With the ongoing war in Ukraine, serious crises have arisen between Russia and the European Union (EU) in various fields, especially in energy. Aiming to turn these crises into opportunities, the EU has taken some initiatives to strengthen its relations with countries in Central Asia, one of Russia’s traditional spheres of influence. The visits of Foreign Minister of Germany Annalena Baerbock to Kazakhstan on 30-31 October 2022 and to Uzbekistan on 1-2 November 2022 can be interpreted as an indicator of this goal of the EU. Baerbock was accompanied by a delegation of experts in the energy and infrastructure sectors. The main purpose of these contacts is to develop energy-focused economic collaborations.
Baerbock met with his Kazakh counterpart Mukhtar Tleuberdi in Astana, the first stop of his Central Asian contacts, and discussed bilateral relations as well as trade, economy, and investment issues. Praising the reforms carried out in Kazakhstan, Baerbock said, “We want to expand our dialogue on political reform, the rule of law, and human rights.”
Baerbock also met with Kazakhstan Prime Minister Alihan Smailov and exchanged views on expanding bilateral trade, and developing renewable energy sources and logistics infrastructure. Emphasizing that Germany is Kazakhstan’s most important commercial, economic, and investment partner in the EU, Smailov said, “Astana is determined to maintain and strengthen a high level of interaction with Berlin.” In addition, Smailov stated that the volume of German direct investments in Kazakhstan’s economy increased by 25 percent and exceeded $320 million in 2021, and said that trade volume between the two countries increased by 6 percent to $2.2 billion.
After his contacts in Kazakhstan, Baerbock went to Uzbekistan and met with his Uzbek counterpart, Vladimir Norov, in Tashkent. Afghanistan was one of the main agenda topics of the meeting. In this context, the safe passage of Afghan refugees to EU territory through Uzbekistan was discussed. Norov argued that Western states should return Afghanistan’s frozen assets abroad and stated they would support initiatives to restore the infrastructure there.
Baerbock also met with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev within the scope of her Uzbekistan contacts. At the meeting where the development of bilateral relations was discussed, Baerbock stated that Germany supports democratic and socio-economic reforms in Uzbekistan.
Currently, Germany is Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner in Europe. As a matter of fact, trade volume between the two countries has increased by 24 percent in the last five years. Moreover, more than 200 German companies operate in Uzbekistan. So much so that in 2021, 1 billion-dollar-worth in investment was made from Germany to Uzbekistan. It is estimated that the trade volume between parties will reach 1.4 billion dollars in 2022. Therefore, it is not surprising that a delegation led by Baerbock visited large enterprises operating in the Tashkent and Samarkand regions with the participation of German capital.
On the other hand, during Baerbock’s visit to Uzbekistan, “Many companies from Europe want to invest in Uzbekistan.” This statement shows that the EU desires to expand in Central Asia not only economically but also ideologically. Baerbock also gave a message to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan by saying, “For the Central Asian states, the future is more than a choice between staying in Russia’s backyard and being dependent on China.” Thus, Baerbock called on countries of the region to prevent the expansion of Russian and Chinese influence.
In this context, it can be argued that Germany aims to cooperate with Central Asia according to the “raw material in exchange for technology” plan. For this reason, Baerbock also expressed the supply of rare earth metals necessary for the EU economy. Because of the main supplier of such raw materials in China. However, in the EU, dependence on China is considered dangerous. Therefore, according to the Berlin administration, Kazakhstan may become an alternative option for the extraction of these metals. However, this requires a high-tech structure. Therefore, Baerbock stated that Germany is ready to provide the necessary assistance to Kazakhstan.
In addition to Baerbock’s visit to Central Asia, President of the European Council Charles Michel visited Astana on October 27, 2022, and met with the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Michel described the summit as more than a dialogue between two regions and emphasized that the two regions are getting closer to each other. Michel, like Baerbock, called for more cooperation in the region.
Finally, on 17 November 2022, EU Foreign Relations and Security Representative Josep Borrell also visited Uzbekistan. Noting that Russia as well as China is an important factor in the region, Borrell stated that regional states want to diversify their relations and that the EU stands out as a key partner in that sense. Borrell also expressed satisfaction with the reforms the Central Asian countries have implemented.
The last important development regarding the EU’s initiative to Central Asia is the visit of the President of Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev, to France on 21-22 November 2022. This visit is important in terms of EU-Central Asia interaction as well as Uzbekistan-France relations. Mirziyoyev’s contacts in Paris focused mainly on economic relations.
As a result, Central Asian states develop close relations with actors such as the EU as part of their balance-based multi-vector and multi-dimensional foreign policies. It is seen that this is an economy-oriented convergence. In this convergence, it can be said that the EU’s energy-based targets are also determinant against the investment expectations of regional states. Therefore, it is possible to talk about a cooperation process shaped by the mutual win-win logic.
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