By Political Analyst Vira Ratsiborynska, European Parliament
The Central Asian region has a strategic geopolitical location, an enormous economic and energy potential and abundant wealth of resources that represent an important factor of interest for many leading economic world powers such as the EU, Russia and China.
The Central Asian region has a rich history of development of trade and energy relations with these leading powers which explains why this region is appealing in its potential and intriguing in its development. Central Asia consists of five former Soviet Union republics namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan, with its important geographical position, rich cultural and historical background and its extensive natural resources constitutes an important geostrategic asset of the Central Asian region.
As the heart of Eurasia and the geopolitical core of the region Kazakhstan simultaneously maintains and develops strong trade, energy and political relations with the EU, China and Russia. These powers exercise economic and political influence on the post- Soviet republic, which connects the Central Asian market to their respective export markets.
Trade and energy fields represent the priority targets in the development of strategic relations for them as they provide any country with many possibilities and further trade opportunities. Very often in these priority fields the interests of the aforementioned leading powers overlap and their political influence thus tends to expand significantly in a country. In Kazakhstan with its important geographical position there is a combination of Chinese leadership in the energy field with Russian political influence in many other strategic fields of relations.
The EU plays a mediating and soft power role in the general political and economic development of this country which represents a significant geopolitical interest for the two other competing powers in the region - Russia and China. Concerning Russia’s field of trade Kazakhstan is a third country partner in Russia’s and Belarus’ Customs Union, a project that represents only one step in Russia’s ambitious plan to further implement the Eurasian economic integration project. This trade integration project helps Russia to shape the regional agenda of Central Asia and helps to keep the country in its geopolitical orbit.
China is also influential in the field of trade relations with Kazakhstan as the Kazakh market represents an advantageous and complementary market for China. This market is useful for the Chinese market as it can satisfy the growing Chinese consumption of oil and gas. In the field of energy and trade these two markets are interconnected: Kazakhstan is an important energy producer while China is an important energy consumer. Kazakhstan in turn is also benefitting from good economic links with China as China creates many business opportunities and attracts foreign investment for common trade and energy projects with Kazakhstan. Such relations result in many tangible economic benefits and are geopolitically crucial for Kazakhstan to counterbalance the Russian influence in the Central Asian region.
The EU is also interested in trade relations with Kazakhstan as more than 40% of Kazakhstan’s exports are going to the EU market. The Kazakh market is important for the EU due to the EU’s need to diversify its sources for oil and gas supply. Kazakhstan mainly exports oil and gas to the EU while it imports machinery and manufacturing products. For Kazakhstan, the EU market remains attractive because the EU remains a crucial investment partner. This includes the exchange of best practices related to European know-how and expertise and an exchange of technology. The EU also supports and develops the diversification of Kazakh economy.
In geopolitical terms, trade relations with the EU are also very important for Kazakhstan because they represent an alternative to the trade relations with Russia and China. The EU is also maintaining good relations in other crucial fields in the region such as in security and good governance development. As the Central Asian region represents many challenges for the EU that it needs to address, Kazakhstan remains essential for tackling these challenges through mutual efforts between both partners.
The security of the Central Asian region and political stability in each member country of the region stays the main priority of the EU’s relations with this part of the world. In order to achieve energy and trade stability and security in the whole region, the EU addresses such questions as the rule of law, democracy and the protection of human rights first with each member country of the region. For the Kazakhstan-EU relations these questions represent a priority as they combine regional policy dialogue with soft power promotion.
Projects such as the promotion of democracy and the rule of law can help the EU to encourage Kazakhstan’s approach to EU norms and values and to make the country more stable and secure in the EU’s integration perspectives. This can also help the EU in tackling regional security threats like terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime and secure border management in the whole Central Asian region. The engagement of Kazakhstan in a mutual dialogue is crucial for the EU to be able to successfully use its soft power tools and methods in Central Asia.
Kazakhstan that respects human rights, that develops democratically and that is ready to commit in different fields of mutual co-operation with the EU can be a valuable partner for every country in the world and for the EU as a whole. This mutual cooperation is challenging as Kazakhstan is still facing many severe shortcomings in upholding the rule of law.
The 2011 incident in Zhanaozen was a telling example illustrating that Kazakhstan needs to continue its efforts in upgrading the principles of the rule of law within the country. In general, the common efforts of the EU and Kazakhstan in promoting democracy and the rule of law should continue in order to make Kazakhstan the best reliable partner for the EU and the world in general. That is why the negotiations on an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation agreement with the EU can serve as the basis to engage in a more stable and reliable partnership and dialogue concerning the rule of law and democratic developments within the country.
This agreement can also upgrade the economic relations with the EU, thus promoting its trade and investment exchanges. The EU’s priority in its relations with Kazakhstan is to achieve the common goals of security and stability through the transformative power of the EU, to bring Kazakhstan closer to the EU and to strengthen the fields of common co-operation. To this end the EU should remain a normative actor that knows how to balance economic interests with the promotion of norms and values in the region. Kazakhstan should in turn build its relations with the EU on a true commitment basis that should remain beneficial for all parties involved. Kazakhstan needs to stay committed to the democratization process and the rule of law because a politically stable country means an economically prosperous country as well.
The respect for human rights and fight against corruption can yield good results for the trade relations with the EU and can encourage foreign investment in Kazakhstan. Fostering democratic processes within a country can be a key for success to achieve more economic benefits with the EU. With regards to Russia and China, Kazakhstan needs to remain pro-active in the multi-vectored approach of its relations and to effectively promote the development of further enhanced relations with its partners.
Diversification of trade and investment possibilities and a strong trade and energy co-operation with all these key partners should stay essential in the political and economic development of the country. Economic co-operation has to go hand in hand with the political engagement of Kazakhstan in pursuing interior democratic development. Like this Kazakhstan can become a reliable partner not only in trade and energy relations but also in many other aspects of key regional significance for the EU, Russia and China.