European Union and Central Asia: New Partnership in Action

The European Union (EU) has been engaged with the five countries in Central Asia from the very moment they gained their independence in the early 1990s. During that period the EU, as the biggest donor in the region, played an important role in supporting sovereignty and independence of the partner countries in Central Asia, helping them to build their new socio-economic systems, create a legislative basis and development programmes and strategies for sustainable development. I dare say that also thanks to this contribution, the region managed to preserve a large degree of stability in a situation when it was facing many formidable challenges, both inherited and new ones.

The first comprehensive EU strategy for the region, adopted in 2007, represented an important qualitative upgrade of the relationship and paved the way for a more coherent and better coordinated engagement of the EU in key areas of transformation and modernisation of the Central Asia partner countries reflected in three strategic initiatives: European Rule of Law Initiative for Central Asia, European Education Initiative for Central Asia and the Regional Platform for Environment and Water Cooperation. These three initiatives together with the regional security programmes – BOMCA and CADAP – have provided useful platforms for inter- and intra-regional dialogue and cooperation in addressing key challenges in the region through regional cooperation.

It is important to note in this regard that the implementation of various regional and bilateral programmes within the EU’s multiannual indicative programme in Central Asia for 2014-2020 has been underpinned by a significant increase in financial allocations exceeding one billion euros (US$1.1 billion). These financial resources were provided at a time when the EU was facing consequences of the global financial crisis. This is, in my view, the best testimony of the EU’s strong commitment to the security, stability and prosperity of Central Asia – key objectives of our strategy.

I did not want to sound complacent and imply that everything that the EU was trying achieve in Central Asia when implementing the strategy was easy and successful. There were also difficult moments and setbacks, which some interpreted as the EU’s inability to promote, and the Central Asian countries incapability to embrace, common values and international commitments, in particular in the area of basic freedoms and human rights.

While expecting more progress in reforms, we fully understand the complexity of challenges the countries of Central Asia and their societies are facing. In this regard, I am pleased to note that there is a growing understanding in the region that promoting rule of law, good governance, human rights and a strong role of civil society is not a “Western agenda.” These principles are universally recognised. These elements are key for all the countries in gaining their rightful place in the world economy, global trade and transport as well.

It is encouraging to see that these principles have also found their place in the National Development Strategies of our partners, including the ambitious reform programme 100 steps initiated by First President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. They need to be implemented in practice, and we are ready to help to this end.

One of the important conclusions we also drew from our own experience was that for the region to remain stable and fully benefit from its strategic location and potential, it needs to address existing challenges without delay; it needs to continue reforming and modernising, creating better conditions for all citizens to exercise their rights, improving the business environment and building a rules-based space attractive for investors.

New Momentum and Dynamism in EU-Central Asia Cooperation and Partnership

I am pleased to note that through these years our partnership has matured and, in particular, in recent years it acquired new content and dynamism also thanks to a pro-active attitude of our partners to inter- and intra-regional cooperation.

Indeed, we clearly registered this new spirit of regional cooperation and solidarity in Samarkand in 2017 during the Conference on regional development and security. We welcome these “new positive winds blowing’ in Central Asia conducive to strengthening regional cooperation. Regional cooperation as a factor of stability and sustainable development is deeply rooted in EU’s DNA. That is why the EU very much welcomes and supports this direction and wants to help and contribute to translating this positive spirit into concrete action.

Having said that, I wish to emphasise that the EU does not want to push or impose any models of regional integration and cooperation or put our partners before any binary choices. It should be firmly in the hands of the countries of Central Asia themselves to decide how they want to cooperate. At the same time, the EU’s experience, including the values and principles the EU was established upon, as a peace project could serve as a source of inspiration and useful practices for our partners.

The capital of Kazakhstan – Astana (Nur-Sultan) – historically hosted the first consultative summit of the leaders of Central Asia, discussing strengthened regional cooperation in jointly addressing many inherited and new challenges the region is facing, including border security, prevention of violent extremism and climate change, but also regional trade and connectivity. In a very short period of time, these initiatives and rapprochement between neighbours, addressing many outstanding issues through constructive dialogue, led among other things to an unprecedented growth of cross-border trade and strengthening regional cooperation. I believe this is the best testimony of benefits and dividends of regional and cooperative approaches over regional competition and rivalry.

New EU Central Asia Strategy: Partnership for Resilience and Prosperity

In 2017, the EU Member States in Council Conclusions on the EU strategy for Central Asia from June 19 recognised that the countries of Central Asia have become significant partners of the EU and welcomed the progress achieved in developing EU relations with all five countries individually, as well as the Central Asian region as a whole.

While emphasising that the main objectives and priority areas of the 2007 EU Strategy for Central Asia and the Council Conclusions on the Strategy of June 22, 2015 remained pertinent, the Council of the EU recognised that it was time to review and renew the EU relationship, taking into account new geopolitical realities and evolving needs and capacities of our Central Asian partners. The Council therefore invited the High Representative and the EU Commission to come forward with a proposal for a new Strategy by the end of 2019.

The extensive and inclusive consultation process with Central Asian partners on the orientations of the future EU Strategy involving governments, civil society, the private sector and researchers from the region and the EU member states have confirmed that the significant changes underway in Central Asia create important opportunities for greater EU engagement. An explicit demand for a “more ambitious” presence and engagement of the EU made the preparation of a new Strategy for Central Asia particularly timely.

