Interview with H.E. Nico Schermers, Dutch Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

June 2024

Guus Rotink

THRI Research Fellow

H.E. Ambassador Nico Schermers

Since last year, the Dutch representation in Kazakhstan has added an additional two countries to its resort: Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan already falling under its scope. Under the umbrella of “Netherlands in Central Asia”, the embassy works out of Astana to promote the interests of Dutch companies, foster human rights and strengthen the rule of law. The embassy is rebranding itself in the various countries, using terminology such as “NL in Tajikistan” to address specific target groups. Also, there is significant cooperation in the field of water management, which has become evident during the recent floods in Kazakhstan after which the Netherlands provided expert support, and the recent visit of Dutch Prime Minister Rutte to Astana during which cooperation in the field of water was stressed even further. The Hague Research Institute had the opportunity to speak to H.E. Mr. Nico Schermers, Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you for your time and for agreeing to speak with us. First of all, we are interested in the priorities and policy goals of the Netherlands Embassy in Central Asia. What can you say about this?

That is actually a complicated question. Since last year, this embassy has been assigned to all of Central Asia. Previously, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were covered by the Netherlands Embassy in Moscow. Because of this addition, the nature of the embassy has changed completely. We started thinking about how to deal with that. Before, this was a bilateral embassy in a large country which also covered two smaller countries, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Now, we have suddenly become a regional embassy. It means we have to travel a lot.

We are thinking a lot about where to put our priorities, about how to show where our priorities lie. Then of course we start in Kazakhstan. It is the largest country and has traditionally been the most important country for the Netherlands because of all the oil and gas extraction that was done here, which attracted a lot of (Dutch) businesses. Although Shell is now no longer a Dutch company, Dutch-Kazakh relations mainly started with them. In Shell’s slipstream came many suppliers, engineering firms and water companies.

As a result, we also have a good bilateral investment treaty between Kazakhstan and the Netherlands. That in turn has generated a lot of activity, because many Kazakh companies became interested in establishing a company in the Netherlands to invest in Kazakhstan by means of these Dutch companies. Their investments are safeguarded when made from the Netherlands because of the bilateral investment treaty. This has generated a lot of activity, even so much that the Netherlands is now the largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan.

At the moment, we are investing heavily in agriculture. Parallel to the decision to shift Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from the Moscow resort to Astana, also the agricultural council and defence attaché moved from Moscow to Astana. As a result, we are engaging a lot with the agricultural sector, which is especially important for Uzbekistan.

Recently, a huge area of KAZ was flooded. For mainly domestic political reasons foreign assistance was not requested but an offer to help from the Netherlands was gratefully accepted. Therefore, we flew in experts from the Netherlands, who advised the Kazakhs in various fields. According to the experts it turned out that the Kazakhs were well on track in addressing the main peaks of the floods even though it turned out that in some areas room for further growth is necessary. This led to the agreement to continue cooperation to collaborate in the field of water management. Even though the country is landlocked, water plays a key role.

The interesting thing about this country or perhaps the region is that water is very central to this region. There are two major rivers, two countries that produce water from high-mountain glaciers (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and three countries that are dependent on that water. This water flows through the two rivers but does no longer reach the Aral Sea.

I saw you visited the Aral Sea basin recently to see the situation there first hand.

That is right, I visited the Aral Sea together with multiple ambassadors. Everything comes together there, and we see that Dutch water knowledge can be extremely useful. The Basin comprises of six countries and sixty million people. The environmental disaster is heart-breaking and unimaginable to comprehend: an area one and a half times as big as The Netherlands, once covered with up to twenty meters of water, has turned into a desert in just a few decades. Recently, Prime Minister Rutte visited Kazakhstan. One of the main focus points of the visit was water collaboration and two Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) have also been signed on this topic.

You have outlined the main priorities in terms of economic cooperation. What can you say about projects related to human rights and the rule of law in Central Asia?

I described the economic priorities first, because they have traditionally been the driver behind our work. But you are right that human rights, geopolitics and developing the rule of law are very important priorities of the embassy. Although we must deal with these topics in different ways in the various countries. In Kazakhstan we see a number of developments that are gradually moving in the right direction, taking small steps. Similar movements can be seen in Uzbekistan, with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan moving slightly in the other direction. In Turkmenistan, we have to start from scratch, as there is very little in terms of freedoms and human rights.

