1. The SCO is resuming its active efforts after the pandemic. What new characteristic does the work of the SCO Secretariat have at the current stage, given the changing global situation? How do you assess this year’s results for the SCO? What is the Organisation’s priority? (TASS)
First of all, I cannot say that there has been a pause in the SCO’s activity related to the pandemic restrictions. Naturally, direct contacts, or offline contacts, as they are called now, were suspended but the Organisation promptly readjusted to working online. If we look at the number of events held this year, I cannot say that there has been a decline or slowdown in the SCO’s working rhythm.
So, to summarise the year’s results, we have reason to believe that the Organisation not only continued to function steadily, but the practical interaction within the SCO continued to improve. You can see that the schedule and the agenda of India’s chairmanship was fulfilled completely. On 4 July, after the meeting of the SCO Heads of State Council in New Delhi via videoconference, the chairmanship was passed to Kazakhstan, which offered a very intensive, packed agenda, currently being implemented. Among the key events, I would include the further expansion of the SCO: Iran gained full membership, and five other states became SCO dialogue partners? Which means that the SCO family now comprises 26 states. Direct contacts have been resumed with the UN; this year, the SCO Secretary-General took part in the UN General Assembly High-Level Week, where he had numerous meetings with representatives of UN agencies and regional organisations.
As for the economic dimension, I would point out the adoption of the SCO Economic Development Strategy until 2030. The document reflects the coordinated approaches of the SCO member states to the expansion of economic cooperation that facilitates medium-term sustainable development.
Overall, the SCO economic activity includes several priority areas, such as trade, the green economy, transport and increased interconnectivity, agriculture and energy, as well as the development of digital technologies and their implementation.
As for the work of the Secretariat, figuratively speaking, we are coming out of Covid hibernation, and the Secretariat offices are now full of life; we can meet with you face to face and see each other and not the screen. I want to say that over the past three weeks, the Secretariat hosted three large events in the in-person format: a meeting of the expert group on international information security, annual consultations of representatives of the information departments of the foreign ministries, and a meeting of the Council of National Coordinators of the SCO Member States. So, never a dull moment. I want to point out another thing: the SCO was created 20 years ago in a certain format and within certain regional and global realities. In the intervening decades, the SCO as an organisation has undergone fundamental changes. It used to be a local association, with an agenda focused mainly on Central Asia. Now, it is a giant transregional organisation that has 9 member states, and soon it will have 10 member states and 14 dialogue partners; that is, 26 states are united under the umbrella of the SCO, the agenda of our Organization is focused on regional issues, is increasingly global in nature. The global situation is changing radically, with what is called a global transformation. All of this is accompanied by political destabilisation, which also creates new challenges for the SCO. In this regard, at the 2021 SCO summit in Dushanbe and then at the 2022 SCO summit in Samarkand, decisions were adopted to begin the modernisation of the SCO. In Dushanbe, the heads of state gave instructions to develop a new mechanism to counteract security challenges, and at the Samarkand summit, it was decided to work out ways to improve the efficiency of the Organisation. This work is already underway, there have been several rounds of substantive discussions, but the task is very serious, and we believe there is no place for fast and hasty decisions. So, this is the general picture.
2. Kazakhstan is chairing the SCO in 2023-2024. What will the SCO’s main agenda include in 2024? (BeijingRibao/北京日报)
My answer to this question will be brief because President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev outlined Kazakhstan’s agenda in an exhaustive and very clear manner at the SCO Heads of State Council meeting in New Delhi. This summit was held online, and his remarks are publicly available, including on the Secretariat’s website. The only thing I want to note is that the agenda is very detailed and full of events, covering politics, security, trade, the economy, finances, investment, transport, connectivity, and the environment, one of our special priorities.
3. The SCO is expanding. What does this mean for the Organisation? What opportunities and challenges are ahead? Who would be the next to join? (TASS)
The Republic of Belarus will be the first to join because it is in the final stage of gaining SCO member state status with full rights. We hope that President Alexander Lukashenko will attend the Heads of State Council meeting in Astana next year. e are now actively moving this process forward.As for the rest, I will allow myself to keep the intrigue. I will only mention the fact that interest in the SCO never subsides. To be sure, the policy to increase the number of states that collaborate with the SCO in one way or another offers a great deal of potential for cooperation. In this regard, we prioritise quality over quantity in our partnership with these countries. So, both the Secretariat and the SCO member states are focusing on this matter. At the same time, I agree that there are certain challenges in various areas, even from the legal and technical point of view. The SCO members approve decisions by consensus. This is the SCO’s cornerstone principle. The greater the number of Member States, the greater the effort required to reach consensus through consultations. In 2018, India and Pakistan joined, we did not notice any perceptible complications in our decision-making. Iran has joined the SCO, and it is proceeding without delay and is involved in all discussions in a very constructive way. It should be clear that by applying for SCO membership a state accepts the principles and the moral, political and ethical foundations on which the SCO is based. I am referring to equality, mutual respect, a search for common points of view, and more. I believe, therefore, that we will always find a consensus if there are eight, nine or ten member states. On the other hand, it is not always easy even for the six founding states to agree on an economic project that will meet the interests of all, to say nothing of a nine or ten state format. So, we are considering more flexible forms of interaction in this context.
