News | Europe - Central Asia Lots of Engagement, but Little Plan

How relations between the EU and Central Asia are changing amid new geopolitical realities



Zhanibek Arynov,

Central Asian heads of state pose with European Council President Charles Michel during a summit in Cholpon-Ata, Kazakhstan, 2 June 2023.
Central Asian heads of state pose with European Council President Charles Michel during a summit in Cholpon-Ata, Kazakhstan, 2 June 2023.






Photo: IMAGO / SNA

In 2023, the EU and the Central Asian countries marked the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Over the past 30 years, EU–Central Asia interactions have experienced ups and downs. Nonetheless, cumulatively, the parties have visibly strengthened their economic, political, and cultural ties.

Zhanibek Arynov is an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy of Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.

During the initial stage in the 1990s, the EU’s primary focus was to assist the newly independent states of Central Asia in transitioning towards democracy and a market economy. In the 2000s, the EU became notably more active towards Central Asia against the backdrop of the EU’s eastward enlargement, the situation in Afghanistan bordering Central Asia, and the rising prices of hydrocarbons, when some Central Asian countries gained significance as potential gas and oil suppliers. In 2007, Brussels introduced its inaugural Strategy for Central Asia, which provided impetus for EU–Central Asia interactions, resulting in the upgrading of the EU’s diplomatic presence in the region, increased development assistance to Central Asia, and the establishment of several formal platforms for further dialogue.

Throughout the 2010s, in the context of the growth of the EU’s ambitions as an external actor of its own, as well as the new realities of both the EU and Central Asia, Brussels intended to update cooperation frameworks with Central Asian countries. The EU signed the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) with Kazakhstan in 2015, replacing the initial Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) from the mid-1990s. Similar agreements were concluded with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 2019 and 2022, respectively. Currently, the EU is negotiating one with Tajikistan, and considering the initiation of discussions with Turkmenistan as well. Likewise, the EU revised its Central Asia Strategy in 2019 to align it with the EU Global Strategy of 2016, as well as to tailor its policies more closely to the interests of Central Asians, a move that was well-received.

However, a pertinent question arises: has the updating of frameworks over the last decade resulted in the upgrade of EU-Central Asia relations? The answer to this question is rather nuanced. On the one hand, it is evident that, in comparison to the 1990s, Brussels has markedly intensified its ties with Central Asia. On the other hand, when contrasted with other external actors, the EU is still considered, at best, a second-tier player in Central Asia. It is seen as lacking a strategic vision, sufficient resources, a strong presence and visibility in the region. That said, it appears that assuming a secondary role, to an extent, does a good service for the EU in the region.

The EU’s Comparative Advantage

When discussing the roles of major powers in Central Asia like Russia, China, and the US, the available empirical evidence indicates varying degrees of suspicion, distrust, and fear towards these actors. Even Russia, traditionally seen as the closest partner for Central Asian states, has encountered a notable rise in anti-Russian sentiments in some countries in light of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In this context, the EU, unable and unwilling to compete with these players, enjoys more favourable attitudes in Central Asia. Existing studies show that unlike the US, China, or Russia, the EU is perceived as a benevolent external player with no hidden geopolitical intentions and is more trusted by Central Asians. Despite being unable to match the “big three” in terms of material capabilities, the EU’s positive image has been its biggest comparative advantage in the region.

Central Asian states recognize cooperation with the EU as a source of new opportunities for them. Firstly, the countries like Kazakhstan (and to a lesser extent Uzbekistan) view the EU as a vital economic partner due to the pivotal role Brussels plays in their economics. For Kazakhstan, the EU is the biggest trade partner and the primary investor accounting for more than 50 percent of FDI in the country.

Secondly, countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan perceive the EU as an important donor providing much-needed development assistance.

Thirdly, merely by its existence, the EU model is seen as something to be followed. In this respect, Central Asians are keen to learn from its various practices, including the EU’s integration-building experience in the context of growing Central Asian inter-regional cooperation. Likewise, “European standards” serve as a reference point, indicating Central Asians’ aspiration to align their practices with positive aspects observed in EU countries.

Finally, adherence to the EU’s normative agenda, i.e. ‘European values’ of democracy and human rights, is also partly recognized by some segments of Central Asian society as an opportunity to modernize their political regimes and create long-term sustainable political systems.

The generally positive image the EU has enjoyed in Central Asia is not static, and recent trends suggest a gradual decline.

The EU’s positive image stems from different factors. Firstly, the EU’s own contributions play a crucial role in fostering this positivity. Brussels has always been consistent in claiming that no dominance or geopolitical games are in its interests in Central Asia. Practically, Central Asian diplomats always highlight more accommodating and inclusive approach that the EU implements towards their countries. These have not gone unnoticed in the region. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the historically idealized image of “Europe”, widespread in many post-Soviet societies, has greatly contributed to the positive image of the European Union in Central Asia. This is particularly true of citizens in Central Asia, who may not have a proper understanding of what the EU is and what policies it implements in their countries. Instead, their predominantly positive opinions about the European Union are rooted in their traditional admiration for “Europe”.