For me personally, the focus on human rights and the rule of a law is a no-brainer. In my opinion, that is actually the basis, one of the core values, as to why we are here. Dutch businesses can only be stimulated to invest if this is accompanied by some degree of development of human rights and the rule of law. If this is lacking, the risk to invest in these countries quickly becomes too great for Dutch companies.

In terms of challenges for the embassy, you have already highlighted the distance factor. You have mentioned water as an overarching theme, as well as geopolitics. Are there other challenges that should be mentioned here?

Yes, in particular the fact that we are a regional embassy. This is a personal challenge, I am responsible for five countries, which means I have to build five different networks. This takes a lot of time, and it is impossible to build a network as intensive as during my last posting, in Armenia. There I knew all the ministers, went for coffee with the president and met colleagues in the street. That is absolutely different here, as I have 40 percent of my time available for Kazakhstan, the rest of my time goes to the other countries in the region. Kazakhstan is also very hierarchical, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan less so. So the 5 or 10 percent of my time that I can invest in those countries can be used much more efficiently.
The size of the population is another challenge. The region is home to 80 million people, so the region is not just large geographically, but also in terms of people. Therefore, networking is extremely important.

The final challenge I would like to mention is that the region is very diverse. Many people tend to think of Central Asia as some kind of country, but it is not. These are five countries with five different priorities, ambitions, challenges, threats and opportunities, which are all unique. They are geographically close to each other but do not always pursue the same interests. To exemplify this, at one point we received a question from The Hague about what to do with the request of an Uzbek minister because a Tajik minister had already visited the Netherlands the week before. This gives you some idea of how the region is viewed by some in the Netherlands.

Is this mindset further stressed by the fact that you have only one embassy in Astana, covering those five countries?

Yes exactly, even so by the geographical location of Astana. In Almaty we would be a bit more central, from there you can drive to Bishkek by car. From here we have to fly everywhere, which is also a challenge from the sustainability perspective.

Have you seen the changing role of the Central Asian countries since the war in Ukraine? 

I think all five Central Asian countries are trying to create an independent position for themselves. And I understand that when you look at the region you first look at Russia and China as the major players in the region, but we should certainly not forget Iran, Turkey, or even the Gulf states as well as the European Union and the United States. I see the five Central Asian countries attempting to carve out their own position.

If you look at Kazakhstan, it has a 7,000-kilometre border with Russia and 20 million inhabitants. This means it will be quite a challenge to create an independent position vis-à-vis Russia. I am always quite positive on these issues, and I believe Kazakhstan does work on creating this independent position. I have the strong impression that efforts are being made to sail a more independent course due to the fact Russia has its hands full at the moment. You can see this for example in the fact that Kazakhstan has expressly acknowledged the territorial integrity of Ukraine under the UN Charter.

This is important for the Kazakhs because they themselves are concerned that Russia might one day exert territorial claims on Kazakhstan. Statements questioning Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity were recently made in the Russian Duma. This is one of the reasons the country is pursuing a multi-vector policy and generating interest from other countries to develop ties with Kazakhstan, whilst simultaneously being wary of China.
It might have been easy to say, if not the Russians, then the Chinese. But Kazakh policy is rather aimed at attracting Chinese benefits whilst avoiding the burdens. China is welcome to invest, Chinese companies are welcome, but only in such a way that they cannot endanger the autonomy of the country. Kazakhstan is very cautious in this sense.

The position towards Turkey is similar. The Turks present themselves regularly as the leaders of the Turkish speaking countries, whilst Kazakhs point out that Turkish speaking people originated from Kazakhstan, thus questioning Turkey’s leadership. You see that Kazakhstan also pursues an independent course in relation to Turkey.