4. New countries are joining the SCO: this year, it is Iran, next year the Republic of Belarus is expected to complete the necessary procedures. The dialogue partner group is expanding. What do you think the significance of this expansion is? What is the SCO’s role in maintaining peace in the region, considering the complicated situation in today’s world where the Russia-Ukraine conflict has not yet been settled and the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities are flaring up again? (Zhong Xin She/中新社)
I think we have discussed the expansion of the SCO in detail. As for the developments in the region and the world, of course, this is not a simple choice for the SCO. If we recall the 2020 Moscow Declaration, I mean the Declaration of the SCO Heads of State Council meeting held in Moscow online, then this Declaration states clearly that the Member States are in favour of a multipolar world order based on the universally recognised principles of international law, multilateralism, equal and indivisible security, non-confrontation and non-conflict. On the other hand, the SCO has never been envisioned as a mechanism for confrontation. The SCO is an organisation for cooperation, not confrontation. The Organisation only counters threats and challenges that are common to all humanity, so perhaps the SCO’s main tool, its chief potential, is that the relations between countries in the SCO space are built on mutual trust, full equality, refusal to enforce pressure or to divide into leaders and followers. The fact that more countries want to join the SCO in one way or another demonstrates that these exact principles are in deep and wide demand in today’s world. I will stop here.
5. In 2023, tensions continued to rise in the Asia-Pacific region, with the United States and other countries, including those located in the region, taking provocative actions and strengthening their military presence. How do you think the situation in the region will develop next year? Will tension increase, and what action does the SCO plan to take to de-escalate? In this regard, please tell us about the SCO’s cooperation in the field of security, both within the Organisation and in interaction with other structures. What military exercises will be held next year? (RIA Novosti)
First, I will probably refrain from prognosing developments in the Asia-Pacific Region, because they depend on too many factors, including those far beyond the SCO. Moreover, the developments in the Asia-Pacific cannot be discussed separately from the common global trends. Of course, what is happening in the Asia-Pacific cannot but concern the SCO, but today the Organisation, as you may have noticed, tends to distance itself whenever possible. However, we cannot but draw certain conclusions, both in regard to policies and security, and in terms of promoting industrial cooperation, coordinating financial and credit policy, etc. In this sense, let me repeat the SCO is not a tool for confrontation, so its main priority is to ensure stability, security, peace, cooperation and general development in the SCO space. I can also say once again that a lot of countries are literally reaching out to the SCO, which shows that this line is completely justified. As for military exercises, it is of principle importance that the SCO is not a military bloc; it has no attributes of a defence alliance. The cooperation that is carried out through the defence ministries and armed forces has a clear anti-terrorist orientation, as also evidenced by the scenarios of those military exercises that were held within the SCO: all of them are subordinated to the tasks of jointly repelling large-scale attacks by international terrorists. As recently as on 6 December, the 18th meeting of the expert working group under the SCO Defence Ministers Meeting took place in Astana. It discussed the Expert Group Action Plan for 2024 and the overall agenda of the Defence Ministers Meeting, including a schedule for joint exercises next year, but we do not yet have any information.
