The foreign ministers of the five Central Asian republics and of the 27 EU member states have held their first-ever joint meeting.They came together in Luxembourg to endorse the Joint Roadmap for Deepening Ties between the European Union and Central Asia. It has the potential to be a major milestone in their relations, but the test will be how it is implemented, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.
Viewed from Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, progress in relations between Central Asia and the EU is welcome but could do with a boost. Looking forward to the Central Asia Investors Forum, to be held in Brussels in January, Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko said it will come only after a year-long EU study, followed by seven months to arrange the event.
Of the five Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan has the closest relationship with the EU, through an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. The foreign ministers’ gathering was immediately followed by a meeting of the EU-Kazakhstan Cooperation Council but back in Astana, the deputy minister’s theme was the need for faster progress.
He described how Kazakhstan is seeking to maximise the benefits of an apparent disadvantage, the fact that it is landlocked. “We are the hub of Central Asia”, he said, pointing to the efforts his country was making to improve the Middle Corridor trade route, which links Asia and Europe and runs across Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Türkiye.
New railways are being built and the capacity of existing lines increased. A joint venture between the Kazakh, Azeri and Georgian railways enables shipping companies to book cargo transit across all three countries for a single, fixed tariff.
Roman Vassilenko also referred to a new era in relations between the Central Asian states. Kazakhstan has signed a cooperation agreement with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and hopes that Tajikistan and Turkmenistan will sign too. The benefits include more efficient water management in the face of rising temperatures and melting glaciers.
The five countries had developed separately since independence more than 30 years ago but better relations could boost regional trade, currently worth just over $10 billion, by at least 50%. European businesses often call for the different republics to work together and the Deputy Minister said they saw the benefits too.
However, Kazakhstan intends to retain its position as the leading destination in Central Asia for foreign direct investment. The Astana IT hub, established five years ago, had hosted 700 start-up companies. Not all had succeeded but $500 million in exports had been generated by the success stories. A delegation of thirty Kazakh companies will be in Brussels for the EU’s Raw Materials Week in November.
Roman Vassilenko said comprehensive political reforms had put his country on a democratisation journey, with the focus now on economic reform and growing the size of the private sector. In Luxembourg, at the Cooperation Council between the European Union and Kazakhstan, the EU expressed strong support for Kazakhstan’s reform and modernisation process, stating that the rule of law, good governance and fighting corruption are the very foundations of a functioning democracy and essential for a conducive business climate that attracts foreign investment.
The EU also commended Kazakhstan’s cooperation in tackling the circumvention of international sanctions on Russia, although it cannot impose sanctions itself. As a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan has no customs border with Russia and there are over 50 crossing points on their common frontier. However, there is a regular dialogue with the European Union to prevent misuse of Kazakh territory by exporters from Europe and elsewhere seeking to breach sanctions on Russia.
In principle, Kazakhstan is opposed to the hindrance of trade between nations and it maintains a multilateral foreign policy. It has good relations with Russia and China, as well as the EU and the United States. It sees the European Union’s Global Gateway programme as complementary to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in developing the Middle Corridor trade route.
Yermurat Bapi, an independent member of the Majilis (lower house of parliament), observed that Kazakhstan will respect agreements signed with Russia but Kazakh society considered the invasion of Ukraine an unjust war against a peace-loving people. He pointed to the humanitarian aid delivered to Ukraine by civic society as demonstrating people’s sympathies.
He sits on the Majilis Committee on International Affairs, Defence and Security. Its Vice-Chair, Aidos Sarym, describes how he and his colleagues are enjoying their new more powerful role since the constitution was reformed to empower the Parliament. “Ministers can no longer run away, they must answer questions at the rostrum”, he said.
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