EU-Kazakhstan Cooperation in the Spotlight as President Tokayev Visits Brussels
As Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev recently noted, his official visit to Brussels—his first travel to Europe since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic—comes at an important time both for Central Asia and for the region’s relationship with the European Union. Kazakhstan, along with the other Central Asian states, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union, a three-decade span which has been marked by deep transformations in Kazakhstan’s society and economy and an ever-deepening partnership with the European Union.
“When my predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, visited Brussels for the first time in February 1993,” Tokayev reflected, “few could have predicted the extent to which EU-Kazakhstan relations would grow and diversify. What some may initially have seen as a relationship of asymmetric assistance has become one of genuine partnership, based on innumerable overlapping interests and mutual benefits”.
Indeed, as Kazakhstan has metamorphosed from a centrally planned economy to an upper-middle income country, trade ties between the EU and Central Asia’s largest economy have tightened, with the EU now accounting for some 40% of Kazakhstan’s external trade. Political and foreign policy cooperation has increased as well, with the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (ECPA) between the EU and Kazakhstan going into effect on 1 March 2020. This cooperation looks likely to strengthen further in the wake of the crisis in Afghanistan, with top EU diplomat Josep Borrell advising in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan that “Central Asia will become a more strategic and important region for us”. Kazakhstan, which is currently hosting the UN Mission to Afghanistan following the deterioration of the situation in Kabul, will undoubtedly play a particularly prominent role in coordinating with the EU on how to stabilise the region.
The question of how Kazakhstan and the EU can collaborate to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan and the broader region will constitute a central topic of conversation during Tokayev’s visit to Brussels. On November 25, Tokayev’s first day in Brussels, the Afghanistan situation was one of the numerous subjects on the table during his talks with European Council President Charles Michel. The two conferred in particular on the question of transferring humanitarian aid to Afghanistan—an issue on which Kazakhstan is already actively engaged, envisioning Almaty as an international humanitarian hub.
Kazakhstan’s own domestic politics also featured on Tokayev’s agenda in Brussels, with EU politicians keen for updates on the raft of political and economic reforms which the Kazakh President has put forward since he took office in 2019. As Charles Michel emphasized following his meeting with Tokayev on Thursday, “the EU remains very supportive of Kazakhstan’s reform and modernisation agenda”. Major reforms implemented by Nur-Sultan so far have been the formal abolition of the death penalty, the first direct mayoral elections held in rural areas, and a number of other measures intended to boost political participation, including the reduction of the threshold for political parties to gain seats in parliament and the institution of a 30% quota for women and young people on parties’ electoral lists.
EU politicians and institutions have consistently urged Nur-Sultan to go still further in implementing reforms that support Kazakhstan’s civil society, modernise its economy, and strengthen the rule of law in the country. They will undoubtedly be encouraged by Tokayev’s declaration during his trip to Brussels that “we must be more transparent across government, and embrace the growing culture of debate, opposition and dialogue […] Protecting human rights and consolidating civil society is an unquestionable duty.”
Tokayev also explicitly acknowledged the EU’s role in helping Kazakhstan carry out the next phases of reforms, expected to include initiatives to tackle discrimination against women, improve relations with NGOs and ensure that prisoners receive fair treatment in the criminal justice system. “Deep reform takes time, and it takes partnership,” the Kazakh president explained. “I am grateful to our European neighbours for their constant dialogue and support in implementing changes which benefit both our citizens and societies”.
One of the main goals of European officials’ meetings with Tokayev during his visit to Brussels is to evaluate how to parlay this partnership into joint initiatives to tackling some of the most pressing issues of the time, particularly the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Charles Michel conferred on the response to the coronavirus, including discussing mutual recognition of vaccination passports and vaccines—Kazakhstan has developed its own domestically-produced vaccine, QazVac, which Nur-Sultan is planning to send to Afghanistan and other countries as humanitarian aid.
Climate change also loomed large in the discussions between European officials and the Kazakh president. Tokayev and Belgian PM Alexander de Croo took stock of the situation following the recent COP26 climate summit, discussing their national plans to achieve carbon neutrality. Belgium is aiming to become carbon neutral by 2050 by sharply curbing greenhouse gas emissions and deploying technologies such as carbon capture and storage, while Kazakhstan has pledged full decarbonisation by 2060, banking on large-scale green energy projects.
Many of these green energy projects are set to be carried out with European partners: while in Brussels, Tokayev met with Wolfgang Kropp, the CEO of German-Swedish firm Svevind Energy, and signed a Framework Agreement for an ambitious green hydrogen project in Western Kazakhstan which would rank among the world’s largest.
Further prospects for cooperation are likely to emerge as both Kazakhstan and the EU accelerate their green transitions and Kazakhstan continues to carry out important socioeconomic reforms.