By William Alexander
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, arrived last week in Kazakhstan at the invitation of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Upon accepting Tokayev’s invitation to Astana, Michel tweeted that the European Union (EU) “is ready to deepen ties with Central Asia and support intra-regional co-operation”. The visit reciprocates Tokayev’s reception in Brussels on 25–26 November 2021 during which Michel had already stated that the EU “remains very supportive of Kazakhstan’s reform and modernization agenda”.
Expanding bilateral co-operation
The meeting took place as Central Asia undergoes significant geopolitical re-alignment. Kazakhstan seeks to increase its margin of maneuver regarding its two immediate and much larger neighbors, Russia and China. Astana is reaching out for strategic support to enhance its diplomatic leverage. Responding to this, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared, at a recent meeting with Tokayev in Kazakhstan, that he would “continue to support the stability, peace, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the country.
China has provided similar assurances. During a state visit to Astana in September, President Xi Jinping stated publicly that “no matter how the international situation changes”, China would firmly continue supporting Kazakhstan’s “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity”, and “strongly oppose the interference” of any foreign forces in Kazakhstan’s internal affairs.
Now is the EU’s opportunity to strengthen its bilateral strategic partnership. Tokayev also met European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen in New York in September and further deepened their discussions. They paid particular attention to the implementation of joint projects in the energy and transport logistics sectors.
These exchanges are framed by the 2020 EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA). This Agreement falls under the framework of the new EU Strategy on Central Asia adopted in 2019. Kazakhstan is the first Central Asian partner to have concluded an EPCA with the EU.
Support for alternative transit corridors
The EU should assist Kazakhstan’s efforts to construct alternative transit corridors across the Caspian Sea and through Azerbaijan. Existing lines are under development or repair and have limited capacity. The project for a Trans-Caspian International Trade Route (TITR), also called the “Middle Corridor”, offers the EU a good opportunity to demonstrate tangible support.
Through TITR’s system of multi-modal ports, Kazakhstan will be able to move larger quantities of crude oil, wheat, and other commodities to European markets, more efficiently and at a lower cost. TRACECA (TRAnsport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia), established in 1993, provided technical, logistical, and practical assistance to the region before TITR coalesced into a distinct project. Helping Kazakhstan to overcome Russian obstacles to exporting its crude oil would enhance the EU’s energy security.
In particular, it is appropriate that TRACECA becomes still more deeply involved in that process. It might, for example, be charged with assuming additional responsibilities formerly tasked to INOGATE (INterstate Oil and GAs Transportation to Europe), before the latter’s co-ordinating Technical Secretariat was discontinued in 2016. Such a commitment by Michel during his trip could be highly symbolic: INOGATE was originally set into motion by the Astana Declaration of 2006, eponymous of the city where he will be received by Tokayev.
EU support for Kazakhstan’s stability
The European Parliament (EP) has voted on resolutions subverting the EC’s relationship with Kazakhstan nearly every other year for the last dozen years. These criticisms against Kazakhstan in the EP’s plenary sessions are several times more recurrent than for any other Central Asian state. Kazakhstan would have a legitimate right to ask why the sponsors of these resolutions disproportionately amplify their grievances about the one Central Asian state that has shown the greatest genuine effort toward democratisation and reforms.
MEPs having direct experience with Kazakhstan have been more even-handed in their own detailed and well-documented statements. For instance, the recent report by the EP’s Delegation to the EU-Kazakhstan Parliamentary Co-operation Committee (PCC) noted that in January 2022, the country’s “current power seemed to be on the point to be overthrown by an unclear combination of internal and spontaneous massive peaceful protests and violent elements coming likely from abroad”.
The EU, notwithstanding its favorable declarations in the past, must restate its support for Kazakhstan’s sovereignty against foreign threats and stability against domestic dangers. Such a demonstration of commitment would also assist Kazakhstan’s ongoing democratic transformation, which represents an exceptional process for the region and which will bring the country’s social and political life more in line with European values.
Constructive talks in Astana
And indeed, during the talks in Astana last week, Kazakh President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and EU Council President, Charles Michel, reiterated their firm commitment to the UN Charter, international law, and the principles of sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. The two leaders agreed on the further and full implementation of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) between Kazakhstan and the EU, the EU Strategy on Central Asia, as well as the new EU initiatives for Central Asia on connectivity and other sectors.
The meeting also touched upon cooperation in the field of critical raw materials (CRMs), especially rare earth metals. The parties confirmed their willingness to develop a strategic partnership in the field of CRMs and welcomed the upcoming signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between Kazakhstan and the European Union on a strategic partnership on sustainable raw materials, batteries and renewable hydrogen value chains.
Special attention was paid to the issue of avoiding unintended negative impact on Kazakhstan’s economy of the European Union’s sanctions. Michel reiterated that EU sanctions were not directed against third countries and highlighted the importance of international sanctions being neither evaded nor circumvented. Both sides also discussed the relocation of European manufacturing companies, the products of which are not subject to sanctions, to Kazakhstan. Given the current geopolitical situation, Tokayev and Michel noted the importance of developing new international transport corridors between Europe and Central Asia and discussed the opportunities offered by the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route and options for developing it further.
Russia’s policy towards Ukraine has destabilized the security situation in Central Asia. It has fatally diminished Russia’s prestige in the region. It has compelled the Central Asian states to re-equilibrate their trade and security relations. It has emboldened them to act autonomously of Russian desiderata. As a result, China has increased its profile in the region while continuing to offer attractive investments specifically in transport infrastructure.
The EU must equally demonstrate its stake in Central Asian states’ sovereignty and stability. The region is counting on this. The best way for the EU to enhance its profile as a strategic stakeholder is to fast-track co-operation in the international trade and energy-transport sectors of Central Asia, where Kazakhstan’s economy dominates. This would be low-cost for the EU, already Kazakhstan’s largest foreign investor, and would further increase its leadership in the region.