Kazakhstan calls EU’s new Central Asia strategy ‘visionary’

Roman Vassilenko in Brussels on 27 May 2019. [Georgi Gotev]

This article is part of our special report EU and Central Asia: A new strategy.

Kazakhstan welcomes the EU’s new vision for a stronger partnership with Central Asia, particularly as it took into account the country’s proposals, its deputy foreign minister told EURACTIV and called the document, due to be adopted next month, “visionary”.

On 15 May, the European Commission and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security adopted a Joint Communication setting out a fresh vision for a stronger partnership with the five countries of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan; Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Roman Vassilenko said that, possibly due to the upcoming presidential elections in Kazakhstan on 9 June, no official reaction has been published yet, but Kazakhstan welcomed the adoption of the Communication and was looking forward to its adoption on 17 June by the Foreign Affairs Council.

“We think that this is a very visionary document. Indeed, we have been consulted, we have provided our contribution to the strategy and we do find reflected there some of the proposals that we have suggested”, Vassilenko told EURACTIV in an interview.

He focused more specifically on one element at the very end of the strategy, item 3.3, about the “regional visibility” of the European Union and its strategy in Central Asia.

“This is something we have argued for a long time and it’s proposing to establish a portal which is in fact mentioned there, which will be serving as a home for the strategy, but also as a platform for interaction between the EU and Central Asia”, the diplomat said.

He explained that such an online tool would serve to facilitate interaction among European countries, the European Commission, the EEAS and Central Asian stakeholders, including businesses.

Flexibility, tailored assistance

From the details back to the bigger picture, Vassilenko said this strategy would “stand the test of time”. He said the Strategy should not be a tactical document, detailing step by step what the EU and its member states should be doing in the next 10-year period but rather an instrument of tailored assistance to the region in a flexible way.

“Flexibility is another key aspect of this new strategy, which will allow the European Commission in being flexible to choose whether to go through a bilateral track and have a bilateral project with, say, Kirghizstan or Tajikistan, or to do regional projects with all Central Asian states and maybe even include Afghanistan. And that Strategy allows them to do that,” Vassilenko said.

The strategy has three pillars: “partnership for resilience”, “partnership for prosperity”, and “working better together”.

Asked about the “prosperity” element, which is also a key word in Kazakhstan, where the authorities are aiming to improve living standards, Vassilenko said that indeed, the “Kazakhstan 2050” strategy sets the goal for the country to become one of the top 30 most competitive and developed nations by the middle of the century.

“It’s a very tall order, we are moving towards that goal”, he said, adding that by various ratings, the country was making progress, being ranked 28th position in the World Bank’s Doing Business Rating for 2019.

He said that in the next 30 years, the expectation is that the incomes will significantly rise, and the economy will get diversified so that the country no longer depends only on raw materials and exports of oil, gas, metals. Instead, it should become a more service-oriented economy.

In this context, Vassilenko highlighted the establishment of the Astana International Financial Center in the country’s capital Nur-Sultan, sometimes called the financial hub of the New Silk Road.

Silk Road financial hub inaugurated in Kazakhstan

The “Astana International Financial Centre” or AIFC, was inaugurated today (5 July) at a lavish ceremony in the Kazakh capital.

Competitive elections

This vision, put forward by the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is supported by the current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who is a candidate for the presidential election on 9 June, he said.

The diplomat added that several of the seven candidates running for the presidential office support this long-term vision of raising competitiveness. However, he said, some candidates had different ideas, and one of them even suggested nationalising all the companies.

“It’s a very interesting situation now in Kazakhstan with this election taking place in less than two weeks. It’s a true competition of ideas: Very great variety of candidates, including a woman. So, for us it’s a very interesting and certainly the most competitive election”, Vassilenko said.

Regional cooperation

Asked about regional cooperation among the five Central Asian countries, he highlighted the very positive trends in the past two and a half years. But he also said that in such a short period of time it was impossible to solve all issues that have accumulated in the 25 years of independent development of the five countries.

In particular, he mentioned water management and fair and effective use of rather limited water resources in Central Asia, which is another big component of the EU strategy for Central Asia.

