New EU strategy on Central Asia identifies challenges, optimises opportunities, says EU ambassador in Kazakhstan

NUR-SULTAN – The new Central Asia Strategy, devised by the European Union (EU) addresses new realities of Central Asian countries and encourages cooperative solutions, Head of the EU Delegation to Kazakhstan Ambassador Sven-Olov Carlsson recently told The Astana Times in an exclusive interview.

Sven-Olov Carlsson

“The Central Asia Strategy aims to forge a stronger, modern and non-exclusive partnership with the countries of Central Asia, taking into account new geopolitical realities as well as evolving needs and capacities of our Central Asian partners. It builds upon the lessons learnt from EU engagement in the region, identifies both challenges and new opportunities for cooperation and aims at supporting the development of the region into a sustainable, resilient, prosperous and more closely interconnected economic and political space,” Carlsson said.

Carlsson also identified three priorities of the policy. The first priority is Partnering for Resilience, meaning that the EU partners with Central Asian countries in anticipating and addressing the challenges affecting their socio-economic goals and security to enhance their ability to embrace reform and modernisation.

The second priority is Partnering for Prosperity, which aims to unlock the region’s growth potential by fostering the development of a competitive private sector and promoting a sound and open investment environment.

The final priority is Working Better Together that presumes the EU will work together with Central Asia to strengthen the architecture of the partnership, intensifying political dialogue and opening space for civil society participation.

Kazakhstan played an important part in shaping the new strategy by sharing proposals with the EU, said Carlsson.

“Let me in this context mention the most valuable contribution of Kazakhstan in shaping the new strategy. In June last year, the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs shared a substantive paper highlighting the importance of synergy of regional and bilateral approaches. The eight priorities defined by our Kazakh partners, including development of human potential through education, promotion of rule of law, development of private entrepreneurship, new technologies, connectivity, green economy, environmental protection and security cooperation, including assistance to Afghanistan’s rehabilitation and stabilisation are very well reflected in the new strategy and already represent a quite ambitious priority list to which I can fully subscribe,” Carlsson said.

He shared his excitement about a new EU programme that provides Afghan women with scholarships to study in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

“First of all, the action is the first example of a trilateral cooperation programme between the European Union, Afghanistan, and Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). This is in line with the new EU Strategy for Central Asia and its main objective to foster cross-border cooperation both within Central Asia but and between the five Central Asian countries and the wider region. Secondly, we expect the project to empower Afghan women who will be able to benefit from tailor-made programmes in three priority sectors, agriculture, mining and statistics, thus improving their skills and their chances of finding employment. Thirdly, we attach great importance to the spill-over effect of such a project, which originally was designed as an education project but which we expect to contribute to economic development and ensuring peace and stability in the region. Overall, we believe that the EU’s strategic approach and long-term vision, together with the know-how of UNDP and UN Women – which are our implementing partners – together with the Kazakh and Uzbek expertise and experience in the specific fields of education is a recipe for the success of this programme,” said Carlsson.

Carlsson has noted that despite the best efforts of Central Asian countries, regional cooperation has not yet reached its potential, as the initial priority was given to national consolidation.

“Over the past two decades, regional cooperation in Central Asia has not reached its potential. The common history and shared cultural heritage of the five countries have not yet been translated into a joint perception of the region as a room for common political action.  This reality is, however, not surprising, since all five countries have for obvious reasons during the first years of independence been giving priority to national consolidation with focus on statehood, sovereignty and establishment of necessary institutions and safe borders,” Carlsson said.

However, the situation regarding regional cooperation is changing, as the countries are increasingly trying to tackle common problems together, as illustrated by the first informal meeting of Central Asian leaders in March 2018. The EU would like to support and strengthen this new wave of regional cooperation in Central Asia.

“Yet in the past two years, there are important indications that the picture is rapidly changing. The new momentum in regional cooperation, illustrated by the first informal Summit of Central Asian leaders of March 2018 in Astana, has also enhanced the relevance of the EU’s experience in crafting cooperative solutions to common challenges. We can only welcome these ‘new winds blowing’ in Central Asia conducive to strengthening regional cooperation. This is a time of opportunities, and today we see that aspirations can truly turn into reality. The EU is here because we believe in the potential of this region, and, most importantly, the potential of the people of this region. This is the core of our new strategy on Central Asia, and we are determined to invest in the new opportunities and growing potential for cooperation within and with the region as a whole,” Carlsson said.

The EU programmes would address finding cooperative solutions on the regional level.

“EU-Central Asia dialogues and EU-funded multi-country programmes will contribute to promoting cooperative solutions at the regional level in areas such as the environment, water management, climate change and sustainable energy; education; the rule of law; sustainable connectivity; drugs policy; security and the prevention of radicalisation; border management and intra-regional trade facilitation,” Carlsson said.

One project would be the first EU-Central Asia Economic Forum that was agreed upon during the recent EU-CA ministerial meeting in Bishkek. Carlsson proposed three themes for the upcoming forum.

“As concrete topics for the first EU-Central Asia Economic Forum, I would suggest three important themes: export facilitation, possibly with particular focus on the agricultural sector, investment promotion and intraregional trade,” said Carlsson.

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