Global Europe Brief: Will the EU find new horizons in Central Asia?

Global Europe Brief: Will the EU find new horizons in Central Asia?

Updated: 1 month, 4 days, 5 hours, 31 minutes, 51 seconds ago

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In this week’s edition: Brussels charm offensive in Central Asia and LatAm, Ukraine ‘Marshall Plan’.

Overall, Russia’s war in Ukraine has loosened Moscow’s grip on Central Asia.

Over the last few weeks, EU leaders, diplomats, and officials sounded the alarm over too-deep dependencies in multiple areas with Russia and China. As a result, the bloc started to look at new ways to diversify trade flows, with Central Asia emerging as one of the centres of Brussels’ charm offensive.

For the first time, European Council President Charles Michel met with the five Central Asian leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

The EU and five Central Asian leaders reiterated their intention to strengthen overall cooperation, a sign of discomfort with the repercussions of Russia’s war in Ukraine on the region.

Central Asian states all indeed enjoy close ties with Moscow, and for a long time, they have been considered traditional allies of Russia.

But since the start of the war and the subsequent Western sanctions on Russia, Central Asian countries have tried hard to strike a geopolitical balance.

Kazakhstan, the main economic powerhouse in the region, has taken steps to assert its independent foreign policy – despite remaining a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

It is also seeking new routes for oil exports, around three-quarters of which transit Russia, while trade in its hydrocarbons and minerals has made the country a critical part of China’s massive new Silk Road project.

Uzbekistan hosted a regional summit in Samarkand where, despite Russia’s presumed expectations of support for the invasion of Ukraine, the opposite happened.

Tashkent has also warned its citizens against participating in the conflict, along with the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, while the country’s state-funded Islamic religious authority instructed its imams not to speak about the war.

Tajikistan, meanwhile, is a fragile country that depends on the estimated 7,000 Russian troops and infrastructure for stability as the unstable situation in Afghanistan continues to pose threats.

Meanwhile, the five country’s economies seem to show strong resilience to the fallout of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the EBRD’s latest report on Regional Economic Prospects shows.

The region’s GDP is expected to grow by 4.3% in 2022 and 4.9% in 2023, an upward revision of its spring forecast.

Speaking to EURACTIV, several EU officials said they are convinced the bloc has a perfect opportunity to strengthen its position in energy-rich Central Asia, which could also become a much-needed provider for politically sensitive imports like oil, gas, and raw materials.

“The EU as an actor, as a partner, is important for the region, and the region is important to us – Central Asia matters to the EU, and we really want to strengthen the cooperation,” Terhi Hakala, EU’s Special Representative for Central Asia, told EURACTIV.

Connectivity would also be one of the mutual interests between the EU and Central Asian partners, Hakala said.

“Central Asia wants to link to the West, including the European Union. We try to pull together many actors – from the private and public sectors to create greater connectivity with the region,” she added.

While the idea of strengthening cooperation with the region has been on the cards for some time, it is only now that the political will, drive, and necessity is really coming into play.

“We have been witnessing the internal dynamics, which have led to Central Asian partners telling us that they are more ready to strengthen their cooperation and formalise it,” Hakala said, adding that the EU would also look “to support regional dialogue” and “pay attention and discuss human rights/civil society issues.”

“We want to partner, and I think we are a welcome partner,” she added.

Speaking of other regional players, Hakala said, “Central Asian countries have been having long-term relationships with neighbouring countries, and every country in this situation is looking at its options, how the relationships are threatened, changing or not changing.“

When it comes to building economic, infrastructure, and political relations, officials in the region see greater opportunities playing the field between Moscow, Beijing, and the West.

“While all Central Asian states are interested in enhancing ties with the EU, they also all want to put their eggs into several baskets to strengthen their leverage and bargaining power,” Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst at European Policy Centre (EPC), told EURACTIV.

Asked about the new EU push towards closer cooperation with the Central Asian countries, Paul said that “with Russia’s influence weakening, the resulting geopolitical void creates conditions for a shift of power that can impact global power balances.”

If the EU wants to boost its international and geopolitical clout on the world stage,  particularly in very strategic areas like Central Asia, Paul said, “it needs to have a more pragmatic approach” since China’s footprint in Central Asia is massively expanding, Turkey has big plans for the region and India is also a part.

Asked whether the EU is winning the ‘battle of narratives’ in the region, Paul is slightly more hesitant, saying that for now, “as in other parts of the world, the EU narrative is often drowned out by Russian and Chinese disinformation”.

EU IN THE WORLD

LATAM TIES | After years of relative absence, relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, are back in what is seen as another Brussels charm offensive.

Latin American and EU leaders this week called for closer and better ties between their regions while lamenting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for stoking global inflation, poverty, and the risk of recession.

The region is expected to return to the EU’s agenda with a shiny new strategy early next year, which comes at a time when the EU fears losing influence in the region as trade deals falter.

The EU said it is ‘fully committed’ to moving ahead with the stalling Mercosur free-trade deal with the South American bloc and should do so before “other actors intervene.”

But the much-criticised free trade agreement between the EU and the four Latin American countries could be revived should Socialist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wins the Brazilian presidential elections.

MORE SANCTIONS | In a tit-for-tat measure, Iran blacklisted several EU individuals and media outlets in retaliation for the bloc’s punitive measures on police over a crackdown on Mahsa Amini protests. According to EU diplomats, the bloc is separately already working on further measures should Tehran not cease its military support to Russia.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

SUPPORT PACKAGE | With a stronger focus on the region, the EU has pledged €500 million to improve energy infrastructure in the Western Balkans.

PLATE SPAT | Tensions in Kosovo continue to simmer as the requirement for all Kosovo citizens to put Kosovo-issued number plates on their cars, is set to come into force. Meanwhile, Turkey is waiting in the wings to mediate.

UKRAINE LATEST

Russia halts Ukraine Black Sea grain exports. Russia on Saturday evening suspended participation in an UN-brokered Black Sea grain deal after what it said was a major Ukrainian drone attack on its fleet in Crimea, dealing a blow to attempts to ease the global food crisis. Towards a Marshall plan? The Berlin conference on Ukraine’s reconstruction and recovery discussed the need for a new “Marshall Plan” and how committed they were to supporting Ukraine but might have failed on leadership.
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