Interview with Mr Mario Apostolov, Regional Advisor in Economic Commission of Europe.

23 April 2018

Mario Apostolov is a busy man, being the Economic Commission for Europe’s regional advisor on Trade Facilitation. Also known as an expert from the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, he has written many articles, reports and books, most recently Modernization of the Central Asian Countries: the Role of Regional Trade Integration and Trade Facilitation. For the last two years he has also worked on the coordination of the United Nations’ Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia. Being of the curious sort, we made a point of meeting up with him in the United Nations before he set out to travel yet again.

Q: Could you tell us about your work?

I’m the Regional Advisor on trade facilitation in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, and I work on assistance to the transition economies in Eastern Europe, East Central Asia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, helping them implement trade facilitation measures. This is done primarily through instruments developed by the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT), a subsidiary body of the UNECE. Trade facilitation is one of the key topics in international trade diplomacy these days.

A year ago, on 22 February 2017, the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement entered into force, containing both binding measures and a series of optional measures. This Agreement forms a framework in which the countries can work on facilitating trade. The UNECE has more than 60 years of experience in developing such instruments, meaning standards and best practice recommendations for trade facilitation. And we have experience in providing capacity-building, which is my area of responsibility as the Regional Advisor. This includes framework capacity-building in support of the implementation of these instruments and standards, such as the very first UNECE trade facilitation standard – the UN Layout Key for trade and transport documents. This is our recommendation number one, and a widely accepted international voluntary standard.

Several of the most recent recommendations that UN/CEFACT developed and adopted involved the concept called Single Window for import, export and transit clearance. Trade facilitation is about reducing bureaucracy in international trade. Historically, traders have had to provide as many as forty different documents to some forty different agencies, but with trade facilitation this information needs to be provided only once. This is the idea of the Single Window, which is the most developed instrument of trade facilitation: the information is provided only once to a single agency. Even though it may sound simple, it’s a very a complicated instrument, for it is very difficult to coordinate the work of all agencies regulating foreign trade. Thus, the idea underpinning the facilitated movement of goods is the facilitated movement of the information about goods, since goods cannot move faster than the information about them, such as customs documents or those going to other inspection agencies. In other words, trade facilitation is about making information about the goods — documents, certificates, licenses, customs declarations — move faster so that the goods move faster. And the benefit is saving time and reducing the cost of bureaucratic procedures.

Q: You also work on the United Nations Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA). What is the purpose of this program?

This program supports the Central Asian economies in developing “sub-regional” cooperation, as we call it. The SPECA participating countries are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is the only Central Asian cooperation program involving only the land-locked economies of the Central Asia, allowing them to cooperate among themselves, with the UN providing the platform. The program consists of six different areas covered by six working groups. It is a difficult program because sometimes we have to deal with prejudices against regional cooperation in the countries, and there are those who believe that there is no political will nor sufficient resources to support this program. This does not diminish the importance of such a program for the economies of Central Asia. They need it. And this is the challenge of the United Nations: to work exactly where something is not easy to do and is not done by others.

Last year the host of the program’s key events was Tajikistan, and Tajikistan selected as the theme of the annual economic forum "Innovation for Achieving the SDGs in the SPECA Region". It was an interesting forum, and one of the outcomes was the idea of developing a regional strategy for innovation to help achieve sustainable development, which would be based on the documents that were produced for this forum.

Q: Who is chairing the program this year?

This year Kazakhstan is chairing the program, and they will organize the annual meeting of the governing council and the economic forum on 20-21 September 2018, in Almaty. Twenty years ago the Central Asian countries gathered in Tashkent to establish the program and issued its founding document, the so called Tashkent Declaration. Kazakhstan is working of the definition of the topic and an agenda now. This year, it was decided that for the twentieth anniversary there will be a review of how the SPECA program works, in order to make it more country driven.

Q: I understand that you have compiled a glossary of trade facilitation terms, is that right?

Yes, we have developed an English-Russian trade facilitation glossary, which is kind of a bilingual dictionary of trade facilitation terms. The impetus for starting work on it came during a seminar in Chisinau on trade facilitation for those former Soviet republics that were the first to join the WTO. There, experts from Moldova pointed out that there were four different ways of translating "trade facilitation" into Russian and that could be very confusing. So, they asked us to prepare an authoritative tool on the translation of trade facilitation terms that could help them. After that, we decided to prepare an English-Russian glossary covering a wide range of trade facilitation terms.
We are now pursuing the idea of producing a multilingual dictionary, for it has been a long-term objective to have such a tool in the six official United Nations languages.

I would like to mention certain benefits of trade facilitation. The cost of paperwork in international trade is estimated to range from 3.5% to 7% of the value of the goods traded (even 10% to 15% if there are typing errors). Introducing trade facilitation measures can reduce this considerably. In the global economy, each 1% reduction of such costs would be equal to US$ 43 billion.

Taking leave of Mr Mario Apostolov, we wish him success in his endavours.

Ekaterina Pinchevskaya