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Central Asia in Focus: European Union’s Diplomatic Push in Central Asia

EU’s diplomatic push in Central Asia, Turkmenistan sticks with Russia and Iran, Tajikistan and China Conduct Annual Military Exercises, and more.

UKBEKISTAN — Official photography ceremony with the participants of Samarkand EU – Central Asia Connectivity Conference “Global Gateway”.

What’s Happening in the Region

The European Union’s Diplomatic Push in Central Asia

The European Union (EU) is one of the leading trade partners and investors in Central Asia.

And now the EU is making a diplomatic push to further strengthen its ties with the region.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell just paid a visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Borrell’s visit came after President of the European Council Charles Michel visited the two Central Asian countries at the end of October.

In his speech at the EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference in Samarkand on November 18, Borrell unveiled the Global Gateway program to improve connectivity between Europe and Central Asia.

Connectivity, particularly in terms of trade, is now an urgent issue for both the EU and Central Asia. Trade they conducted for three decades through Russia is disrupted, a result of EU sanctions on Russia for the war on Ukraine.Those EU sanctions have also led to a drastic reduction in Russian energy imports, and Borrell mentioned in his speech that “excessive dependencies and the absence of choice can come at a cost.”

In 2021, Russia supplied about 45 percent of the EU’s natural gas imports and about one-third of the EU’s oil imports.

Kazakhstan already supplies EU countries with oil, and there have long been discussions about the EU importing gas from Turkmenistan.

EU countries are taking a fresh look at nuclear power to compensate for the loss of Russian energy supplies. Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium and Uzbekistan the fifth largest producer.

Why It’s Important: Closer ties between the EU and Central Asia is a win-win for both sides, and not only as compensation for the EU’s loss of Russian energy imports.

The EU funds a wide array of programs in Central Asia, from education to water conservation and purification, renewable energy, and ways to alleviate the effects of climate change.

Climate change in particular is important for Central Asia which saw severe drought in 2021 and abnormal heat in summer 2022. Better cooperation with the EU would benefit Central Asia.

Turkmenistan Sticks with Russia and Iran

Protests have been going on in Iran for weeks and Russia’s war in Ukraine is going badly and making Russia an international pariah, but the governments in those two countries are still Turkmenistan’s allies of choice.

Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji visited Turkmenistan on November 16 as the two countries try to settle past differences and see a resumption of natural gas supplies to northern Iran.

Owji met with Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov.

Reports of Owji meeting with Meredov were interesting since Meredov did not travel to Samarkand, Uzbekistan where there was a meeting of Central Asian foreign ministers with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on November 17 (see the above item).

Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, sent deputy foreign ministers to the meeting in Samarkand.

Turkmen-Iranian ties plummeted at the end of 2016 when Turkmenistan demanded that Iran pay $1.8 billion for Turkmen gas Iran received in 2008-2009.

Iran disputed the amount it owed and when Iran did not pay, Turkmenistan shut off the gas to the country on January 1, 2017.

In Turkmenistan, Owji said Iran had already paid some of the debt and would soon make another payment of 470 million euros. Owji did not say if that was the final payment, or if Iran still owed money.

The two sides discussed a gas swap arrangement whereby Turkmenistan ships gas to northern Iran and Iran in return exports a like amount of gas to Azerbaijan.

The day before Owji arrived in Turkmenistan, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Overchuk was there and also met with President Berdymukhammedov.

The bland reports from Turkmen news outlets mentioned Berdymukhammedov and Overchuk discussed economic ties and the “oil and gas industry,” the latter being a prime topic in Russian-Turkmen talks for the last 30 years.

Curiously, some Iranian media reports on Owji’s visit to Turkmenistan referred to “government statements (that) indicated that gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to Iran could be used for potential swap agreements between Iran and Russia.”

There was no elaboration on what that swap agreement entailed.

Why It’s Important: The fact that Turkmen Foreign Minister Meredov was in Turkmenistan to meet with the Iranian oil minister but did not make the short plane trip to Samarkand to meet with Borrell is more clarification of new Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov’s foreign policy.

Other countries in Central Asia are working to expand their ties to Europe and the Arab states, but Turkmenistan seems intent on keeping Iran and Russia as its major foreign partners.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at how Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov’s government is intensifying efforts to detain or intimidate critics of government policies.

The recent border demarcation deal with Uzbekistan has sparked protests in Kyrgyzstan and helped fuel other complaints against Japarov’s government.

This discussion looks at some of the figures the government has so far targeted in its bid to quell dissent.

This week’s guests are Syinat Sultanalieva, researcher on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for Human Rights Watch and Ivar Dale, senior policy adviser at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, who was in Kyrgyzstan in October.

What I’m Following

Signs of a New Kazakhstan?

Incumbent Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has easily defeated the five little-known candidates who provided a facade of competition in Kazakhstan’s snap presidential election.

There was a referendum on amendments to the constitution in June. Toqaev said the amendments would pave the way to a “new” Kazakhstan with democratic reforms and a greater voice for citizens in how the country is governed. We’ll see. The election was not free or fair.

Now Toqaev has an amended constitution and a new term in office, and a promise that he would introduce reforms. He has made some changes such as banning forced labor in cotton fields.

Let’s see if he follows through on his promises.

Tajikistan, China to Conduct Annual Military Exercises

RFE/RL’s Tajik Service reports Tajikistan and China have signed an agreement to hold counterterrorism exercises at least once per year.

China has a small military base in the far eastern part of Tajikistan near the border with China.

The base is also near the two countries’ border with Afghanistan. The counterterrorism exercises Tajikistan and China agreed to hold will reportedly simulate threats of militants coming from Afghanistan into the remote mountains of eastern Tajikistan.

Fact of the Week

In 2019, the first time Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev was elected, 9,274,110 people, or 77.5 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots and Toqaev received 6,539,715 votes, or 70.96 percent.

In the 2022 Kazakh presidential election, 8,300,046 people, 69.44 percent eligible voters, cast ballots and incumbent Toqaev received 6,456,392 votes, or 81.31 percent, but 83,323 votes less than in 2019.

Thanks for Reading

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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,