6. More countries are joining the SCO, which currently includes 26 members, at each new round of its enlargement. Since its membership and influence are growing, is the SCO considering a reform or transformation to adjust its role on the international stage? What is the SCO as a large international organisation doing to convince its member states to strive for consensus despite their differences? (Zhongguo Wang/中国网)
I believe that I have already answered this question to a large degree, but I will try to explain in greater detail how we understand the SCO’s modernisation or reform. To begin with, we do not mean a major overhaul. It would be more correct to say that we need to fine-tune its executive mechanisms in light of current requirements. Besides, this involves quite a few technical issues, such as amendments to the SCO Charter and regulations, considering that these amendments will come into effect in accordance with the procedure stipulated for the enforcement of the Charter itself. Under the current procedure, the SCO Charter or amendments to it will come into effect following the deposit of the fourth instrument of ratification, as stipulated by the six founding states when they established the Organisation. There are nine member states now, and the number will increase to 10 tomorrow. In short, even such technical issues must be thoroughly considered. As for security, the SCO initially focused on fighting “three evil forces,” namely, terrorism, extremism and separatism. Today, this aspect of the SCO’s agenda also includes international information security, combatting drug trafficking and cross-border organised crime, as well as a lot of other security challenges and threats on the SCO agenda, which is why it would be reasonable to reform or reshape the mechanism for addressing these threats. For example, the 2021 Dushanbe Declaration mentioned that the member states discussed various methods of reforming the security block, such as transforming the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure into a universal centre to counter challenges and security threats, which would comprise independent and field-specific divisions. Another scenario provides for creating new permanent bodies, such as an anti-drug centre headquartered in Dushanbe as a completely independent body. All these possibilities are being thoroughly discussed and analysed by the member states. We believe that there are also ways to enhance the efficiency of other SCO bodies, for example, the Secretariat, personnel, financial, technical support and other divisions. It is a multifaceted and multidimensional task, and the ongoing discussions have shown that every amendment will have its consequences, which must also be taken into account. Therefore, these efforts are being taken with support from various experts. As of now, we have compiled a rough list of what needs to be done. It is a complicated and highly responsible job, which implies, among other things, that all these amendments must not affect the daily functioning of the Organisation. On the other hand, the more difficult a problem, the more interesting it is.
7. You mentioned that the SCO family now includes 26 states. Can you define what the SCO family is? Do countries that seek SCO membership have the opportunity to participate in the Organisation’s activities, or are they basically observer states? (TASS news agency)
SCO family is not a formal term; it is not defined in any political or statutory document of the Organisation. And yet, it seems to describe the group of countries that have united in the SCO in the most accurate and comprehensive way. The SCO family essentially includes all states that in one way or another maintain official, formalised relations with the Organisation, or, in other words, these are member states, observer states and dialogue partners. Any status allows either observer states or dialogue partners to directly engage in SCO activities. Dialogue partners, under the corresponding memorandums, can participate in the relevant specialised SCO mechanisms, which basically include meetings held by the relevant ministers or heads of departments as well as corresponding expert mechanisms. Here, I should mention the Republic of Belarus’ participation in the meeting of an international information security expert group that I talked about, as well as its involvement in an expert group meeting on preparations for the Defence Ministers Meeting in Astana. Importantly, the dialogue partnership mechanism has a lot of potential, with the areas of cooperation between a dialogue partner and the Organisation or its participation in the Organisation being unlimited. Currently, the SCO is considering ways to adjust this mechanism to make maximum use of its potential. As regards observers, they have the right to participate and speak at meetings of the Heads of State Council and the Heads of Government Council, although without voting rights. In principle, an observer’s main task is to observe and analyse SCO activities, and then draw conclusions. The Republic of Belarus, once a dialogue partner, became an observer state after taking a closer look at the Organisation to see that the full membership of the SCO meets the country’s interests.
8. How does the SCO plan to expand settlements in local currencies between the member states in the future? (Caixin Meiti/财新媒体)
A financial outlet is asking a special question regarding finance. You have touched upon a very important issue; it is atop the Organisation’s agenda. It is clear that the destructive processes taking place in the world have forced more and more countries to think about the need to find alternative payment systems and shift away from the absolutely concentrated payment system tied to the US dollar that developed in the last century. This year, the main work is focused on continuing to implement the SCO Roadmap to gradually increase the share of national currencies in mutual settlements. This work is being carried out by a specially created expert group, which includes representatives of central banks and finance ministries of the member states. The roadmap itself was signed in September 2022; to date, six expert meetings have already taken place, and the work is progressing quite dynamically and consistently. At the current stage, the efforts of the mentioned expert group are aimed at creating favourable conditions for the settlement system in national currencies. The experts are carrying out a thorough analysis of the differences in legislation on currency regulation and identifying constraining factors and possible ways to eliminate them. They are also studying the possibility of creating sources of liquidity in national currencies and holding direct trading in national currencies on exchange platforms, as well as developing proposals for possible mechanisms for transaction clearing, given the specifics of the payment systems of the SCO member states.
It must be said that in addition to the expert group, this topic is also discussed within the SCO Interbank Consortium. Work is underway, although it is obvious that the process is very complicated. To be perfectly clear, the US dollar is deeply integrated with national monetary systems and is today practically the only global reserve currency. But I can note that today this process is moving forward more successfully at the bilateral level. For example, a significant share of settlements in Russian-Chinese trade is already carried out in the national currency. Probably, the experience of working in bilateral formats will be useful for a multilateral scheme.
