_ Yuri Kofner, Head of the Eurasian Sector of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Faculty of World Economy and World Politics, National Research University Higher School of Economics. Interviewed by Zhanar Tulidinova. Nur-Sultan, May 31, 2019.
On Friday, May 31, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, visited the capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan, as part of his Central Asian tour. During the visit, the head of the highest political body of the EU met with the First President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev and with the new President Kassym-Zhomart Tokaev. He also visited the memorial of political repressions victims of “Alzhir”.
Tusk’s big Central Asian tour (in addition to Kazakhstan, the President of the European Council visits Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) is timed to the adoption of a new EU Strategy for Central Asia. On 15 May 2019, this 16-page document was presented to the European Parliament, the EU Council and the general public.
At the same time, the context in which Tusk visited Nur-Sultan – literally ten days before the presidential election, in the midst of the process of transit of power – suggests the idea of a certain political symbolism of this event.
Here, perhaps, one might consider three points.
Firstly, the head of the highest political body of the EU is an infrequent guest in Kazakhstan. The previous, the first in the history, visit of the President of the European Council to Kazakhstan (then Herman van Rompuy held this post) took place almost nine years ago, in December 2010, as part of the OSCE summit, when Kazakhstan held presidency in this organization.
Secondly, Tusk became, in fact, the first major politician and head of the largest and most influential political bloc in the world, who visited Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev’s departure from official presidency.
Thirdly, the date of the visit looks symbolic. On 31 May Kazakhstan celebrates the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Hunger and Stalinist repressions of the 1930s.
Obviously Brussels is able to draw up subtle political messages.
Yuri Kofner, Head of the Eurasian Sector of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Faculty of World Economy and World Politics in Moscow suggests considering Tusk’s visit to Nur-Sultan in a wider political context: the EU is revising its strategy in Central Asia to more actively promote European interests .
“There are two processes that led to the activation of the EU in the Central Asian region. The first is the Chinese Belt and Road initiative. Brussels is very worried about this initiative because it sees how China is actively moving forward in the region, investing in it and gaining access to assets in strategic sectors. In Europe, the Chinese are most active in high-tech industries, as this opens up access to new technologies and the European market. At the same time. in Central Asia China is seeking access to raw materials and infrastructure”, explains the expert.
According to Kofner, in Brussels this is seen as a geostrategic challenge. This explains the publication in September 2018 of EU “Connecting Europe and Asia” strategy concept.
“Although the EU in every way denies that this strategy is related to the Belt and Road project, it’s clear that this stepping up of activities is connected with the Chinese initiative,” Kofner notes.
The second reason for the activation of the EU in Central Asia is related to the “Uzbek spring” – the liberalization of Uzbekistan after the change of power, as well as to Kazakhstan’s initiative on Central Asian integration, which was announced at a summit in Nur-Sultan earlier in 2018.
“In an effort to strengthen relations with the countries of Central Asia, Brussels wants, on the one hand, to establish closer cooperation – and there is nothing bad in this. On the other hand, the EU is thus responding to the challenges that, from Brussels’s point of view, are coming from a rising China and a resurging Russia. Against the backdrop of the growing influence of these two actors the EU also wants to increase its influence in this region. This is the main reason for Tusk’s visit. And the fact that it coincided with the elections in Kazakhstan is rather a secondary factor”, explains the expert.
The adoption of the new EU Strategy for Central Asia is connected with the desire of Brussels to strengthen its position in Eurasia.
“Despite its competition with China, the EU nevertheless, seeks to cooperate on the new Silk Road. It seeks to forge energy ties with the countries of Central Asia and create greater connectivity in the region. However, it seems that Brussels would like to do all this by bypassing Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). So we see that neither Russia nor the EAEU are involved in this strategy. They are mentioned only in the reference part of the document. It is obvious that the EU is thus responding to the intensification of integration processes in the wider Eurasian space – the Chinese one in the form of the Belt and Road and the (conditionally) Russian one – the EAEU”, says Kofner.
The expert also noted that the EU is worried about the obvious strengthening of Russia’s positions in Uzbekistan, which is reflected in surging Russian investments, the opening of branches of Russian universities, as well as in the project to build a nuclear power plant using Russian technologies.
At the same time, Kofner stated that there is no fundamental difference between the previous EU strategy of 2007 and the current one – rather, its adoption can be regarded as a political signal about the activation of the EU in the Central Asian region.