ASTANA – The European Parliament (EP) approved a resolution on the assessment of the European Union’s (EU’s) strategy for Central Asia on Jan. 17. It marks a significant milestone in the EU’s strategy towards the region.
Released the following day, this comprehensive strategy outlines a vision of strengthened ties between the EU and Central Asia, highlighting areas of sustainable development, enhanced connectivity, energy, critical raw materials, and security. This comes at a time when geopolitical shifts have opened new doors for cooperation.
Emerging opportunities amid geopolitical challenges
Kazakhstan emerges as a notable partner in this strategy. For instance, the country produces 18 critical materials out of 34 listed by the EU, having proved its reliability by contributing to the EU’s energy security through oil supplies and to the nuclear energy sector through uranium supplies. Kazakh and European experts are continuing to explore cost-effective and sustainable supplies of critical raw materials and decarbonization of energy production.
The resolution acknowledges Kazakhstan as the first Central Asian country to ratify the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (EPCA) with the EU. This agreement lays a robust groundwork for expanding collaboration in key sectors like connectivity, energy efficiency, the green economy, and digitalization. It also commends the recent memorandum of understanding between Kazakhstan and the EU, focusing on a strategic partnership in sustainable raw materials, batteries, and renewable hydrogen value chains.
Given the current geopolitical landscape, the importance of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), also known as the Middle Corridor, has grown significantly. This is particularly true in the context of the insecurity in the Black Sea, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and the closure of trade routes across Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
According to the report, geopolitical consequences of the war in Ukraine have reinvigorated the Middle Corridor not only as a regional economic zone, but also as an alternative and sustainable route between Asia and Europe that avoids crossing Russian territory.
The resolution stresses the significance of promoting regional integration along the Middle Corridor and calls on the European Commission “to investigate the possibility of the European Investment Bank’s support for investments in infrastructure development in Central Asian states, especially in the Middle Corridor.”
Additionally, the resolution recognizes the crucial role of Central Asian countries, beyond China and Pakistan, in ensuring stability in Afghanistan. This includes humanitarian aid, electricity, trade opportunities, and joint connectivity projects. In this context, it highlights that “Central Asia is a crucial area for containing religious extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking networks and faces increased migratory pressure due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.”
Touchpoints on green agenda
The EU and Kazakhstan are both committed to long-term carbon neutrality. In this regard, the European parliamentarians have called for the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change, standing “ready to provide expertise and cooperation.”
The Paris Climate Accords outline the international community’s commitment to curb the growth of the average global temperature to ensure climate-sustainable low-carbon development by imposing obligations on national governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Kazakhstan signed and ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016, committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2030. The country’s climate change agenda is aligned with the European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives of the European Commission aimed at making the EU climate-neutral by 2050. Kazakhstan, in turn, aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 through developing clean energy projects and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The report emphasizes that “climate change, a growing population and economic needs are putting increasing strain on water resources in Central Asia.” Indeed, the transboundary water management takes center stage in Central Asia’s agenda.
The resolution underlines the EP’s interest in stabilizing the Aral Sea environment and encourages Central Asian states to step up dialogue in water cooperation, especially through regional platforms, such as the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS). This year, Kazakhstan took over the chairmanship of the organization with a particular focus on the issues related to the relict water reservoir.
Additionally, water diplomacy programs of international organizations and financial institutions like the Blue Peace Central Asia (BPCA) initiative seek to bring high-level officials to support innovative technical solutions and provide training for water specialists.
Trade and investment cooperation
The report underlines the importance of a positive investment climate for the economic development of Central Asia and EU-Central Asian trade and cooperation.
According to the resolution, a positive investment climate, which leads to the creation of quality workplaces with adequate salaries and decent working conditions, depends on stable democratic institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law, as well as the capacity of businesses and civil society for due diligence application.
The EU is Kazakhstan’s key trade and investment partner. In 2022, the overall trade between Kazakhstan and the EU reached a remarkable $41.9 billion, according to the Kazakh Foreign Ministry. In the first nine months of last year, trade turnover hit $30.5 billion, with the first quarter’s foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows from the EU amounting to $5.2 billion.
Despite the rapid development of economic cooperation, especially in energy and transport, there are indications of the need for deeper mutual trust between the parties.
Visa liberalization dialogue
The report also reflects on the interest of Central Asian states in initiating a dialogue with the EU for visa liberalization. It encourages the European Commission to “intensify consultations on developing targeted and comprehensive reform roadmaps for the Central Asian states to pave the way for visa facilitation and readmission agreements.”
Kazakh officials are actively promoting freedom of travel with other countries, which retained visa requirements in response to a unilateral visa-free regime established by Kazakhstan, especially with the EU countries.
Reflections of Kazakh parliamentarians
Aigul Kuspan, the chairwoman of the Committee for International Affairs, Defense and Security of the Mazhilis, a lower house of the Kazakh Parliament, shared her perspective on the outcomes of the document.
“The new report, prepared by European MPs, demonstrated that the European Parliament is able to play a more significant role in the development of a wide range of interaction between Kazakhstan and the EU, as well as to support our country’s efforts to develop regional cooperation in Central Asia,” she said.
In November last year, the Kazakh delegation led by Kuspan participated in the 20th meeting of the European Union (EU) and Kazakhstan Parliamentary Cooperation Committee in Brussels in November last year.
In her Facebook post, the parliamentarian recalled the event and described it as “another step in developing dialogue with the European Parliament.”
“We discussed the prospects for Kazakh-European political, trade, economic, and investment cooperation. Special attention was paid to issues related to the promotion of regional cooperation between Central Asia and the EU, including interconnectedness, climate change, and international security,” she wrote on Jan. 17.
In her welcoming speech at the event, Kuspan stressed the importance of expanding bilateral contacts based on the EPCAs between Kazakhstan and the EU, as well as the new agreements on critical raw materials.
Political pundit Aidos Sarym summarized the report as a call to intensify the EU’s interaction with Central Asia. The member of Mazhilis, the lower house of the Kazakh Parliament, agreed with the relevance of promoting strategic partnerships in politics.
“One can only welcome the call of the European parliamentarians on the need for the EU to cooperate with Central Asian states,” Sarym wrote in his Telegram channel.
At the same time, the expert focused on the difference of opinion related to political persecution.
“There is not a single decree, law, or regulatory document in Kazakhstan’s legislation, according to which citizens of our country would be persecuted for certain political views. Censorship is prohibited in the country by the Constitution,” he said.
“On the contrary, the reforms have strengthened the system of human rights protection, freedom of expression and assembly,” he added, defining the Kazakh Parliament as a platform for active political debate and the expression of polar opinions.
The rule of law, the independence and professionalism of the judicial system are being consistently strengthened, according to Sarym.
“The main task for Kazakhstan today is to strengthen the culture of the rule of law. The dictatorship of law and order must ensure the equal application of the law to all, without exception. This is what Kazakhstan strives for and is working on every day,” he said.
Underlining the fundamental democratic shortcomings in Central Asia, the report called on the Central Asian authorities to release all political prisoners.
As for the persons listed in the resolution of the European Parliament, the expert said, “they have violated the law and are responsible for this by a court decision.”
As a case in point, Sarym brought an example of legislation in Western countries where, as he said, calls for the overthrow of the constitutional order and the violent change of power, incitement, and financing of extremist activities – in short, to undermine the constitutional order – are strictly persecuted.