The main goal of the EU is to help through existing and new initiatives and platforms to increase the resilience of the region as a whole, as well as of the individual states of the region, since only resilient states and societies are able to efficiently tackle the existing challenges and pressures of today.

Here, I wish to use an excellent quote of First President Nazarbayev from his speech on the Third Modernisation of Kazakhstan: “Only those nations, which manage to get ahead of the future and decisively meet the challenges, without standing and waiting, are the winners.”

The EU is interested in all Central Asian countries becoming winners and wants to continue to be a reliable and committed partner for the modernisation and sustainable development of the region based on regional and local ownership and leadership, with no hidden geopolitical agenda. The EU has the only interest and objective – that Central Asia develops as a peaceful, resilient and more closely interconnected economic and political space.

I believe the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a new opportunity for strengthening the partnership and cooperation, on one hand, between the EU and our partners in Central Asia, but on the other hand, also between the EU and other international organisations, in particular the UN, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other actors pursuing the same values and approaches in implementing together an ambitious package of sustainable development goals based on national ownership, shared responsibility and accountability.

I believe the EU has a lot to offer to our partners through sharing the experience of individual member states from their modernisation and transformation processes and reforms. In this respect, I am pleased to note that our dialogue and mechanisms of cooperation are very much focused on all crucial aspects of sustainable development, including capacity building, education, rural development, sustainable use of natural resources, good governance, etc., pursuing a comprehensive approach to development.

We see the need to further reenergise interregional and intraregional cooperation for addressing the rapidly growing impact of climate change in the region. The recent high-level conference in Tashkent on EU-Central Asia cooperation in environment and water management identified several key areas for closer interaction with the EU, including greater involvement of the private sector and European financial institutions in projects supporting green economy. These days, we are also considering our contribution to the Aral Sea Multi-Partner Human Security Trust Fund for mitigating the impact of this ecological catastrophe. Last but not least, together with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and our Central Asian partners, the EU has established an environmental remediation account for addressing the sad legacy of uranium mining in the region (a ticking ecological bomb).

Based on a demand from our Central Asian partners for more ambitious economic engagement of the EU, we will be stepping up our support to modernisation and to the reform processes underway in the region, promoting economic diversification, supporting improvement of the business environment and creation of a transparent rules-based space conducive to investments. We are strengthening the presence and activities of European financial institutions like the European Investment Bank (EIB) and EBRD in the region.

Finally, we see great importance of promoting sustainable connectivity in Central Asia. The EU is ready to engage in this process with our partners based on the recently adopted EU Strategy for Connecting Europe and Asia. This strategy will have very important implications for Central Asia. We have clearly realised that Euro-Asian connectivity, through enhanced interoperable links in transport, energy and digital, can stimulate growth, jobs and investment in Europe and Asia and favour balanced trade patterns. Although the EU-Eurasian Connectivity Strategy is partly a response to the Belt and Road Initiative by China, it is not in direct support, nor in opposition to the initiative. It is more about shaping the process in order to bring EU standards and values in this endeavour. The EU-Eurasian Connectivity Strategy is about rules, not only roads, because shortly even the best highways will remain empty if there is no rule and order.

Role of Kazakhstan in New Strategy

The EU very much welcomes the contribution of Kazakh partners on all levels, including government, parliament, civil society, researchers and the private sector, in shaping the new Strategy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs paper on the Kazakh view on the new Strategy presented in June 2018 highlighted the importance for a synergy of regional and bilateral approaches.

The new Strategy will provide enough space for reflecting on the individual ambitions and specifics of our partners. The new generation of Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (EPCA) will provide a very solid legal basis for supporting reforms and moving our bilateral cooperation in all areas to a qualitatively new level. We concluded the first EPCA with Kazakhstan in 2015, have finalised negotiations with Kyrgyzstan this year and started negotiations with Uzbekistan this February.

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. The 15th EU Central Asia Ministerial Meeting in July in Bishkek discussed concrete ways how to translate these ideas and initiatives into practice.

Coming back to its regional role and leadership, we believe Kazakhstan has a unique position in Central Asia to act as an engine for regional cohesion and cooperation. We welcome the initiative of Kazakhstan to organise the first debate in the UN Security Council on regional security, followed by an initiative of Uzbekistan to organise an international conference on Afghanistan. I believe that this engagement has also provided a very solid basis for strengthening and expanding bilateral and multilateral cooperation with the EU in tackling various regional and global issues based on shared values and international commitments, including effective multilateralism as the most efficient means for addressing existing challenges in the world.

As Kazakhstan has now become more prosperous and achieved the status of an upper middle income country, there is a growing potential for working together on development assistance in the region contributing to stability in the region through focusing on sustainable development of the whole area, including Afghanistan.

Conclusion

To conclude, we believe this is the right time and the right opportunity for more EU engagement with Central Asia. The EU fully supports this new direction and wants to help in translating the positive momentum in Central Asia into concrete action.

I am fully convinced that the new strategy for Central Asia developed together in close consultations with our partners in Central Asia and other partners including international organisations will provide concrete mechanisms on a bilateral and regional level for even closer interregional cooperation and reinforced efforts in making Central Asia a prosperous and secure centre of Asia linking Europe and Asia together.

Ambassador Peter Burian has been the EU Special Representative for Central Asia since April 15, 2015. The opinion originally appeared in the Diplomatic Herald of Kazakhstan, Issue No. 2 of 2019.