Bet on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: new hope for the EU in Central Asia

Ставка на Казахстан и Узбекистан: новые надежды ЕС в Центральной Азии

At the conference on the new EU strategy towards Central Asia, experts talked about the turning point for the region and called Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan locomotives of change. A report DW.Alisher Kayumov, the representative of the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Berlin, not diplomatically direct. “I don’t want to offend anyone” – he begins his speech during the discussion on the expectations of the countries of Central Asia: from new regional strategy of the European Union. In a hall laughter is heard. Kayumov recalled how two decades ago in Bonn, the then capital of Germany, asked German colleagues on how to attract home German investors.

In response he talked about the need for liberalization, freedom of the press and respect for human rights. “And now three years in our country are radical reforms. Freedom of the press – almost like,” adds the diplomat, and the laughter gets louder. But the German investments in the Uzbek economy, he laments, has not increased, and the composition of key foreign investors in Uzbekistan has not changed – Russia, China, Turkey and South Korea.

“The European Union looks at us just as a transit region on the way to China, where we sit down to refuel planes,” continues Kayumov. According to him, over the last three years in Uzbekistan has opened three dozen branches of foreign universities – Russian, Indian, Chinese but not European, except for the UK.

Russia remains in first place in popularity in the region

This is the most striking episode of the conference on the new strategy of the European Union in Central Asia and organized on 23 October in Berlin, the German-Kazakh society together with the German foreign Ministry. It illustrates a paradoxical change in the region – a thirst for foreign investment instead of isolation and repression. The European Union seeks to play a greater role in the economy of the region – we are talking about five countries with a total population of approximately 70 million people. And the growing geopolitical activity of China and Russia is pushing for more decisive action and the European Union, which, however, because of many reasons, may not act as quickly and flexibly as an authoritarian governed countries.

In this sense, was not unexpected and the results of a study on the perception of the European Union in the countries of Central Asia respondents were interviewed in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Young people under 29 years of age – this demographic group makes up a third of the entire population of the region – in response to the question of where they would like to learn, call, first of all, Russia and the United States. And only then – European countries.

And on the question of which country should strengthen relations, the vast majority of respondents in all four countries also called Russia. The EU is currently ranking the second place in Kazakhstan, one in Kyrgyzstan, the fifth in Uzbekistan and seven in Tajikistan.

Nevertheless, rapid changes in politics and the economy, the growing ambitions of China and strengthening of Russia forced the EU to pay more attention to the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The importance of the region and said the presence at the conference of Dirk Wiese (Dirk Wiese), the authorized government of Germany on cooperation with Russia, Central Asia and Eastern partnership.

In his opening remarks, Visa noted the importance of recent political developments in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, including improvement of the situation with human rights and also highlighted the key role of regional States in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan. The conference was the assertion that the new leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, more pragmatic-minded than their predecessors, created in the region a new dynamism.

Central Asia as one of the few “sources of good news”

In the words of Philippe van Amersfoort, Deputy head of Department of Central Asia of the European external action service, “in the world there are few places where there’s good news, but Central Asia is one of them.” The new strategy of the EU towards the countries of the region was adopted in the summer of 2019 and presented at the EU-Central Asia in Bishkek.

It is designed to materialize the investors ‘ optimism about the economic future of the region. As emphasized Amersfoort, the EU does not claim exclusive partnership and the new policy in any case does not exclude for the region’s membership in the Eurasian economic Union (EEU).

Areas for cooperation, in his opinion, it is enough: this cooperation with the aim of improving the situation with human rights, and security, and combating terrorism, and even educational projects for Afghan women. And, of course, investment – work on the organization of the economic forum in Bishkek in 2020 is in full swing.

But today the main investor in the region, the European Bank for reconstruction and development (EBRD) – the total amount of its investments in more than 750 projects in the private sector reaches $ 14 billion. The Bank finances the construction of wind and solar power plants in Kazakhstan, projects for women entrepreneurs in Tajikistan, ecological tourism in Uzbekistan, projects in the field of health in Kyrgyzstan and small business in Turkmenistan.

“Turning point” in the history of the region

According to Dr. Jacopo Pepe from the German society for foreign policy, the region is experiencing a turning point in its development with the opening of new transportation routes China is becoming closer to Europe and Russia’s influence is reduced.

The transport integration of the region, he believes one of the key objectives for the nearest future, which, in turn, should lead to the growth of trade turnover between the countries-neighbours – now its share in the balance of trade of the Central Asian countries accounts for only 6-10%, which is also a consequence of the political isolation of the region.

And the first result is obvious – last year the trade turnover between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has grown by half. Both of these countries, the expert called “engines of regional development”. Alisher Kayumov from Uzbekistan Embassy says that the abolition of the Tashkent visas for EU citizens has led to a tourist boom in the country. But the response of relief Uzbeks until the wait – its working visit to work in Berlin Kayumov waited three months.

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