Why the EU should support Kazakhstan’s drive for reform and democracy

By Ryszard Czarnecki

Ryszard Czarnecki is a Polish ECR Group MEP

02 Nov 2022

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and other growing challenges of 2022 are naturally causing an enormous worry in Europe. Economically, the real growth in the European Union is expected to fall well below 3% in 2022, down from the 4% estimated by the European Commission before the war. Further trade disruptions or increased economic sanctions could plunge the European economy into recession. Inflation in the euro area is now expected to climb above 6% in 2022. To navigate out of these troubles, the EU should enhance ties with existing state partners that can help the bloc to recover. Kazakhstan, the largest economy in its region, fits the bill.

When the war in Ukraine began on 24 February, many assumed that Kazakhstan would broadly fall in behind Russia, given their close economic and trade ties. Yet Kazakhstan has refused to recognise the breakaway “republics” in the Ukrainian Donbas citing the country’s adherence to international law. On 17 June, Kazakhstan’s President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, told Russian President Vladimir Putin directly that “Kazakhstan doesn’t recognise quasi-state territories which, in our view, is what Luhansk and Donetsk are.”

Kazakhstan’s independent foreign policy is to be commended, particularly when the country shares a 7,644-kilometre border with Russia, the longest continuous international border in the world. In addition to its principled position on Ukraine, which the EU should welcome, Kazakhstan can also be a major partner to Europe in the spheres of food supplies, energy, transportation corridors, and the transition from Russian gas.

For instance, while the brokered deal that allows Ukraine to export grain and other agricultural products from selected Ukraine Black Sea ports is most welcome, there is no guarantee that the deal will stay in place long-term. Questions remain over whether insurance companies will be willing to insure the vessels as they navigate the mined waters, while buyers are hesitant to make new orders given the risk of Russian attacks. In addition, long before Russia invaded Ukraine, food insecurity was at record levels. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, just under 770 million went hungry in 2021 – the highest number since 2006 – due to the COVID-19 pandemic, droughts and other regional conflicts. In this context, Kazakhstan can offer more than 210 million hectares of arable land that could produce far more of the world's food, including flaxseed, which is in demand in Europe.

It has been widely reported that there has been a sharp hike in energy prices in the EU and worldwide, which the war in Ukraine has only exacerbated, leading to EU energy ministers to agree on a voluntary reduction of natural gas demand by 15% this winter. The EU member states have also agreed to phase out its dependence on Russian fossil fuels as soon as possible. The priority for the EU now is to find other sources of energy. Kazakhstan can step in. The country is already the third-largest provider of uranium to Europe, supplying 19.2 percent in 2020.

Even though Kazakhstan produces more than 40 percent of the global supply of uranium, much of it travels through Russia before it is exported to global markets. Global trade will remain insecure while the war in Ukraine persists, as restrictive measures on airspace, contractor uncertainty and security concerns are complicating all trade routes going through Russia and Ukraine. As such, there is an urgent need to establish new trade routes between Asia and Europe that circumvent Russia. Earlier this year, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan signed a quadrilateral statement on the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor (TITR). According to the TITR Association, cargo shipments across Central Asia and the Caucasus are expected to reach 3.2 million metric tonnes in 2022, a six-fold increase over the previous year. The EU should take note. This joint venture can become an important route for the markets of the European Union, and can contribute to stabilising global energy and food security. The Kazakh side has already reached out its hand. In a phone conversation on July 4 with European Council President Charles Michel, President Tokayev called on the EU to cooperate in developing alternate transcontinental corridors, including TITR.

Once these trade routes are established, Kazakhstan has the potential to become a bigger supplier of uranium to Europe, thereby helping the EU to achieve energy security by weaning it off Russian gas. Tokayev also told Michel that his country is ready to send more oil to the EU. Kazakhstan has the world’s 12th largest proven oil reserves and has supplied around 67 million tonnes of oil annually through Russia to Europe. There is scope to increase supply through new routes and pipelines.

Kazakhstan’s geographic position also allows the country to act as a bridge politically and economically between Asia and Europe. Its multi-vector foreign policy, which enables the country to maintain good relations with all its neighbours, means that Kazakhstan can contribute to ending the war in Ukraine, for example by offering a platform for negotiations.

Some in the EU’s political class are hesitant about closer ties with Kazakhstan, particularly because of the violent disturbances that took place across the country last January. Yet Kazakhstan has alleviated any concerns about its future trajectory by embarking on a path of political and socio-economic reforms, notably through the constitutional referendum held in early June, which the EU described as “important constitutional amendments aimed at strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law in the country.”

Despite facing the indirect economic impact of the Ukraine war, President Tokayev has assured that he wants to press ahead and transform the country into a new Kazakhstan that prioritises strengthening its democracy. An investigation into the events in January are currently ongoing and Kazakhstan’s government has promised to share the results publicly. In addition, in the major address to the Parliament on September 1 President Tokayev, for the sake of national reconciliation, announced an extensive amnesty to those accused of committing petty crimes during the January riots (except those suspected of being involved in murders or terror acts).

Also, he boldly proposed introducing an unprecedented limit of one-term of seven years for a presidential mandate. If supported and implemented, this would be the historical first for any post-Soviet country electing a president through a popular vote. More than anything, it reflects a statesmanlike approach to limiting the risks of a long-term power usurpation, not an unusual thing to the east of the Bug River.

True, Kazakhstan walks a challenging path in consolidating its democratic institutions while it needs to continue interacting with its international partners to address concerns related to the human rights situation in the country. The group of Members of the European Parliament who visit Nur-Sultan and Almaty in late August witnessed this first-hand. This is a constant dialogue and engagement that the Kazakh government seems to be willing to continue.

As a matter of fact, closer relations between Europe and Kazakhstan would increase the chances that the country stays on its chosen path of domestic reform and responsible diplomacy. Against the backdrop of the troublesome geopolitical situation on its eastern borders and the tangible benefits of closer collaboration between the EU and Kazakhstan, evidently the EU should support the Kazakh leadership in its efforts to modernise the country’s political system and improve the human rights environment.

Expectations for a quick end to the war in Ukraine are disappearing, which means the EU is likely to continue to face economic and energy difficulties for the foreseeable future. To help it navigate the current geopolitical and economic challenges, Europe should ensure greater engagement with Kazakhstan, “a leading state in Central Asia, and a trusted partner and friend of the European Union”, an assessment that we share with Josep Borrell, Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. As well as mutual economic and trade advantages, closer ties will encourage Kazakhstan to continue on its path of democratisation, which is also in the long-term interest of the EU.

Ryszard Czarnecki is the member of the Delegation to the EU-Kazakhstan, EU-Kyrgyzstan, EU-Uzbekistan and EU-Tajikistan Parliamentary Cooperation Committees and for relations with Turkmenistan and Mongolia and the Chair of Kazakhstan-EU Friendship Group.   

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