Iran is also an important player because it is one of the alternative trade routes for Kazakhstan to the rest of the world as they are very dependent on Russia for access to the Northern Corridor. Azerbaijan is not always viewed as a pleasant partner for Kazakhstan because of the fickle nature of its regime. Iran is therefore an alternative for them. And perhaps even Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is especially a good partner for Uzbekistan because it is looking south rather than north, thus attempting to create distance from Russia. It is slightly easier for the Uzbeks because they have no border with Russia, giving them slightly more options to move independently. At the same time, Uzbekistan remains dependent on Russian gas and has few raw materials, increasing its vulnerability.
Turkmenistan has stated in its Constitution that it is a neutral country therefore in geopolitical terms perhaps a little less interesting.
I think this answer really shows the diversity of all Central Asian countries, we could do five different interviews.
Yes, and I think it is important to see those different perspectives. The Turkmens have been neutral for some time, are very secluded and lack national debt. The Russians have less control over them, similar to us Europeans. We should take into account however that Turkmenistan is a country with a substantial level of corruption indicating that its leadership will keep its options open in case something goes wrong, in that case the Russians could play a role there, making Turkmenistan a sort of “swing state”.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are somewhat similar in that respect. Smaller countries but under great pressure from Russia to join in with everything that the Russians do and think. Especially Tajikistan tries to follow an independent course but struggles in this. This is due to the fact that besides water both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan possess little raw materials whilst simultaneously bordering China and feeling the Chinese pressure. Furthermore, the Tajiks depend on the Russians for security on their southern border with Afghanistan.

Does the embassy engage in promoting the so-called Middle Corridor? With difficulties increasing regarding the Northern Corridor, the Middle Corridor might offer a lot of potential for Central Asian countries.

Well, we are definitely looking into it, keeping our eyes peeled at investment opportunities that become available. These are of course international institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and World Bank, that are active in this regard. We are monitoring this, and if there are opportunities for Dutch companies, we try to raise awareness.
At the same time, the Middle Corridor is a complicated project, with challenges about how viable it is in the long term. Companies are looking at the route as an alternative, but also note that it is terribly expensive and can at most be used mainly symbolically. 90 percent of oil still goes through the pipelines of the Northern Corridor. At the moment it is impossible for these pipelines to be replaced by the Middle Corridor.
Additionally, the route is complex. You have to cross two seas, generating additional cost. The Kazakh port of Aktau is actually very small, and the Caspian Sea is sinking by 23 cm per year, creating short term problems. So, we wonder how serious the Middle Corridor is in the long term.
As I mentioned, Uzbekistan tends to look more to the south and is interested in a corridor through Afghanistan to reach Pakistan and Iran and thus the sea. Both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are also interested in routes through Iran.
For the time being, the Northern Corridor is functioning well within the limits of sanctions. It is becoming slightly more complicated due to issues of origin. For example, how can you export grain through the Northern Corridor and prevent Russians from diluting these transports with their own grain? In this regard, measures like sealed containers are being considered.


All the countries are aware of the risks that Chinese involvement has. At the same time, it is difficult for these countries to protect themselves against it.

On the Afghan corridor, is Afghanistan really a reliable partner for Uzbekistan?

It seems that under the Taliban Afghanistan has become a lot safer, which enables Uzbekistan to interact with Afghanistan. There is work ongoing on the construction of a railway, with road transport already possible. A lot must be done, but it does constitute an alternative for Uzbekistan, because it shortens their trade routes significantly. In turn, the Taliban are dependent on grain from Uzbekistan and especially from Kazakhstan. It is also in their interest.

Which other countries are active in Central Asia? Does the Netherlands cooperate with any countries in particular?

21 out of the 27 EU member states are currently represented in Kazakhstan. Most of them are here for economic interests and have one or two other countries in their portfolio, with few doing all five. Our building houses many of the other European embassies as well as the EU delegation. Everyone is mainly busy with their own economic matters, however on human rights the EU, often together with Switzerland, the UK, Canada and the US we do work together. Closer cooperation is often difficult due to differences in priorities and time allocations.

How should we visualise the role of the Netherlands on water cooperation in Central Asia?

