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Central Asia gains prominence in European Union strategy

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the importance of Central Asia to the EU has become increasingly clear. Now represents an opportune moment for Brussels to strengthen a relationship that could greatly benefit both regions in the future.

March 29, 2024 - Janusz Bugajski - Articles and Commentary

Meeting of the heads of state of Central Asia and the President of the European Council in Cholpon-ata, Kyrgyzstan. June 2023. Photo: Eurpopean Union press release

Central Asia is assuming a more prominent position in European Union policy in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war. Through a number of diplomatic and economic initiatives, Europe can significantly bolster the region’s security and development and help protect it from Russian and Chinese ambitions. In January this year, the European Parliament adopted a report on the EU’s Central Asia policy, emphasizing the strategic importance of enhancing the region’s economic connections with the West. The document calls for greater substance in the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (EPCAs) with the Central Asian states, with Kazakhstan as the leading player.

High-level contacts are multiplying and the first EU-Central Asia summit is scheduled for later this year following the adoption in 2023 of a roadmap for deepening ties. In preparation for the summit, a meeting was held in June 2023 between Central Asian leaders and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council. In a visit to Astana in January 2024, Margaritis Schinas, vice president of the European Commission, acknowledged Kazakhstan as a “key actor in the region’s positive evolution”. According to the German think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), Kazakhstan has now joined the ranks of the mid-sized powers, with implications throughout Eurasia.

The results of the Russia-Ukraine war will have a profound impact on Central Asia. A Russian victory could reverse the region’s emerging pro-western orientation by generating new pressures to return to Moscow’s orbit. A clear Ukrainian triumph in liberating all its territories would signal that aggressive states cannot pursue the partition of their neighbours by claiming they are defending their co-ethnics. This has profound implications for Kazakhstan in particular, which hosts a sizeable Russian minority, listed at just under three million according to the 2021 census. They form about 15 per cent of the total population and are mostly resident in the northern and eastern regions of the country.

The foundations of Kazakhstan’s independence were established by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s first president, by focusing on four key pillars: strong institutions, a balanced foreign policy, economic growth based on foreign trade and investment, and the consolidation of national identity. The current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and other Central Asian leaders, especially in Uzbekistan, have continued this successful strategy.

Nazarbayev’s multi-vector approach helped to develop Kazakhstan into an economic engine for Central Asia and a bridge between Asia, Europe and the Middle East, accounting for approximately 70 per cent of foreign direct investment flows into the region. This year, Astana is chairing the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) and is focused on constructing the Middle Corridor, or the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), which will connect China and Europe via Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. This will halve the current transport time for cargo that travels across the Indian Ocean. At an investors forum in Brussels in January, several international financial institutions announced a commitment of ten billion euros for the TITR project.

The Central Asian countries are pursuing a strategy of engagement with the EU that can help protect them from both Russian and Chinese ambitions. In 2023, the Kazakh government relaunched the Astana International Forum (AIF) to highlight the region’s importance. Kazakhstan pioneered western investment in the region but its economic policies are constrained by continuing economic ties with Russia. Around 80 per cent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports to Europe still flow through Russian territory and Russia remains Astana’s largest trade partner, accounting for about 40 per cent of non-oil exports. The government has tried to maintain economic relations with Russia while not running afoul of the international sanctions regime against Moscow. The Special Envoy for the Implementation of EU Sanctions David O’Sullivan visited Astana in November 2023 and expressed gratitude to the government for decreasing the re-export of items that could end up in Russia’s military equipment. Even tighter controls are expected in the future.

Central Asia needs western support to connect to the outside world through energy and trade routes that bypass Russia. Kazakhstan is expanding the capacity of its Caspian ports and transportation links to increase such trade. In a visit to Astana in November 2022, Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated that the European Investment Bank should provide significant investments in regional infrastructure. The EU and Kazakhstan also signed a memorandum of understanding on a strategic partnership in the field of raw materials, batteries and renewable hydrogen. In May 2023, European Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis and Kazakhstan’s then Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov unveiled plans for cooperation between industrial enterprises on joint investment projects, geological exploration, and research and innovation.

As Russian oil exports to the EU have virtually collapsed, Kazakhstan has become the Union’s third-largest oil supplier, after Norway and the United States. French President Emmanuel Macron’s trip to Central Asia in November 2023 highlighted the region’s increasing importance to Europe’s supply of nuclear and fossil fuels. As France is heavily dependent on nuclear energy, it is seeking greater volumes of uranium, while Kazakhstan seeks French investment in developing its own nuclear power industry. The EU can help Kazakhstan to expand its processing capabilities, as it contains an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves and abundant rare earth minerals, such as chromium, copper and lithium. These are essential for expanding clean energy technologies.

In its December report, the French Institute of International Affairs concluded that Central Asia is undergoing a geopolitical and geoeconomic transformation, while its expansionist neighbours, Russia and China, have been weakened by war and economic malaise. This is the optimal time for Europe to deepen its engagement with this developing but still contested region and help ensure its independence, security and economic growth.

Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His most recent book is called Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture. His forthcoming book, to be published in 2024, is titled Pivotal Poland: Europe’s Rising Strategic Player.

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