ASTANA – The European Parliament has adopted a report Jan. 17 on the EU’s Central Asia strategy launched in 2019. The comprehensive document places a strong emphasis on regional cooperation, sustainable development and human rights, as the cornerstones of the EU’s approach to the dynamic and strategically significant region.
The report, prepared by the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), notes the region has seen a substantial impact from adverse geopolitical factors, including the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It stresses the need to update the EU strategy on the region in light of these geopolitical developments.
EU engagement in Central Asia
The report notes Central Asia is a region of “strategic interest” to the EU regarding security and connectivity as well as energy and resource diversification, conflict resolution and the defense of the international order.
In 2019, the EU updated its Central Asia strategy, with a focus on resilience, including such areas as human rights, border security and the environment, and prosperity with a focus on connectivity and regional cooperation.
Central to this effort were also Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (EPCAs). Kazakhstan was the first Central Asian state to sign the new generation agreement in 2015, which came into force on March 1, 2020.
This, the report reads, “provides a solid foundation for expanding cooperation in key areas of mutual interest.” These areas include connectivity, energy efficiency, green economy and digitalization.
The report urges the EU to increase its engagement in the region and promote cooperation at the political and economic levels.
There have been increased high-level contacts between the EU and Central Asia, including the latest meeting between Central Asian leaders and the President of the European Council Charles Michel in June 2023 in Cholpon-Ata. Addressing the summit, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Kazakhstan is ready to increase exports to the EU on 175 non-primary commodity items worth $2.3 billion in such areas as engineering, iron and steel production, and the food industry.
Among the latest visits was that of Vice President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas. He began his Central Asian tour on Jan. 15 in Kazakhstan, which he deemed a “key actor in the region’s positive evolution.”
“Kazakhstan is a beacon of modernization and reform, and my visit has confirmed this. Meetings with the country’s leaders covered our partnership, which we will take from strength to strength,” he wrote in a post on X.
2024 will see the first EU-Central Asia summit floowing the adoption of the Joint Roadmap for Deepening Ties between the EU and Central Asia last year, which serves as a “strategic blueprint to advance dialogue and cooperation in specific areas.”
Window of opportunity
The war in Ukraine gives the EU a “window of opportunity” to broaden its connections with Central Asia, noted the report.
The subsequent sanctions push the EU to work closely with the region, so it is not used to circumvent the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia. This effort is largely done in dialogue with the International Special Envoy for the Implementation of EU Sanctions David O’Sullivan.
He visited Kazakhstan in April and November. In his latest visit, he noted that the EU is “grateful to the Kazakh authorities for decreasing the re-export of items, which are likely to end up in Russian military equipment.”
Recognizing the interconnectedness of Central Asian countries, the EU places a strong focus on regional cooperation. The strategy outlined plans to enhance connectivity in the areas of trade, energy, and transport, aiming to unlock the full potential of the region.
The latest report underlines ample potential in sustainable development, energy, critical raw materials, and security, with Central Asia being a key region for connectivity between East and West.
Regarding critical raw materials, the EU and Kazakhstan signed a memorandum of understanding on a strategic partnership in the field of raw materials, batteries and renewable hydrogen in November 2022.
In May 2023, Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis, on behalf of the European Commission, and Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Alikhan Smailov announced a road map covering a set of concrete actions to implement the document. This entails cooperation between industrial enterprises on joint investment projects and closer cooperation on geological exploration, research and innovation and personnel training.
The geopolitical developments also put the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, or the so-called Middle Corridor, under the spotlight. The EU has repeatedly expressed its keen interest in developing the route, which, as the report notes, is “not only a regional economic zone but also as an alternative and sustainable route between Asia and Europe that avoids crossing Russian territory.”
The report refers to the study conducted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development that revealed the bottlenecks and also identified the required hard and soft infrastructure needs.
The report calls on the European Commission to consider funding support for investments in infrastructure development in Central Asian states by the European Investment Bank.
A similar idea was voiced by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell in Astana in November 2022. He said back then that the EU could invest nearly €300 billion in investment projects on connectivity infrastructures globally, with the Middle Corridor being one of them.
The report reiterates the EU’s commitment to work with the countries of Central Asia “for peace, security, stability, prosperity, and sustainable development in full respect of international law” and “for the principles of respect for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all countries, non-use of force or threat of its use and the peaceful settlement of international disputes.”
This is what Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has said on multiple occasions, that in any international dispute and conflict, the nation stands solely for diplomatic and peaceful means and strong observance of international law and UN Charter.
Democracy and human rights
Central to the EU’s strategy is a commitment to advancing human rights across Central Asia. The report acknowledges the universal importance of respecting fundamental rights and freedoms. The EU aims to strengthen dialogue and collaboration with Central Asian nations to address challenges and promote a shared commitment to human rights.
The report calls on Kazakhstan to continue implementing political and economic reforms, strengthening democracy, the rule of law and good governance. It also “underlines that implementation of the vision of Just and Fair Kazakhstan must ensure respect for human rights and freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and improve the electoral framework in line with the recommendations of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.”
It also urges the officials in Kazakhstan to complete the investigation into the tragic January 2022 events and make the findings open to the public.
While acknowledging positive strides, the report highlights several areas of concern and emphasizes the importance of addressing these concerns to ensure a more robust human rights framework in Kazakhstan.