9. The SCO Council of Heads of Government (Prime Ministers) held in October proposed new initiatives in economic cooperation, security cooperation and humanitarian exchanges; how will these initiatives be promoted in the future? (Zhong Xinshe/中新社)
The SCO Council of Heads of Government is the main SCO body responsible for cooperation in practical areas within the Organisation, especially trade and the economy, so the council’s agenda always focuses on practical cooperation. As for the council meeting in Bishkek, the focus was made on transport. All parties confirmed their commitment to promptly implement the SCO member states’ agreement to create favourable conditions for international road cargo transport. The Action Plan for the Implementation of the SCO Concept for Interaction between Railway Administrations until 2025 was approved. Kazakhstan proposed creating a partnership network of strategic ports and logistics centres. Russia supported implementing the Concept for the Development of Interconnectivity and the Creation of Effective Transport Corridors. Uzbekistan proposed to create a unified map of transport connectivity of the member states.
A lot of attention was paid to investment, financial and banking cooperation. Everyone knows that for several years now various alternatives to increase the effectiveness of the mechanisms for financial support for economic interaction have been discussed. There are proposals to establish an SCO development bank or an SCO investment fund. In the Council of Heads of Government meeting, Iran joined the discussion and suggested a joint fund to finance oil production and refinery projects.
The participants paid a lot of attention to the development of the digital economy. In particular, an agreement was reached to hold an online meeting between SCO buyers and sellers under the current concept.
The member states focused on cooperation in energy. Proposals were made to expand the use of alternative fuels and create an SCO regional energy hub and a joint fund to finance oil production and oil refining projects. The parties’ commitment to agree on the draft Strategy for the SCO Development of Energy Cooperation until 2030 as soon as possible was confirmed. I have already mentioned that, considering the implementation of economic projects, it is obvious that we need to think about flexible plans, which implies the participation of only interested states; this idea was expressed by SCO Secretary-General Zhang Ming at a meeting of the SCO Heads of Government Council in Bishkek. Of course, the heads of government also discussed substantive cooperation in healthcare, education, and science and other areas. To sum up, the objectives are serious and they will have to be implemented within the SCO’s specialised executive mechanisms.
10. Please elaborate on cooperation in tourism within the SCO. Are there plans to create visa-free programmes within the Organisation? What tourism volumes were achieved within the SCO in 2023, and what are the estimated tourism volumes next year? (RIA Novosti)
In general, I have to say that cooperation in tourism is increasingly important on the SCO agenda. This is no coincidence: the SCO member states have a clear understanding that the potential of tourism exchanges is much more than cultural, entertainment and commercial assets. It is impossible to miss that tourist trips, contacts between people, mutual acquaintance with each other’s culture, history and traditions are the soil on which mutual trust and respect grows between nations and states, especially when it comes to the SCO family, which is, I am not afraid to say, a “unique constellation” of bright and ancient cultures, philosophical, religious and ethical teachings, outstanding architectural landmarks, and unique and beautiful landscapes. The development of cooperation in tourism is envisaged in the SCO Development Strategy until 2025. Today, work is underway to create conditions for unimpeded tourist travel within the SCO region, including the restoration of direct air service, issues of compatibility in national payment systems, as well as improving insurance mechanisms. These items are discussed at regular meetings of the SCO heads of national tourism agencies.
The possibility of visa-free travel is now mainly discussed bilaterally; however, it is possible that it could be implemented on a multilateral basis in the foreseeable future.
On 17 March 2023, a regular Meeting of Heads of National Tourism Agencies took place. The heads of delegations adopted a Joint Action Plan for the Implementation of the Agreement on the Development of Cooperation in Tourism. The agreements will make it possible to reach practical cooperation in promoting the SCO tourism brand, improving the quality of tourism services, as well as the digitalization of the industry. At the same meeting, the Year of Tourism Development in the SCO Space Action Plan was adopted. This plan includes over 40 different exhibitions, forums, and conferences.
I would like to say that the SCO Year of Tourism 2023 forum held just two weeks ago made a significant contribution in the development of tourism cooperation in the SCO space. It was held in Urumqi and was organised by the People’s Government of the XUAR and the SCO Secretariat.
