The EU recognises the strategic importance of Central Asia, which links the huge Asian continent with Europe. In 2019, the EU updated its Central Asian strategy to focus on resilience (covering areas such as human rights, border security and the environment), prosperity (with a strong emphasis on connectivity) and regional cooperation. Parliament highlights the importance of human rights, good governance and social development, underlining the role of parliamentary diplomacy. Parliament strongly supports democracy and the rule of law with concrete initiatives such as democratisation in Central Asia.

Legal basis

  • Title V of the Treaty on European Union (TEU):’external action’;
  • Articles 206-207 (trade) and Articles 216-219 (international agreements) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU);
  • Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) covering bilateral relations, with the exception of Turkmenistan for which an interim trade agreement is in place. The new Enhanced PCA (EPCA) with Kazakhstan fully entered into force on 1 March 2020. The EPCA with Kyrgyzstan was initialled in July 2019 and negotiations with Uzbekistan are underway. Tajikistan has also expressed an interest in an EPCA.

Situation in the region

Central Asia is not a homogeneous region in terms of politics or economics. According to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2020, Turkmenistan remains a repressive country under the authoritarian rule of President Berdymukhamedov. Recent developments show that democratic development and the human rights situation are vulnerable. Parliamentary elections were held in Kyrgyzstan on 4 October 2020 and invalidated following mass protests against irregularities and vote buying. Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned on 15 October 2020 and new parliamentary elections are scheduled for 20 December 2020.

To different extents, the political situation in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is also characterised by authoritarian rule, serious human rights shortcomings and the lack of independent media and an independent judiciary. Under Uzbek President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took office in 2016, internal changes, such as the release of a number of political prisoners, reflect some positive developments. Presidential elections for Uzbekistan are scheduled for 2021. In Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev resigned in March 2019 after three decades in power, but as ‘Supreme Leader’ maintains significant influence as well as formal powers under the new President Tokayev. Elections for the lower House of Parliament (Majlis) are scheduled for 10 January 2021.

The current COVID-19 situation and the closure of borders pose significant risks to the Central Asian economy. GDP growth is expected to decline in 2020, reflecting the internal economic results of the pandemic and the slowdown in Russia and China. Kazakhstan has recorded the highest economic growth in the past, becoming an upper-middle-income country in 2006. This economic progress is now challenged by the heavy impact of COVID-19 and by its growing political and economic dependence on China. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, however, with their challenging geography, continue to be the region’s poorest countries, with significant dependence on remittances, chiefly from Russia, and on foreign investment and lending, in particular from China.

For years, relations between Central Asian countries were generally poor, owing to border and resource disputes. Nevertheless, the situation has changed rapidly following the change of leadership in Uzbekistan in 2016, opening up new possibilities for regional cooperation. The first summit meeting on regional cooperation between Central Asian leaders since the 1990s was held in Astana in March 2018 and a second summit took place in November 2019 in Tashkent. A common matter of concern is the risk of expanding Islamic extremism and fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. The region also continues to be adversely affected by the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Renewable energy sources are another particular focus of attention in view of the enormous potential for regional cooperation and investment.

All the Central Asian countries follow multi-vector foreign policies, seeking to balance ties with Russia, China, the EU and the US in particular. Relations with Turkey and Iran are also important. Turkmenistan has been largely closed to the outside world, however, and its ‘permanent neutrality’ status is even recognised by the UN. EU trade, mainly in mineral resources, is noteworthy with Kazakhstan, and is on the rise with Uzbekistan, not least following the adoption of the EU-Uzbekistan Textiles Protocol to which Parliament consented in 2016. The EU has also welcomed the accession of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to the WTO. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Mongolia, though not covered by the EU’s Central Asian strategy, is classified by Parliament as part of the region within the framework of its standing delegations. Mongolia shares many cultural, historic and economic aspects with the former USRR republics of Central Asia. During the last three decades, Mongolia has distinguished itself as an ‘oasis of democracy’ with solid economic growth, even though developments in 2019 have raised concerns about democratic erosion. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mongolia still held its regular parliamentary elections on June 2020. It will also hold its ninth presidential elections in 2021. In accordance with amendments to the constitution, the President will only serve one six-year term.

EU-Central Asia relations

As Central Asia is a region of strategic importance facing a number of security challenges, particularly from growing instability in war-torn Afghanistan, the EU has decided to increase its engagement in the region. A high-level political and security dialogue involving the EU, Central Asian countries and Afghanistan was held on 28 May 2019 in Brussels. This dialogue led to discussions around the new EU Central Asia Strategy as well as the promotion of EU-Asia connectivity.

The EU Central Asia Strategy was endorsed by the Council in June 2019. The scope of the EU’s relations is linked to the readiness of individual Central Asian countries to undertake reforms and strengthen democracy, human rights, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, as well as to modernise and diversify the economy, including by supporting the private sector and SMEs in particular, in a free market economy.

The importance of a regional approach and regional cooperation has also been stressed at the EU-Central Asia Ministerial Meetings, the 15th and most recent having taken place in July 2019 in Bishkek.