“Water management will be perhaps one of the defining issues for the future of the regional cooperation,” Vassilenko said. He explained that Central Asia’s population of 60 million is expected to grow to 90 million people by 2050, according to UN estimates, so more water will be needed.

The problem, however, is that the glaciers which feed the Syr Darya and Amu Darya – the two largest rivers – are melting because of global warming, he explained and added that “we will certainly need to address this together”.

The diplomat said that after the regional summit last year in Astana, as the capital was called then, the next meeting is planned for this year in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan is hoping that this meeting can be arranged and that an agenda can be agreed upon, to advance this cooperation.

Vassilenko stressed that this was not about “integration, creating a union of sorts”, but regional cooperation which was lacking for a long time.

The Commission’s Central Asia Strategy blueprint makes mention of the Trans-Caspian Pipeline. The EU is interested in a gas pipeline that would link Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, as Turkmenistan is very rich in gas reserves but has no other choice than to selling its gas to Russia.

Last year in Aktau, a city on Kazakhstan’s Caspian coast, a summit with Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran agreed on the delimitation of the Caspian Sea. EURACTIV asked Vassilenko if this project was now realistic.

Caspian Five settle row over sea’s legal status, demarcation pending

Leaders of the five Caspian littoral states met on Sunday (12 August) for the Fifth Caspian Summit in Kazakhstan’s port city Aktau to sign a landmark declaration determining the legal status of the Caspian Sea and aiming to end the legal limbo over its resource-rich waters.

The diplomat said that the Convention signed in Aktau creates the legal ground for the laying of the Trans-Caspian pipelines but needs ratification from all parties.

Vassilenko stressed that such gas and oil pipelines would be based on economic considerations and all would depend on the feasibility and profitability of such projects.

Lacking the legal ground, the convention, Kazakhstan has developed a more costly system of transport by tankers across the Caspian Sea, he said.

Asked about two organisations mentioned in the Commission’s strategy, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the diplomat said his country has always been in favour of cooperation and dialogue among various regional organizations, including these two.

The interaction among these organizations can have very practical meaning, he argued. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has been now equipped with a regional anti-terrorist structure, based in Tashkent, and instrumental in coordinating the work of special services of the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

In Vassilenko’s words, this structure has contributed to preventing around 500 terrorist attacks in the member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

“So, naturally, interacting with for example Shanghai Cooperation Organization on this matter and in this particular structure can be quite useful and interesting for the European Union and European authorities”, he said.

EURACTIV asked Vassilenko if Kazakhstan, an ardent advocate of the Belt-and-Road initiative, had plans for how to improve the image of this initaitive, which is not unanimously supported in the EU.

“Obviously, for us it’s a no-brainer that we need to participate in the Belt-and-Road initiative and we do so, in fact, it was launched in Astana, our capital, in 2013 by president Xi Jinping”, Vassilenko said, adding that Kazakhstan is the first country along the straight way from China to Europe.

Kazakhstan will benefit enormously from Belt and Road initiative

Kazakhstan, the most impressive reformer in the Central Asian region, is set to benefit enormously from China’s Belt and Road initiative as an equal partner, Kate Mallinson of Chatham House said at an international conference marking the 20th anniversary of Astana, on 5 June.

The diplomat said that Kazakhstan’s first president Nazarbayev recently proposed a dialogue at three levels, which he called 3D. One is the dialogue among the four big players: United States, EU, Russia and China.

The second level of dialogue was between the OSCE and its Asian counterpart, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building measures in Asia – CICA.

This organization was launched by Kazakhstan in 1992, on the same principles as the OSCE. It now unites 26 countries, from Israel, and Iran, to Vietnam and China.

The third level is a more economy-focused dialogue between the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and ASEAN.

Despite the usual hesitations, there is progress, the diplomat said, with the OSCE and CICA planning to meet, first at expert levels and then higher levels, to exchange best practices and to establish dialogue, hopefully this year.

Asked if such cooperation would become the political backbone of the New Silk Road, he said: “Why not?”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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