The establishment of the institution of an SCO tourism and cultural capital is one of the most productive projects designed to encourage tourism between the member states. The first city to receive this status was the historical, ancient city of Varanasi. Now the capital moved to Almaty, which is rightfully considered the gem of Kazakhstan. Our Kazakhstani partners presented a detailed plan of activities for 2023-2024. I would especially like to mention such events as The Spirit of Tengri international festival and the international ethnic festival. As for statistics on tourist flows, we do not have reports or indicators on this, but I can give you some indicative figures, for example, from 2023. The number of tourist trips from the SCO countries to Russia has tripled compared to last year to about 3 million. The Republic of Uzbekistan was visited by over 2 million tourists from the SCO countries in 2023, and Kazakhstan, over 700,000 tourists from the SCO member states. This year was declared the Year of Tourism Development in the SCO at a meeting of the SCO Heads of State Council. These numbers show that this is not just a slogan, but practical actions.
11. In July, during the meeting of the SCO Council of Heads of State in New Delhi and on the initiative of the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the heads of the SCO Member States declared 2024 the SCO Year of Ecology. What are the SCO's plans for the next year regarding climate change, land conservation and global environmental issues? (ZhongXinshe/中新社)
I mentioned earlier that environmental issues were among the Kazakhstan chairmanship’s priorities. At the meeting of the SCO Council of Heads of State in New Delhi, it was agreed to declare 2024 the SCO Year of Ecology. At a recent meeting of the Council of Heads of Government in Bishkek, an action plan for the SCO Year of Ecology in 2024 was adopted. The plan provides for holding roundtable discussions, contests, workshops, conferences, interactive games, environmental drives, educational lectures and other functions.
This initiative is quite relevant against the background of the environmental issues of planetary scale related to climate change and its devastating consequences. Its main idea is to draw the international community’s attention to the environmental issues facing our Organisation, as well as to the SCO activities in environmental protection.
At present, as part of Kazakhstan's SCO chairmanship, work is underway to coordinate a number of multilateral draft documents touching on almost all areas of cooperation in the field of environmental protection. These projects include the Programme of Cooperation of the SCO Member States in the Development of Specially Protected Natural Areas and Ecological Tourism, the Action Plan for the Implementation of the Concept of Cooperation of the SCO Member States in the Field of Environment for 2025-2027, the Statement of the Council of Heads of the SCO Member States on Effective Waste Management, the Plan of Joint Actions to Support Regional Environmental Projects and to Introduce Green Technologies as Part of Implementing the SCO Green Belt Programme for 2023-2025, the Agreement between the Governments of the SCO Member States on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection, Regulations of the Meeting of Heads of Ministries and Agencies of the SCO Member States in Charge of Climate Change Issues (SCO Climate Council), and Joint Approaches by the SCO Member States to Addressing Environmental Issues.
The possibility of holding an unofficial joint UN-SCO high-level environmental event next year is currently under consideration.
You can see that environmental issues are becoming a key priority on the Organisation's agenda as well.
12. The world is still living with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and people all over the world are worried about any news of a continuation of the epidemic. How are you working with healthcare, and what mechanisms will be set up to reduce the risks in this area and enhance sustainability in future epidemic outbreaks? (RIA Novosti)
This is a very serious question with a painful background because the pandemic is still fresh in our memory, although it has subsided a bit. I must say that the SCO has a common understanding that further development of practical cooperation in healthcare between the SCO members is the only key to countering this threat. We have several guiding documents in this area: the Agreement Between the Governments of the SCO Member States on Cooperation in Healthcare; the Programme of Informing about Epidemiological Situations Caused by Infectious Diseases on the Territory of the SCO Member States, the Comprehensive Plan of Joint Measures to Counter Epidemic Threats in the Region; and the Roadmap on Cooperation Between the Medical Institutions of the SCO Member States on Preventing and Treating Infectious Diseases. We regularly exchange information, work on uniform systems for monitoring current infectious diseases, and organise events to prevent and counter them.
We have effective cooperation mechanisms – the Meeting of the Health Ministers of the SCO Member States and the Meeting of the Heads of Services that are Responsible for the Sanitary and Epidemiological Wellbeing of the Population.
On May 12 of this year, the health ministers of the SCO member states held their 6th meeting. They agreed to enhance cooperation in healthcare, including efforts to counter non-infectious diseases by integrating related medical services at all levels of healthcare in the SCO countries.
At present, the following projects are under approval by the parties: drafts of a concept on creating an SCO medical association; plans for basic measures on developing healthcare cooperation among the SCO member states in 2025-2027; and statements by the SCO Heads of State Council on ensuring the safety of drinking water and sanitation. These projects are designed to make a tangible contribution to enriching the SCO health agenda.
In conclusion, I would like to say that the SCO has withstood the challenges of the coronavirus. The member states have displayed a high level of solidarity and mutual assistance. This is yet further evidence that the Shanghai Spirit is not just a beautiful expression but a new style, a new model for interstate relations.