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Veteran envoy hits the ground running

By Sneh Duggal      

This year marks the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Kazakhstan and Canada. But when Kazakhstan's new ambassador was accredited March 8, he had a little anniversary celebration of his own.

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Kazakhstan and Canada. But when Kazakhstan's new ambassador was accredited March 8, he had a little anniversary celebration of his own.

While it was his seventh time being accredited as an ambassador, it was his 10th ceremony overall.

Since his Feb. 6 arrival in Ottawa, Konstantin Zhigalov has hit the ground running, meeting with government and business types and preparing for upcoming visits by government officials.

Mr. Zhigalov brings with him a breadth of experience. He served as assistant to Kazakhstan's president from 1991 to 1993. He was then the country's deputy foreign minister until 1994 and again from 2009 to 2012.

He said his two stints in this role were quite different, since the first was soon after the former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991. That meant building Kazakhstan's diplomatic corps.

"It was very difficult to arrange a number of young diplomats to be educated…we should also establish the new face of Kazakhstan abroad, so we had different tasks at that time," he said in an interview March 12. "It was necessary to put a new, independent country on the global political map."

He also served as minister counsellor to the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2000. Between 2001 and 2009, he was ambassador to Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the European Union, and NATO.

To mark Canada and Kazakhstan's 20 years of bilateral relations, "We wanted to celebrate this day, this special year by increasing our relations with Canada," said Mr. Zhigalov.

To that effect, a "top-level" delegation of 20, including the chair of Kazakhstan's civil service, will visit Canada from April 16 to 21. Mr. Zhigalov said they are also planning a reception to celebrate.

There might be a visit from Kazakhstan's agriculture minister in April or May. Mr. Zhigalov said while Kazakhstan buys many cattle from Canada, there is room for further co-operation in areas such as agricultural machinery, or between farmers.

Also up for consideration is the idea of an investment conference in Vancouver April 13 or a later visit from Kazakhstan's industry and new technologies minister.

Nuclear agreement in the works

Along with meeting several officials including Jillian Stirk, Canada's assistant deputy minister for Europe, Eurasia, and Africa; deputy agriculture minister John Knubley; and former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien; Mr. Zhigalov has met Michael Binder, the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Canada and Kazakhstan are discussing an agreement on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which Mr. Zhigalov said the two sides hope to sign this year.

"It's very important for us, because this sphere of co-operation, nuclear energy, [the] uranium industry…are very much important for both sides."

Mining is also a prime area of co-operation. As of 2009, Canadian companies had invested about $2.1 billion in Kazakhstan, a large portion of which was in the mining sector, according to a Canadian government website.

Kazakhstan is Central Asia's wealthiest country, according to the UK's Telegraph newspaper, thanks partly to large oil exports. Riots by people including former oil workers in an oil-rich region last December resulted in at least 13 deaths, according to media reports, when police fired on protesters.

Mr. Zhigalov would also like to focus on education and health care.

More than 200 students from Kazakhstan currently study in Canada. Mr. Zhigalov would like to see that number rise. He said he expects his country's universities to sign a number of memoranda of understanding with Carleton University.

In health care, Mr. Zhigalov said Kazakhstan's president declared during his annual address that one of his main goals was to lessen the number of deaths from cancer.

Nuclear tests in the country's northeast region during the Soviet era have been blamed for health problems such as cancer, said a 2009 BBC News report. It also said cancer was one-and-a-half times more prevalent in the eastern region than the rest of the country.

During a recent trip to Toronto, Mr. Zhigalov visited Sunnybrook Hospital.

"We want to build [a] special oncology centre in Kazakhstan; this is a specialization of Sunnybrook," he said.

A delegation from the hospital will visit Kazakhstan this month to propose a feasibility study for building such a centre, he said.

Also interesting for Mr. Zhigalov is Canada's experience with multiculturalism, since Kazakhstan too is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

"The experience of multiculturalism and multi-pluralism in Canada is very important for us also," he said, adding that as a result, he met with the Global Centre for Pluralism's secretary-general, John McNee.

So far Mr. Zhigalov has visited Toronto and Montreal. He plans to visit various provinces because he said it's important to co-operate with them as well as the federal government.

Aside from the travelling and meetings, he had the chance to attend a hockey game between the Ottawa Senators and the New York Islanders.

"I like ice hockey very much. Ice hockey is very popular in Kazakhstan," he said. "I really enjoyed it."

This is Mr. Zhigalov's second time in Canada. The first was last September when he came to help his daughter move for the start of her studies at McGill University.

"She has her own experience of what's going on; she also delivers [to] us additional information from the young generation, how they like Canada," he said.

sduggal@embassymag.ca

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