traditions and some food and cuisine, and I don’t speak Kazakh, I’ve studied it a little bit. But we had so much fun with this video that I think our public affairs team had more fun with the out-takes because she was speaking Kazakh and I didn’t really understand everything that was happening, but you almost didn’t need language. There was a lot of laughter with little bits of misunderstanding, and I think as a diplomat one of the lessons is to go with the flow, and that is exactly what I did. It was a funny video, it was engaging and ended up really meaningful. That was very special to me.

As I leave here, after three years, my family and I leave with heavy hearts. We’re really going to miss Kazakhstan and Almaty because it’s really a wonderful city and the people are so hospitable. All of our diplomats, who can, extend their post here . I can’t as Consul General because this post is set for only three years and I have to move on to my next assignment – but it really has been an honor and a privilege to represent the United States in southern Kazakhstan and in Almaty.

Thank you very much Eric for your time and giving us this opportunity to talk to you and to hear, especially when the three years pass, it’s very good to know what impression the country has made on the diplomat because those who have been here and leave our country they continue as ambassadors of the country, they continue talking about the opportunities and what is available in the country and taking this country further into the world. I’d like to thank you for being with us for these three years of service and for your great attitude for Kazakhstan and I hear, maybe I’m wrong, that Kazakhstan takes a special place in your heart. We wish you every success in your next posting and of course we will be more than happy and delighted and honored to have you back. I know that in the past some diplomats come back. It’s great to see them back and be in touch again.

I hope so. I had a farewell call with Almaty Akim Sagintayev a few days ago and I was telling him sometimes I feel like I’m an honorary member of the tourism authority because I’m always telling people to come to Kazakhstan. I was lucky enough to have my parents come last month to visit. It really is a wonderful place, and your right, Kazakhstan has and will always have a very special place in my heart. I would love to come back and serve here again in the future. Thank you for your kind words.

That would be great and thank you and all the best to you, your family, and all the US people. We wish to the world the healing and that we go back to a somewhat normal, hoping for a better world and thank you to the U.S. for all the help and assistance and contributions that it has made to the country and the people of the county. Thank you very much Eric.

Thank you and I wish all of your members good and continued success, especially as we get through the pandemic. Thank you so much again Julie for having me and for the invitation. All the best.

Thank you and all the best

Thank you, bye bye.

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