Central Asia is Region that Needs to Be Addressed by Itself, Says Researcher

ASTANA—Central Asia is a region with its own dynamics and should be addressed by itself rather than simply as a secondary concern related to conflicts in neighboring areas, said Luсa Anceschi, a professor of Eurasian studies at the University of Glasgow, in an interview with The Astana Times.

Anceschi has devoted more than 10 years to studying the geopolitics of Eurasia. Photo credit: gla.ac.uk

An “excellent place to be”

Speaking of long-standing relations between the European Union (EU) and Central Asia, Anceschi said, “this is an excellent place to be.”

“Because for 20 years, we have talked about how to relate to Central Asia in relation to other regions. The reality is that Central Asia is not like any other region,” said Anceschi, who has devoted more than 10 years to studying the geopolitics of Eurasia.  

Relations between the EU and Central Asia have come a long way, passing beyond the 30-year anniversary of diplomatic relations. In 2007, the EU adopted its first strategy for Central Asia. In 2019, the 28-member bloc adopted a new strategy. 

Kazakhstan was the first country in Central Asia to sign an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) with the EU, a so-called second-generation agreement covering 29 areas of cooperation. The document was signed in 2015 and came into force in March 2020.

At the moment, only Kazakhstan boasts such an agreement with the EU. The negotiations between the Kyrgyz Republic and the EU concluded in July 2019, however, the agreement has not been signed yet. 

A similar situation is with Uzbekistan, which concluded the negotiations on EPCA in July 2022. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are far back behind their Central Asian counterparts in terms of EPCA negotiations. 

January resolution of the European Parliament

In January, the European Parliament published a resolution on the union’s strategy for the region. The resolution underscored that Central Asia is a “region of strategic interest to the EU in terms of security and connectivity as well as energy and resource diversification, conflict resolution and the defense of the multilateral rules-based international order.”

The report urges the EU to increase its engagement in the region and promote cooperation at the political and economic levels. Central Asia and the EU have seen increased high-level contacts, including the latest meeting between Central Asian leaders and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, in June 2023 in Cholpon-Ata.

“The document does a good job because it recognizes that there has been a significant, dramatic change in Eurasia because of the war in Ukraine,” Anceschi said. 

Central Asian agenda 

However, there is one aspect of the document that Anceschi is cautious about. 

“There is one small side. It has to do with the fact that a lot of the declaration [resolution] in January talked about the war in Ukraine. Now, the major problem that the United States made when it came to Central Asia was to only look at the region through the lens of what was happening in Afghanistan. The EU does not have to make the same mistake,” said the professor. 

In his perspective, Central Asia is a region “that needs to be addressed by itself, not as the second most important part, if you have an interest in Russia or Ukraine.”

“There has to be a Central Asia-only strategy,” Anceschi added. “The region should be important for what Brussels does, regardless of the war.”

He also disagrees with the rhetoric that the region has been receiving increased attention because of geopolitical developments. He noted Central Asian leaders have generally responded cautiously to the war in Ukraine, often emphasizing their commitment to neutrality and non-interference in the conflict. 

“Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the two most important countries in the region. They found themselves in a very comfortable position during the war, in which they were not seen in the Russian camp. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are not like Belarus. But on the other hand, they have not denounced publicly the war. President Tokayev and Mirziyoyev had been quite capable of finding themselves in this liminal space, this comfortable space in which they can navigate comfortably,” said the professor. 

EU’s engagement in the region

Speaking of the EU’s broader engagement in the region, Anceschi said the objective is to establish a successful imprint as a donor in the region.

According to data from the European Commission website, the EU accounts for nearly a third of the region’s trade; however, figures remain low. 

The EU is Kazakhstan’s largest trade partner. According to data from the Bureau of National Statistics, trade reached $7.2 billion between January and February this year. In 2023, the figure hit $42.6 billion.

The first EU-Central Asia Economic Forum was organized in November 2021, followed by the second edition in May 2023. The third forum is expected in 2025. 

“The EU is the largest donor in Central Asia. And actually, I think that they should be an actor that promotes civil society, good governance, the rule of law, and actually improves people’s lives,” he said. 

He does not see the possibility for the EU to “become a major player” due to the lack of a “strategic capability” compared to those of the region’s neighbors. The EU, he noted, cannot compete with “either Russia’s long-standing cultural or linguistic, economic, political linkages” or “China’s economic power in the last 10 years.” 

“The EU does not have the money and does not have the capability to have an imprint similar to the one that China has. So, once we realize that there is no strategic competition, but the EU can play a role in the region that is both visible and compatible through carefully assessing a set of objectives, then we can see what the strategy does,” he said. 

At the same time, Central Asia can benefit from the capacity building that the EU can bring.

“There are benefits for Central Asia in being part of our close ties with the EU. What is nice is that this EPCA establishes a very specific set of cooperation areas. At the same time, they have the kind of benchmark – human rights dialogue, ministerial meetings, bilateral visits, which means that you develop the relationship through a series of regular steps, which you have to take every year,” he said.

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