4th Feb 2023


Could the central Asian 'stan' states turn away from Moscow?

  • Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the capital of Kazakhstan, recently renamed after longtime dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev (Photo: EUobserver)
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The transatlantic relationship and the links with its immediate neighbours have dominated the European agenda since the Cold War. But in light of the invasion of Ukraine, it is clear this must evolve.

Action must be taken to deal a long-term blow to Russia's global influence, and ensure that there are no further repeats of the atrocities in Ukraine.

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  • In fact, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both actually dispatched humanitarian aid to Ukraine (Photo: Google)

This must be an absolute priority for the EU and its member states. One region which needs to be prioritised in this respect is Central Asia.

The former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have retained close ties with Russia since 1989. Yet this consensus may be shifting. The region has undergone significant political transformation recently and is at a genuine inflection point. The winds of change are already blowing in the region.

At the UN, none of the five central Asian powers supported Russia in the 2 March resolution condemning the Ukraine invasion. More recently, the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have each rebuked Kremlin reports of bilateral meetings which indicated support for the war.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both boldly dispatched humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

As the war continues, it is increasingly clear that while they continue to hedge diligently their rhetoric, central Asian states are subtly pushing back against Russia's war, and Russia's influence. The opportunity for a long-term pivot is possible but, obviously, engagement of the EU is key.

EU carrot?

The challenge for Europe and the West is to prove to these nations that creating further distance from Russia is the pragmatic choice. Aside from its geopolitical benefits, such a pivot would confer multiple benefits to both Europe and Central Asia.

The economic opportunities for one, are clear.

While there is healthy trade between the two, neither region has successfully tapped into the full potential of the other as an export market. By accelerating growth and playing a role in development projects in central Asia, the EU could well tap into a market dominated by Russia and China, whilst accelerating the modernisation, digitisation, and diversification of Central Asian economies.

The pressing issue of energy is one such opportunity. Working closely with major energy producers (particularly Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) to wean Europe from its reliance on Russian oil and gas is a major incentive for cooperation.

To some extent, engagement on this front is underway.

The EU has been at pains to ensure their sanctions on Russia do not impact the supply of Kazakhstani oil to Europe, representing eight percent of total oil imports, the majority of which transits through Russia.

But in the medium term, Europe must do more. There is a clear mutual, strategic interest in providing Kazakhstan with the financial and technical support it needs to diversify its export routes via the Caspian Sea.

Also crucial is the genuine opportunity to support the spread of European values: good governance, tolerance, equality, and human rights.

The World Bank is reaching its 20th anniversary of engagement with central Asia, recognising the unprecedented opportunity of the region as a hub for trade and commerce. However it acknowledges that the pressures and inequalities are great, with climate change, rural poverty, and the continuing patriarchal attitudes through the region.

Still highly repressive

There are major strides that still need to be taken. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan remain amongst the world's most repressive countries, where freedom of speech and political openness are virtually unknown concepts.

Yet the EU can make a real impact in supporting what is a positive direction of change, if it invests the necessary resources to help support reforms.

Reform is clearly already on the agenda. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan has been implementing a major upheaval of their political system through a new, progressive constitution yielding impressive results. Kyrgyzstan is also gradually making more encouraging progress on its democratic transition, and political liberalisation.

But this will only be effective alongside substantive engagement on other fronts. Europe must demonstrate a genuine commitment to working productively with these new allies. Without real economic co-operation and investment partnerships, diplomatic gestures will be hollow.

Diplomacy can make real strides, alongside concrete commitments. The situation with Russia is, after all, still extremely sensitive; the fear of inciting Russian hostility might needlessly deter engagement. Delicacy, therefore, is paramount.

With the right combination of diplomacy, substantive engagement, and subtlety, the invasion of Ukraine could mark a turning point for the region, and for Russian influence. These shifts could, ultimately, lay the foundations for a world where Russia is no longer a threat to any more sovereign states.

Author bio

Jean de Ruyt was the permanent representative of Belgium to the EU, before serving as a foreign policy advisor to the EU’s first high representative for foreign affairs, Baroness Ashton. Prior to that, he was Belgian ambassador to Italy and permanent representative to the United Nations, where he led the EU response to the events of 9/11.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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