Kazakhstan is an important source of oil imports to the EU (about 8%) and Turkmenistan has significant potential for future supplies of natural gas, in particular if the planned Trans-Caspian Pipeline is built. With regard to neighbouring Afghanistan and the related security challenges, the EU assists the Central Asian partners in border security management and the fight against drug trafficking. An EU-Central Asia high-level political and security dialogue has taken place regularly since 2013. There are now EU Delegations in all countries in Central Asia, since the Delegation to Turkmenistan was opened in July 2019. The EU Delegation to Mongolia was opened in 2017.

The Central Asian states receive funding from the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI): EUR 1 028 million for 2014-2020 (up from EUR 750 million for 2007-2013), which includes both bilateral assistance and regional programmes (EUR 360 million). The assistance focuses on education, regional security, sustainable management of natural resources and socio-economic development. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are no longer eligible for the bilateral parts of the DCI since they have gained upper-middle-income-country status, but they continue to have access to the regional programmes. The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) operates in all the states except for Turkmenistan, where civil society organisations are too few in number, too poorly organised and too strictly controlled.

The EU has been upgrading the older Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) with the Central Asian partners. It signed a new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) with Kazakhstan in December 2015, to which Parliament gave its consent in December 2017. This was ratified by all EU Member States and entered into force on 1 March 2020.

An EPCA with Kyrgyzstan was initialled in July 2019, while negotiations with Uzbekistan were launched in November 2018. Both countries had concluded PCAs with the EU that have been in force since 1999.

The EU-Tajikistan PCA has been in force since 2010 and the country has expressed interest in opening negotiations on a new bilateral agreement. The EU-Tajikistan Cooperation Council held its 8th meeting on 10 December 2019 in Brussels, reviewing the positive development of bilateral relations and covering political, judiciary and economic reforms, the rule of law, trade, investment and energy relations, as well as international issues. The EU welcomed Tajikistan’s interest in becoming a GSP+ beneficiary.

EU relations with Turkmenistan are governed by the 2010 Interim Agreement on trade and trade-related matters, as Parliament made ratification of the PCA signed in 1998 contingent on the existence of a system to check progress on human rights. The EU and Turkmenistan held the eleventh round of their annual Human Rights Dialogue in Ashgabat on 29 March 2019 and the EU reaffirmed that the rule of law and respect for human rights must be essential elements of the EU-Turkmenistan relationship. Mongolia’s PCA with the EU entered into force in November 2017.

Role of the European Parliament

A. The European Parliament has exercised its powers and passed several recommendations and resolutions. Positions adopted:

  • In 2016, Parliament supported the EU’s Central Asia Strategy, calling for it to be more focused.
  • On Kazakhstan, Parliament gave its consent to the enhanced PCA in 2017. It also stressed the importance of the ‘more for more’ principle in order to stimulate political and socio-economic reforms. In March 2019, Parliament expressed concern about the human rights situation in Kazakhstan.
  • On Kyrgyzstan, Parliament expressed concern at the LGBTI ‘propaganda’ draft laws in 2015. In January 2019, it issued recommendations for the negotiation of a new bilateral agreement.
  • On Tajikistan, Parliament consented to the conclusion of the PCA Agreement in 2009, but called for improvements in human rights, corruption, health and education. In a 2016 resolution, Parliament expressed concerns about the deterioration of human rights, notably as regards prisoners of conscience.
  • Parliament has consistently expressed concerns about Turkmenistan’s poor human rights record and, accordingly, has blocked the entry into force of the PCA so far. In March 2019, it set out recommendations to be addressed before it would consider giving its consent.
  • Parliament approved the EU-Uzbekistan Textile Protocol in December 2016 following an effective commitment by the country, in close cooperation with the ILO, to eradicate the use of child labour during the annual cotton harvest. In March 2019, it issued recommendations for the negotiation of the Enhanced PCA.
  • Parliament’s statements on Mongolia have largely related to economic issues, but also address the country’s development and humanitarian needs linked to extreme weather conditions. In 2017, Parliament gave its consent to the EU-Mongolia PCA.

B. Inter-parliamentary cooperation

Parliament’s activities with Central Asia are conducted mainly by the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), the Committee on International Trade (INTA), the Sub-committee on Security and Defence (SEDE), the Sub-committee on Human Rights (DROI) and through the Parliamentary Cooperation Committees (PCCs) and the Delegation for relations with Afghanistan (D-AF), among other bodies.

Parliamentary Cooperation Committees (PCCs) with the majority of Central Asian countries meet every year. MEPs oversee the implementation of the agreements and focus on human rights issues, the political situation, economic and development cooperation, and electoral processes.

C. Election observation and democracy promotion

Owing to the differing levels of political development and the variable levels of democratic progress in Central Asia, Parliament has not consistently observed elections in the region.

  • In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) observed parliamentary elections in both countries in 2015 and presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan in 2017. Parliament’s delegations were embedded in these OSCE/ODIHR missions. Tajikistan held elections in March 2020. The EU did not observe the parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan held on 4 October 2020 which were invalidated for irregularities.
  • Parliament has not observed elections in Kazakhstan since 2005. The OSCE/ODIHR has consistently found significant shortcomings.
  • A European Parliament delegation observed Mongolia’s 2017 presidential and 2016 parliamentary elections and noted that the country is developing a solid democracy. Mongolia held elections in June 2020.
  • Parliament had never been invited to observe elections in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan until Uzbekistan invited it to observe the elections held in December 2019, but these were only observed by the OSCE/ODIHR.

 

Jorge Soutullo / Stefania Gazzina / Niccolò Rinaldi