This article is part of our special report Multi-vector diplomacy.
A two-day conference on “Enhanced integration and Prosperity in Central Asia” opened in Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan on Thursday (28 November), coinciding with a summit of the leaders of the five Central Asian countries on Friday in Tashkent, the capital of neighbouring Uzbekistan.
The conference in Nur-Sultan was organised by the EU delegation in Kazakhstan and had in its title the keyword “integration” – not exactly to the taste of all countries of the region, which prefer the less binding term “cooperation”.
The five countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are all former Soviet republics but each followed its own path after the collapse of the USSR. In 2018, a rather discrete but very important Central Asia summit was held in Astana, as the Kazakh capital was called then.
The summit in Tashkent is labeled as a “Consultative meeting” of the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan, the country with the largest population of the five, became key for the start of regional cooperation after the death of its first leader Islam Karimov in 2016.
His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has been pursuing a less autocratic path, seeking to reform and liberalise the country and mend ties in the region. It was him who initiated in 2017 the idea of holding regular meetings of the presidents of the Central Asian countries.
Turkmenistan, the most authoritarian country of the region, and the most suspicious of Western influence, has as policy not to join any organisations except the UN. Its president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov did not attend the Astana summit but did confirm attendance in Tashkent.
The EU, but also other organisations such as the OECD, see a lot of value in Central Asian cooperation. The reason is simple: separately, the countries are less attractive for investors while together they could represent a sizeable market, as well as a zone of prosperity and geopolitical stability.
Central Asia has a total population of about 72 million, of which Kazakhstan has 18 million, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan six million apiece, Tajikistan nine million and Uzbekistan 33 million people.
Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan all border Afghanistan and the positive influence of such culturally close neighbours could be of utmost importance in overcoming decades of war and violence in Afghanistan.
A safe distance
The EU has no geopolitical plans in the region and in no way wants to lead the integration of the Central Asian countries. EU relations in the region are at different degrees and, in fact, the EU is not represented at the Tashkent summit.
With Kazakhstan, the EU has signed an Enhanced Partnership Cooperation Agreement, the first of its kind, which has just been ratified by all EU members and will enter into force in 2020.
With Kyrgyzstan, the signing process was completed in July and ratification has now started. With Uzbekistan, negotiations on finalising the PCA are ongoing. Remarkably, 2019 saw the opening of a full-fledged EU Delegation in Turkmenistan, and this ensures the political presence of the EU at its highest level in all five countries.
Asked by EURACTIV if the EU-organised conference in Nur-Sultan was intended to coincide with the Central Asian summit in Tashkent, the EU ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sven-Olof Carlsson, said this was actually a “happy coincidence”.
Indeed, while the EU event had been planned for months, Uzbekistan announced the holding of the summit only days ago.
Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, added that what was agreed in Nur-Sultan today could be “a harbinger” for things to come in the bigger format.
He said that economic cooperation, security and assistance to Afghanistan would be without any doubt among the priorities to be discussed at head of state level in Tashkent.
The Regional Conference on ‘Enhanced Integration for Prosperity in Central Asia’ was organised to mark the official launch of three EU-funded multi-year programmes that aim to support trade, rule of law as well as investments and growth in Central Asia, to the tune of €28 million.
Amb. Sven-Olov Carlsson of @EUinKazakhstan and Dep Min Roman Vassilenko of @MFA_KZ open “Enhanced Integration for Prosperity in #CentralAsia”, launch of three EU regional programmes in Nur-Sultan with @europeaid, @ITCnews and @coe. pic.twitter.com/9HGckwPbOf
— OECD Eurasia (@OECDeurasia) November 28, 2019
The EU is not spending big on Central Asia, but apparently its contributions are more than welcome, also because they bring a “label” in terms of EU-compatibility, which is precious for building international trust.
As an example, the Rule of Law programme signed in Nur-Sultan on Thursday has a goal to create “a common legal space” between Europe and Central Asia, enhance human rights protection, provide support for anti-corruption compliance practices, promote transparency and action against economic crime and train law enforcement officials.
“Rule of law is always on investors’ minds. I hope [such programs] will boost our credentials”, Vassilenko said.
Another programme, on trade facilitation, will help the Central Asian countries to have improved rankings in different OECD indicators.
William Thompson, head of the Eurasia division of the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development], spoke of a “positive dynamic”, describing that it was becoming easier, year after year, to discuss regional cooperation in Central Asia.
He also highlighted a phenomenon: each individual country was increasingly curious what the OECD plans with respect of the others were.
Diplomatic sources told EURACTIV that the OECD was particularly influential in Kazakhstan, as the country aims to join this “club of the rich”. In 2017, Kazakhstan became the first country in the region to host the OECD Eurasia Week, a ministerial-level event.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]