EU officials: Central Asia is trusted to define its regional interest

Peter Burian [L] and Roman Vassilenko [EURACTIV]

Speaking at a public event organised by EURACTIV in Brussels, EU officials shed light on the Union’s relation with Kazakhstan, saying it was increasingly becoming a model for the wider region of Central Asia.

The EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Slovak diplomat Peter Burian, spoke in Brussels after returning from Astana, where he attended events marking the 25th anniversary of Kazakhstan-EU relations.

Kazakhstan is the first country of the region (with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan) to have signed with the EU an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA), in December 2015. The agreement entered provisionally into force in May 2016 and has so far been ratified by 21 member countries and the European Parliament.

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MEPs approved a landmark partnership deal with Kazakhstan on Tuesday (12 December), the EU’s first Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) with a Central Asian country.

Kazakhstan’s EPCA is becoming a model for the other countries of the region. But Kazakhstan, the largest country in the region, is also a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2017-2018. In this capacity, it has made an effort to be the voice for the entire region, which has seen a positive momentum building up since the death of Uzbekistan’s first leader Islam Karimov in 2016.

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His successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been pursuing a less autocratic path, seeking to reform and liberalise the country. Difficult regional relations are improving as a result and a summit of the Central Asia countries is expected soon.

Burian said he was glad that the situation in the region was changing for the better and was more conducive to regional cooperation in addressing the challenges together rather than individually. In his words, that is something the EU was aiming for with its regional strategy.

The EU adopted a strategy for Central Asia in 2007 and slightly updated it in recent years. A new EU strategy for the region is expected in 2019 as part of the EU’s global strategy adopted in 2016.

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The EU diplomat argued that countries of the region do not necessarily see themselves as part of one homogenous region.

“It will never be a homogeneous region but we still believe that Central Asia can define their regional interest, areas where regional cooperation is the only way to tackle those problems,” Burian said.

He said he was pleased that in his recent discussions in Astana the EU approach building on the resilience of states and societies was supported by speakers from Central Asia, including from civil society.

In the discussion, he said, in was agreed that in order to enhance resilience and ensure a sustainable development, it is paramount to work continuously on enhancing the respect for democratic principles, through rule of law and the fundamental rights and freedoms.

“I was really pleased to hear the strong voice of the civil society. We are not hiding that we are afraid and concerned about certain tendencies where freedom of expression, space for activities of civil society are all shrinking in the region”.

“We believe that this trend was not very conducive to reforms declared by our partners and also not conducive to fighting something like violent extremism, but I’m pleased to know that the understanding of the importance of our shared values, the rule of law and other important principles is now being more and more understood by our partners and being reflected in their national development strategies, including an ambitious program of reforms, 100 steps initiated by the president of Kazakhstan”, Burian said.

The EU Special Envoy said he believed that EPCA sets “an important benchmark for other partners in Central Asia”. He noted Kyrgyzstan has expressed an interest to upgrade its EU relationship through its own EPCA. “We are very pleased to see a growing maturity and growing influence of Kazakhstan as a regional player”, Burian concluded.

Luc Devigne, deputy managing director for Europe and Central Asia in the European External Action Service, said EPCA was unique because Kazakhstan is also a member of the Russia-led Eurasian union.

“I think it’s important to remind everybody that the EU has never forced anybody to choose between relations with the EU and third countries. I like to compare free trade agreements to friendship because you can be part of many friendships. Customs union membership is a different nature because that’s marriage. You can only be part of one…normally, ” De Vigne said.

MEP Laima Andrikiene (EPP, Lithuania), who is also vice-chair of the European Parliament delegation for relations with Central Asia, focused on the One-Belt-One Road (OBOR) strategy by China and its growing influence in the region

She said the geopolitical environment in the region had changed significantly over the past years. “Central Asia, and especially Kazakhstan, is circled by countries with anti-Western attitude, mainly Russia, Turkey and also China. The United States of America has lost prestige and its “America first” is also decreasing its presence and interest in the region”, the MEP said.

She said China’s OBOR plan had a strategic and ideological dimension, seeking to extend Chinese political clout. If successful, in her words, this would be the first step in a new kind of world order in which China plays a leading role.

She asked if the government of Kazakhstan foresaw such an outcome of the cooperation with China. She also raised the issue of the Foreign direct investment screening mechanism the EU is trying to put in place, which according to her is less ambitious than what is already in place in other G7 states.

Roman Vassilenko, deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan, said in reply that some of the power play concepts dated back to the 19th century and his country was ambitious to prove that the opportunities for growth in Central Asia were so wide-ranging that there was enough room for constructive and mutually beneficial cooperation between the countries of the region and the outside players.

“We also believe that the various initiatives that outside partners try to engage Central Asia in, such as the EU Strategy for Central Asia, the C5+1 mechanism the US promotes, of Japan+Central Asia, or South Korea+Central Asia, they are mutually complementary and they don’t exclude each other”, Vassilenko said.

He argued that due to its geography, Kazakhstan was naturally interested in removing barriers to trade and that it was the president of Kazakhstan who had proposed the Eurasian economic union in 1994.

“For us, it’s about removing barriers. We believe this is work in progress and there is still a lot to do on removing barriers within the Eurasian economic union”, Vassilenko said.

Regarding OBOR, the Kazakh official said this was a reconstruction of the Great Silk Road of the past, but with hard infrastructure, which will “benefit immensely” his country and then the others involved.

On the specific question of FDI screening, he said Kazakhstan was preparing to implement 51 projects with China worth $26 billion.

“It is very much duly considered before we agree all those projects, in terms of what impact they will have on our own development or our own labour market. I’m not sure we call it screening, but the government of Kazakhstan is fully aware of keeping the balance”, he said.

MEP Andrejs Mamikins (S&D, Latvia) argued it was high time that Europe recognise that Kazakhstan has its European identity.

“From the political and economic point of view, the level of Kazakhstan’s integration into the European fabric is getting much higher and I hope we can all agree that Kazakhstan does not have to choose between Europe and Asia as the only good choice for it is the way of stability, prosperity, democratic values and the choice of the EU”, he concluded.

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