As you know, we had major floods in the region. At that moment we contacted Dutch companies and RVO (Netherlands Enterprise Agency). RVO manages the Disaster Risk Reduction & Surge Support (DRRS) project and a project with Kazakhstan was already ongoing. Through this project, we could quite quickly offer Kazakhstan two Dutch experts with a back office in the Netherlands to provide assistance wherever needed.
They engaged with local experts. The Kazakhs had already started digging emergency canals, the Dutch experts checked all calculations and concluded the Kazakh solution was indeed the best one. This was obviously a relief for the Kazakh authorities.
We are also looking at water cooperation in the Aral basin. With the five countries in our portfolio, we are engaging in a project, looking at water diplomacy. We are looking at ways in which to assist them in reaching solutions together that are acceptable for all. We are not trying to tell them where to dig a canal or how to farm, that is up to the countries themselves. What we can do is assist in training these “water diplomats” and set up consultation structures.
in the margins of the Prime Minister’s visit to Kazakhstan, we signed two MoUs in the field of water. One of them focuses on training by IHE Delft Institute for Water Education.

How does Moscow attempt to influence Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries?

Of course, the influence is big. The bilateral consultation structures that existed before the war have not disseminated all of a sudden. Kazakhstan is a member and the current chair of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and takes part in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). I have the impression that Kazakhstan puts priorities of the CSTO not so much on collective defence but rather on combating terrorism and cross-border crime.
It feels like Kazakhstan does this because it has to, not because it wants to. It is impossible for them to leave the CSTO, so they are making the most of it. The Russians in turn put a lot of pressure on Kazakhstan to not cooperate too eagerly with European sanctions on Russia. At the same time, the Kazakh authorities try to prevent Kazakhstan from getting a negative business reputation.
Last week I was in Tajikistan, where the relationship with Russia is stressed. As you know, the terrorist attack on the Circus theatre in Moscow was committed by Tajiks. Since, Russia has tried to portray Tajikistan as some kind of terrorist state, a move that the Tajik government is very unhappy with. That move is viewed as a means of pressure to draw the Tajiks closer towards Moscow. Tajikistan is a member of the CSTO but not of the EAEU. Russia has refused Tajik workers to return to Russia, which has led to Tajiks getting stuck at airports. The Tajiks feel Russia is attempting to force Tajikistan to join the EAEU.
You see similar movements in Kyrgyzstan, where the Russians are also putting considerable pressure on the government to join the Russian narrative. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have concerns about Afghanistan and Russia likes to take advantage of this by stirring up that fear.

What can the Netherlands do to counter Chinese interference? And to what extent are Chinese initiatives already penetrating the Central Asian countries?

Of course, many things are happening and not all of them are visible to us. I hear China has a significant presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where I have seen it with my own eyes. Until recently, China was mainly building roads in Tajikistan, but lately, they have started constructing all kinds of buildings in the capital Dushanbe, where they are building a brand-new parliament and several ministries. These projects are turnkeys, the key is handed over to the Tajiks and the Chinese cover the expenses. In doing so, the Chinese buy certain influence.
All the countries are aware of the risks that Chinese involvement has. At the same time, it is difficult for these countries to protect themselves against it. For example, security cameras in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are Chinese, with all the possible consequences that entails. You walk the streets, are recorded by a camera and in Beijing they know exactly what you are doing.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are a little more cautious about this. At the same time, they are also prone to Chinese involvement. Therefore, Kazakhstan is trying to get investments from Europe. The port of Aktau has been partly rebuilt and Kazakhstan is looking for a European company to take up the management of the port. The issue is that the European companies must be willing to come. It often turns out that Kazakhstan is very far away from Europe, and companies are quick to say it is Russia’s or China’s backyard. In that case Russian or Chinese come naturally because there are no other actors to do it.

Final question: how do you see the embassy developing in the coming years? What do you hope to achieve? When will you be satisfied?

It is a good question. I hope we will be able to fulfil our regional function. We are currently looking into ways we can do that, for example through our presence in the various countries. For example, we could be looking at embassy employees travelling to the various countries more regularly, perhaps with the exception of Turkmenistan.
I hope we can develop our human rights portfolio further, as well as expand the assistance provided to us by honorary consuls. And of course, achieve further growth in our assistance to Dutch companies. It would be great if this growth and improvement would be attributable to the work of the embassy.

Thank you very much for your time Mr. Ambassador.

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