At the dawn of the 1990s, two of Eurasia’s great geographic powerhouses came into being at almost the exact same moment. The conclusion of the Maastricht Treaty, the founding text of the European Union, in February 1992 was preceded only weeks earlier by Kazakhstan’s formal declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.
In the 30 years since these defining shifts, both the EU and Central Asia’s largest country – indeed, the ninth largest country in the world – have undergone radical and exciting transformation. It is a great honour, having been appointed Kazakhstan’s first Deputy Foreign Minister soon after independence, to now be leading my country as President into its fourth decade.
When my predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, visited Brussels for the first time in February 1993, 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.
I believe Kazakhstan has proved itself to be an exceptionally reliable partner of the EU and other international actors over the past three decades,
Ours are both unions built for, and by, diverse peoples; places of convergence where many ethnicities and cultures can come together as one.
Today, the EU is by far Kazakhstan’s most significant commercial partner, accounting for some 40% of external trade. Critically, the flows are going in both directions – with extractives and food products heading West, and machinery and pharmaceuticals heading East, not to mention the EU’s significant foreign investment in Kazakhstan.
Nowhere are these investment opportunities more in evidence than at Astana International Financial Centre, where 70 – and counting – EU companies operate under a favourable tax, visa, and employment regime.
Underpinning these bonds is our Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA), ratified by all member states and in force in its current form since March 2020. As High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell said at the time of its ratification, the breadth and depth of our relationship has progressed immeasurably – and well beyond a purely commercial bond.
Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to international collaboration, the EPCA has over the last two years provided the foundation for successful cooperation on energy, research and innovation, health, education, cultural exchange, and environmental issues. On the latter, a Kazakh delegation led by Prime Minister Askar Mamin attended COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month and reiterated our commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, just ten years after the EU’s own climate-neutral objective.
I am grateful to our European neighbours for their constant dialogue and support in implementing changes which benefit both our citizens and societies
Given our respective economies and development trajectories, I am proud that Kazakhstan is already taking such action to diversify away from hydrocarbons, and moreover is leading Central Asia in implementing legislative and industrial transformations focused on green growth.
At the same time, I acknowledge that in other areas we still have much to do. As a new generation of Kazakh youth come of age– into a different world to the one I knew as a young adult – expectations of their leadership will be different. I am determined that we will listen, and where necessary we will change. We must be more transparent across government, and embrace the growing culture of debate, opposition, and dialogue. As a listening state, we must offer new mechanisms for all citizens to offer constructive feedback and requests, and respond to these in kind.
It is inspiring to see the growing mutual interest between younger generations in Europe and Central Asia. To date, more than 2,000 Kazakh students have received scholarships and over 1,000 European students have visited Kazakhstan in the framework of the Erasmus+ programme. I know that these connections will continue, grow, and bring new dynamism to our cooperation.
As I look ahead to the next chapter of Kazakhstan’s story, protecting human rights and consolidating civil society is an unquestionable duty. Recent legislative efforts have included, for example, enhanced protections for women, for prisoners, and against threats such as cybercrime and trafficking. Deep reform takes time, and it takes partnership. I am grateful to our European neighbours for their constant dialogue and support in implementing changes which benefit both our citizens and societies.
I believe Kazakhstan has proved itself to be an exceptionally reliable partner of the EU and other international actors over the past three decades, not just in the areas I outline above, but also in helping achieve and maintain stability in our neighbouring regions – not least following recent events in Afghanistan. We are honoured to temporarily be hosting part of the UN’s Mission to Afghanistan in Almaty, where its vital humanitarian and security work can continue apace.
Visiting Brussels this week, I am struck by a sense of great potential and possibility at what Kazakhstan and the EU can achieve in partnership. I hope this visit will open the door to new opportunities and accelerate efforts to address our common challenges. I look forward to the next 30 years of our story with great anticipation.
This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group