Central Asia becomes a key strategic region for the EU

Central Asia has traditionally been in Russia’s geopolitical orbit. However, argues Nikola Mikovic, the region has significant strategic importance, and a key role in facilitating trade between Europe and Asia. The European Union is therefore now seeking to strengthen economic, political, and security ties with Central Asian states

The EU is positioning itself as a relevant, influential actor in countries including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In pursuit of this, the 27-nation bloc has adopted a soft approach to Central Asian relations with Moscow. Unlike Washington, Brussels does not intend to sanction regional countries if they help Russia evade Western sanctions. Instead, the EU’s pragmatic strategy prioritises connectivity, security, and geopolitics.

As the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs chair David McAllister emphasised in August 2023, 'Central Asia is a strategically important region for the European Union'. But Central Asia is important for other actors, too. The region’s geographic position connects East and West. This, along with the region's vast energy resources, drives every foreign power’s ambition to strengthen its influence. The EU is no exception.

The EU is not seeking to sanction Central Asian countries for helping Russia evade Western sanctions. Instead, it is prioritising connectivity and security

On 29 January 2023, Brussels hosted the Global Gateway Investors Forum for EU-Central Asia Transport Connectivity. Only four months later, the International Institute for Central Asia hosted the expert conference Central Asia-European Union: A New Agenda for Security Cooperation. Several EU officials have recently visited the region, hoping to increase economic, diplomatic, and security ties with Central Asian states.

Most recently, the EU and Central Asia held another summit. The High-Level Political and Security Dialogue between the countries of Central Asia and the EU, which took place on 5 June 2024, provided another opportunity for the EU and the representatives of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to discuss common security challenges. The EU reaffirmed its willingness to support all efforts aiming to intensify the 27-nation bloc's cooperation with Central Asia, notably in thematic areas such as management of water-related challenges, energy, climate change, security, as well as connectivity.

The 'Middle Corridor'

The European Union is a relatively new power in this strategically important region. Yet despite strong Russian and Chinese influence, the EU has made significant breakthroughs in Central Asian relations.

The European Investment Bank recently signed Memorandums of Understanding totalling €1.47 billion with the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, as well as with the Development Bank of Kazakhstan. These MoUs all aim to upgrade Central Asia's transport sector. For the EU, development of the Middle Corridor, or Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), seems a top priority for regional connectivity.

The European Investment bank recently signed several multi-billion dollar Memorandums of Understanding to develop Kazakh transport infrastructure

The Middle Corridor is a route from the Far East into European and international markets that, crucially, bypasses Russia. Beginning in Southeast Asia and China, it runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and on into Europe. Kazakhstan plays an important role as a transit country through this Corridor. It is no surprise, therefore, that earlier this year Brussels and Astana signed four memorandums worth over 800m ($865.7m) to develop the transport sector in the former Soviet republic.

The TITR has a special place in the EU’s Central Asia strategy. However, Brussels is also interested in expanding other forms of cooperation with the regional actors. That's why, in early April, the EU and Uzbekistan signed an MoU launching a strategic partnership on critical raw materials. Neighbouring Kazakhstan produces 19 essential raw materials, including beryllium, tantalum, titanium, ammonium metavanadate, copper, and phosphorus. All these materials are on the EU's list of critical raw materials. The EU thus sees Astana as a key regional partner.

The role of Kazakhstan

According to Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko, the EU is Kazakhstan's largest trade and investment partner. Since 2004, the EU has accounted for approximately 40% of the country’s foreign trade, and 45% of attracted investments. Astana recently offered its Caspian Sea ports of Aktau and Kuryk, as well as 22 airports, to European investors for management. This suggests strongly that despite being a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan is seeking to strengthen economic ties with the EU.

The landlocked nation of 20 million people is the first Central Asian state to conclude an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. As a result, Kazakhstan is now the EU's fourth-largest supplier of durum wheat. Indeed, there are reports that Brussels and Astana now want to create an agri-food hub on Kazakhstani territory.

For the past 20 years, the EU has accounted for around 40% of Kazakhstan's foreign trade

The first EU Agri-Food mission to Kazakhstan, in May 2024, involved over 40 top Agri-Food companies from 16 EU member states. In a sign of significant advancement in bilateral and economic relations, the mission was led by European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski.

Besides agribusiness, the EU and Kazakhstan also aim to develop their energy cooperation. While the energy-rich nation increases oil supplies to Europe, it also seeks to provide hydrogen to the European market. Hydrogen, especially green hydrogen, will be a critical fuel of the future. By 2030, the EU plans to import 10 million tonnes of green renewable hydrogen annually. To meet demand, Kazakhstan hopes to increase green hydrogen production to 11 million tonnes per year by 2032.

The EU will face significant challenges competing for influence with Russia and China in Central Asia. But it will undoubtedly continue expanding its economic presence in the region.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Nikola Mikovic
Nikola Mikovic
Freelance Journalist and Political Analyst

Nikola's work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

His area of expertise is the ongoing war in Ukraine, as well as relations between Russia and former Soviet republics.

He writes for several publications such as Diplomatic Courier, Global Comment, CGTN, Byline Times, World Geostrategic Insights, and Geopolitics and Empire, among others.

He tweets @nikola_mikovic

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