This week I travelled to Dushanbe, accompanied by my colleague Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen, to chair the 17th EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting and meet with the Tajik leadership and civil society.
Central Asia may not be at the top of the news for most EU media but it is an important region, sandwiched between major powers, next door to Afghanistan and connecting East and West through trade, investment and other links. As EU, we have clear interests at stake - and so do the Central Asians. Despite the distance, we are the region’s largest trading partner and biggest investor: 40% of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the last ten years comes from the EU, not from the China or Russia, as some might expect, given their geographic proximity. We are also the leading aid donor to the region, offering many grants and not primarily loans as others do.
Thirty years after gaining their independence from the Soviet Union, the Central Asian states (Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan), have come a long way - and so has our cooperation. The region appreciates having an ‘EU-option’, alongside their relationships with their immediate neighbours. They see the EU as a factor of balance and predictability in a volatile international landscape mired in great power politics.
And there is a clear increase in engagement, meaning visits, policy initiatives and attention. Between the EU and Central Asia, we used to have perhaps one or max two top-level meetings per year. No longer: I visited Tashkent in July for the Central Asia-South Asia Connectivity Conference, while Vice-President Dombrovskis chaired the first EU-Central Asia Economic Forum on 5 November in Bishkek. Tajik President Rahmon visited Brussels in October and Kazakh President Tokayev visited this week. In addition, Commission Vice-President Schinas travelled to Tashkent this week. Where politicians go is a sign of their political priorities, so this uptake in travel, in both directions, is a sign that things are moving in EU-Central Asian relations.
In a way, the agenda writes itself: we have a joint interest in promoting resilient and open societies; ensuring a sustainable recovery and green transition; protecting our citizens against security threats, such as terrorism, and the trafficking of drugs, arms and people. In addition, the EU wants to keep the region as an open space for connectivity and cooperation rather than an area of binary strategic choices and rivalry.
At the Ministerial meeting, we discussed three broad clusters of issues: 1. Security including the fallout of the crisis in Afghanistan; 2. Sustainable connectivity and economic links; 3. Water, climate and environment. You can read more about the outcome and my press remarks here.
The tone of the discussion was very open – more than usual – and all ministers underlined their desire to deepen cooperation with the EU, given the uncertain regional context and with Russia, China and others already playing prominent roles. They clearly welcome more EU engagement and support for domestic reforms, to make progress on environmental sustainability, develop low carbon technologies and address regional challenges.
Naturally, the dramatic developments in Afghanistan loomed large in our discussions. As we have feared for months, the humanitarian situation in the country is deteriorating rapidly. Millions of Afghans are at risk of facing hunger, with all the risks this entails, in terms of irregular migration and radicalisation.
All Central Asian states clearly fear the security repercussions of the crisis in Afghanistan, including through infiltration of terrorist groups, as well as a negative impact on their economies. None of them has expressed any official support or recognition of the Taliban regime (with Tajikistan being the most vocal and taking the strongest position) while all are keen to promote stability and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. To that end, some regional governments do maintain pragmatic contacts with the Taliban and deliver humanitarian aid.
On the EU side, we set out our line: no recognition and no legitimisation. But also strong support for the Afghan people, based on a ‘humanitarian+ approach’, i.e. complementing humanitarian aid with support to basic services (health, education, food security). I also outlined our intention to launch an inclusive regional dialogue platform, initially with Afghanistan’s six immediate neighbours. For her part, Commissioner Urpilainen provided details when it comes to the financing for EU-Central Asia cooperation in the next budgetary cycle.
At the Ministerial, I also discussed with all Ministers the need to combat irregular migration and to prevent airports and territories from being misused for trafficking movements. Ministers from the whole region and especially Uzbekistan expressed their full commitments to stop the flow of migrants to Belarus where people have been instrumentalised and sent to the EU border.
After the Ministerial, we met the Tadjik President Rahmon and the Foreign Minister Muhridin to discuss our bilateral cooperation, the recovery and especially the regional security situation, in view of the deepening crisis in Afghanistan. Tajikistan has 1.400 kilometres of border with Afghanistan and plays an active role to promote a positive regional agenda. For example, while it does not recognise the Taliban regime, it still provides important support through electricity supplies, which for the moment are not even being paid for. This is proof that one can support the Afghan people without recognising the regime.
In addition to these ‘official’ meetings, it is important to try getting a direct feel for a country. Fortunately, we were able to do so. On Sunday, I awarded the EU Innovation Prize to three young teams that are contributing to job creation in the country. On Monday, we visited a centre where EU is helping to train Tajik border troops. On Tuesday, we witnessed first-hand the glacier melting on the Pamir. We also visited the Nurek Hydro-Power Station and were briefed about CASA100, a large-scale regional electricity interconnector project linking the grids of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, enabling the use of hydropower resources in the region. It was good to learn first-hand about the potential but also the challenges of regional climate change, water and energy cooperation.
We also visited the Vahdat Art Gallery, an initiative run by two young Afghan artists, who fled Kabul eight months ago. It brings them an important respite from the uncertainties of life in a new country.
We also had a long meeting with civil society representatives and human rights defenders to hear first-hand on the situation in the country and the work of civil society in a highly challenging context. Logically, our discussion turned to what the EU can do more, politically and financially, to support the dynamic Tajik civil society.
In EU foreign policy, we spend a lot of time on crisis management: Belarus, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Sudan etc., plus relations with the great powers: US, Russia, China etc. This is natural, but it is also important to carve out enough time and energy for other regions where the rate of return per hour or euro spent may be greater than elsewhere. This includes Central Asia.
Returning from Dushanbe I am convinced that our partners want to deepen their cooperation with the EU. We have come a long way in EU-Central Asia relations in a short space of time. However, there is even more to be done: on connectivity, clean energy, security, Afghanistan. In the months ahead, I will make sure Central Asia stays high on our radar, as it should be. That is why I have put our relations with Central Asia on the agenda of the next Foreign Affairs Council in December, to discuss with EU Ministers what more we can do.