Finally, paradoxically, I argue that the relatively positive perception of the EU can also be attributed to its perceived weakness and secondary role as an external actor in the region, as discussed earlier. The EU, geographically distant and grappling with internal issues, is seen as having low visibility and limited resources in the region. In other words, the EU is more trusted and positively perceived because it is believed to pose hardly any serious threat to the countries of Central Asia. It is conceivable that if the EU had a greater presence, leverage, and interests in the region, the perception could be different.

In sum, the positive image and trust that the EU enjoys in Central Asia can be considered its comparative advantage vis-à-vis other, more powerful and assertive actors such as Russia and China. The positive image of the EU is not an absolute category but rather a relative one. In other words, the EU is regarded as benign and trustworthy in relation to other actors — it does not necessarily imply that no claims exist against Brussels’s policy in the region.

One example is the stance of some Central Asian governments and certain segments of the population, who perceive the EU’s norm promotion – a vital part of its identity as an international actor – as threatening the political stability in their countries. Some “European values” are interpreted as “alien” and incompatible with “local” values. Consequently, the EU is at times criticized for “preaching” to Central Asians and attempting to impose its will on them.

New Momentum for Deepening EU–Central Asia Relations?

The generally positive image the EU has enjoyed in Central Asia is not static, and recent trends suggest a gradual decline. One contributing factor has been the EU’s severe internal issues, i.e. the mid-2010s refugee crisis, Brexit, and increasing internal disagreements, portraying the EU as weakening and ineffective entity. Another factor has been Russia’s extensive anti-Western propaganda, influential in Central Asia, depicting the EU, among others, as an imperialist and immoral entity – a narrative resonating with authoritarian regimes and traditional societies in the region.

As a result, preserving and further strengthening its positive image would require concerted efforts from the EU. However, Brussels seemed to lack immediate interests in Central Asia. Even after updating cooperation frameworks in the late 2010s, EU–Central Asia interactions seemed mostly inertial, with little anticipation of a true breakthrough in relations.

Nevertheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has fundamentally transformed the geopolitical context for both the EU and Central Asia. This “external shock” has acted as a catalyst to truly upgrade EU–Central Asia relations leading to significant intensification of contacts between the parties over the past two years. “Recent global events have brought the EU and Central Asia closer to each other. Our close cooperation is even more important now than ever”, admitted EU President Charles Michel. Both sides have their own reasons for looking at each other more closely.

From a Central Asian perspective, the EU’s increased significance is twofold. On the one hand, the EU has acquired heightened political and symbolic value, particularly for Kazakhstan. Faced with ongoing rhetorical attacks from Russia questioning Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity, the EU has emerged as a crucial direction in Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy to counterbalance Moscow’s pressure. In this regard, the deepening of high-level diplomatic contacts with EU officials and heads of EU member-states is of paramount importance for Central Asians.

The parties held the first ever EU–Central Asia summit at the highest level in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2022. This year, the summit is expected to take place in Uzbekistan, which indicates the already permanent character of the format. There are even more interactions at lower levels. It is noteworthy that every meeting and subsequent documents, issued jointly or by the EU, consistently emphasize the principles of respect for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the Central Asian countries. This serves as a clear signal to Moscow.

If one were to name the single most important factor driving the current momentum in EU-Central Asia relations, it undoubtedly would be Russia’s war against Ukraine.

On the other hand, beyond the symbolic value, the deepening of relations with the EU serves practical economic purposes for Central Asians, and again, primarily for Kazakhstan. The country seeks to mitigate economic risks arising from Russia’s war. Primarily, Astana wants to ensure the stability of its oil exports to the EU, constituting approximately 80 percent of Kazakhstan–EU trade. The challenge is that 90 percent of Kazakhstan’s crude to Europe is moved through Russia, whose oil sector is under EU sanctions. Kazakhstan is keen on diversifying its oil export routes, and the EU stands out as one of the very few actors capable of assisting in this endeavour. Brussels, which imports 8 percent of its total oil from Kazakhstan, also shares an interest in diversifying its energy sector.

Secondly, and relatedly, Kazakhstan seeks EU assistance in the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, also known as the Middle Corridor – a prospect that aligns with EU interests. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s (EBRD) feasibility assessment, commissioned by the EU, and a more recent study by the World Bank both affirm that the Middle Corridor holds significant potential to become a crucial alternative to routes passing through Russia, provided that stakeholders are willing to invest in it, both politically and financially. Once again, the EU, with its Global Gateway initiative and genuine interest in the corridor, is perceived as the most likely investor in the Middle Corridor and is anticipated to take the lead in its development.

