The European Union and five Central Asian presidents repeated their intention to expand overall cooperation on Thursday (27 October), indicating dissatisfaction with the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Central Asia and Europe are becoming more and more integrated,” European Council President Charles Michel said in Astana, alongside Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, promoting greater relations with the area, which has come into sharper focus since Russia began its assault in Ukraine.
“My visit comes at a difficult time for Europe and the area,” Michel said ahead of the first EU-Central Asia summit, which he called “far more than just a policy discussion between two regions.”
“It’s a tremendous symbol of our strengthened collaboration,” he remarked, before meeting the leaders of the five Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – later Thursday.
Although low-key, the gathering has also been interpreted as a statement of dissatisfaction with the consequences of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.
“Participants emphasized the critical importance of developing a regional vision of and cooperation in building sustainable connectivity between Central Asia and the EU, in line with the EU Global Gateway strategy and the national transport and transit development objectives of Central Asian countries,” said a joint declaration issued after the summit by the EU and the five regional leaders.
Michel “welcomed Central Asian leaders’ efforts to enhance regional collaboration and connectivity,” while Central Asian leaders “particularly valued the EU’s help to accelerating economic growth following the epidemic.”
They also emphasized the importance of “creating a favorable business climate” in order to “further promote investments in the area, connectivity, and commerce.”
Both parties also agreed to meet on a regular basis in future.
Michel’s visit comes eight months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has made Moscow’s former Soviet neighbors concerned about the region’s possible ramifications.
Two weeks ago, Astana hosted multiple conferences attended by Russia, as well as China and Turkey, each of whom are looking to increase their influence in the area.
Astana hosted a series of seminars two weeks ago that were attended by Russia, China, and Turkey, all of whom are eager to expand their influence in the region.
Central Asian countries, who have historically had close ties with Russia, have treaded cautiously on the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine, neither denouncing nor overtly supporting it.
Tokayev, on the other hand, publicly disagreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, refusing to recognize the then-self-proclaimed separatist republics in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow later annexed.
Michel’s travel coincides with the arrival of the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, in Samarkand in mid-November for the annual EU-Central Asia ministerial summit, which is anticipated to be heavily focused on developing stronger ties with the region in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It is Michel’s first official visit to Kazakhstan, the key economic powerhouse in a region where Russia’s influence has been questioned, and he hailed it as a “crucial partner” with whom the EU intended to “grow collaboration.”
During his visit, Michel stated that Kazakhstan was an important economic partner for the EU, pushing for investment in transportation infrastructure in the nation, which has sought to minimize its reliance on Moscow since the latter dispatched troops to Ukraine.
After Tokayev promised increased energy cooperation with the EU in early July, Astana is looking for alternative routes for its oil exports, almost three-quarters of which pass Russia.
Tokayev stated with Michel that his country was the first in Central Asia to sign an improved collaboration and cooperation agreement.
He emphasized the necessity of expanding international transport routes to safeguard global supply chains, as well as the possibilities for collaboration between Kazakhstan and the EU in sectors such as the transfer of crucial raw materials and green energy.
Tokayev and Michel said in a joint statement on Thursday that they discussed ways to minimize an “unintended detrimental impact on Kazakhstan’s economy” from EU sanctions imposed on Russia for its conflict in Ukraine.
They also considered transferring “European manufacturing enterprises” whose products are not sanctioned to Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan, which is rich in hydrocarbons and minerals, is at the center of China’s vast new silk road project.
Similarly, many consider the EU’s current connectivity policy, called the Global Gateway, with more than €40 billion in technology and infrastructure expenditure as an attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.