Finally, against the backdrop of economic troubles, Central Asians are eager to explore additional economic opportunities with the EU. Currently, EU–Central Asia trade remains underdeveloped, with Kazakhstan’s oil exports to the EU accounting for more than 70 percent of the total trade turnover between the two regions. Even the preferential access to the EU market through the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) for Tajikistan and GSP+ for Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has very limited impact on trade turnover. The recent increase in trade observed over the last two years is largely attributed to Central Asian companies engaging in parallel exports from EU countries to Russia. This strategy, however, puts them at risk of EU sanctions.

Regarding EU investments, Kazakhstan welcomes Brussels’s interest in investing in the green economy. The agreement signed in November 2022, focusing on raw materials, batteries, and renewable hydrogen, was of special interest to both parties. They have also agreed to develop a roadmap for 2023–2024, outlining specific measures to implement the agreement. The biannual EU–Central Asia Economic Forum, launched in 2021, serves as a welcome step, providing an additional permanent platform for ongoing economic dialogue between the regions.

Charting a Way Forward

Central Asia’s expectations of the EU have visibly increased over the past couple of years. Similarly, the EU’s genuine interest in Central Asia, traditionally regarded as a distant and secondary region in EU’s foreign policy map, has surged. The current pace of developments in EU–Central Asia relations is promising, providing new momentum for both sides to upgrade their interactions to a new level. Yet, for this potential to materialize, both sides need to meticulously work to fulfil their stated political commitments.

Firstly, the principle of pragmatism should be at the centre of this partnership, enabling the parties to cooperate on issues of mutual interest despite potential disagreements on other matters. In this regard, addressing the reported downward trend in democracy and human rights in Central Asia poses a significant challenge for the EU.

What should the EU do? It is a difficult political dilemma for Brussels. The idea of principled pragmatism being utilized by the EU could be of relevance here. Striking a balance between pragmatism and principled engagement will be crucial for the success and sustainability of the EU–Central Asia partnership. Moreover, some experts also argue that “the EU will need to embrace a de-centred, post-neoliberal approach to resilience instead of the Eurocentric, neoliberal approach that it now uses”. This relates to the EU’s democracy promotion efforts more specifically, as well as to its approach more generally.

Secondly, instead of grandiose, over-ambitious, and declaratory, yet hardly achievable objectives, the leaderships in Brussels and Central Asian capitals should focus on realistic and smaller aims, where achieving a result is possible. For instance, one specific example of such a realistic project would be the establishment of a European university in Central Asia, an idea that has been around since the mid-2000s. While the value of education programs like Erasmus+ is undeniable, establishing an education institution on the ground would enable the EU to connect with a larger number of Central Asian youth, enhance higher education systems in the region, make a tangible social impact, and increase the EU’s real presence and visibility in the region. Drawing inspiration from the success story of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, which has trained numerous community leaders, strengthened inter-regional people-to-people connections, and contributed significantly to the development of human capital in the region, a similar project by the EU would provide valuable service to young Central Asian societies and bring them closer to the EU.

Thirdly, to attain the stated goals, the parties should adopt a step-by-step approach, ensuring there is a detailed implementation plan for agreed projects before embarking on broader initiatives. An illustrative example of this approach is the EU’s organization of an Investors Forum in January 2024, aimed at mobilizing financial resources for the Middle Corridor projects. The Joint Roadmap for Deepening Ties between the EU and Central Asia, agreed upon in October 2023, is another positive development. That said, certain sections of the Roadmap appear more declaratory than practical, lacking specific details on concrete measures. Nevertheless, this practice of incorporating more concrete action plans should become normal in EU–Central Asia relations.

More broadly, if one were to name the single most important factor driving the current momentum in EU-Central Asia relations, it undoubtedly would be Russia’s war against Ukraine. The geopolitical factor is the catalyst for this surge. Nevertheless, under the current circumstances, both the EU and Central Asians should avoid the over-geopoliticization of their relations by all means. While elements of geopolitical competition are inevitable, it is crucial for Central Asian diplomacies to steer clear of situations where they are compelled to make an either/or choice between multiple external partners.

The latest European Parliament resolution “invites the EU to take initiative in working out a joint strategy for Central Asia with the United States”. It does not seem a good idea for the EU given how sensitive the US topic is for Central Asia’s other neighbours. Such an initiative could not only heighten geopolitical tensions in the region but also risk overshadowing the EU’s presence, associating it with Washington and its interests in Central Asia.

Of course, it is not to say that any cooperation with the US in Central Asia should be a taboo for the EU. Quite contrary, the EU should also try to involve the US and American companies, for example, in the development of the Middle Corridor. But crafting a joint political statement with the Americans in the form of a common strategy for Central Asia would be damaging initiative for Brussels. It remains to be seen if Central Asian governments themselves would welcome such a political tandem in their region.