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A New Opening for EU–Central Asia Relations?

The EU has been stepping up its engagement with Central Asia, including on regional cooperation, energy, and connectivity. But to gain more clout, the union must present a positive alternative to powers like China and Russia.

by Anna Matveeva
Published on April 13, 2023

This publication is part of Europe’s East, a Carnegie Europe project on European policy toward Eastern Europe and Russia.

The EU’s stakes in Central Asia—a region the union has traditionally kept at a distance—are increasing. In one of two high-level trips to Central Asia by senior EU officials in 2022, European Council President Charles Michel called the first-ever meeting with Central Asian leaders “a powerful symbol of our reinforced cooperation and a strong signal of the EU’s commitment to this region.”

The changing geopolitical situation created by Russia’s war in Ukraine provides the EU with an opening to play a greater political role in Central Asia that matches the union’s status as the largest aid donor to the region. The intensified East-West standoff boosts the opportunities for Central Asian countries to enhance their international profiles, attract new sources of investment, and ask for increased security cooperation from new partners, such as the EU. But this opening also requires high levels of diplomatic skill from the countries’ leaders.

The EU’s Gradually Evolving Approach

The EU established diplomatic relations with the five then newly independent Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—in 1992, but there was little progress until 2001, when the international intervention in Afghanistan gave the EU–Central Asia relationship a new impetus.

In the early 2000s, the EU’s view was that enhanced links with Kabul’s northern neighbors would support development in Afghanistan, while the EU could help the governments of Central Asia states address security threats from across the border, such as drugs and crime, that risked spreading farther. The region’s mineral wealth, gas and oil reserves, and deposits of gold, uranium, and rare metals made it attractive for European investors, but governance challenges were considerable, and the union promoted a reform package to enable institution building and a transition to liberal market economies.

The thinking in Brussels was based on a regional approach, modeled on the EU itself in the belief that the issues facing Central Asia required concerted action and that the region would perform better if the five countries cooperated more. The EU adopted its first strategy on Central Asia in 2007 in this spirit, but several analysts criticized the union for spreading its resources across too broad a range of priorities and for approaching Central Asia as a single region rather than as separate countries with different needs.

The new 2019 strategy, titled “New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership,” took these lessons into account and contained three priority strands: resilience, prosperity, and regional cooperation. Environmental issues moved up among the priorities. Between 2014 and 2020, funding under the EU’s Development Cooperation Instrument amounted to €1.1 billion ($1.2 billion) in grant funding, technical assistance, and direct budget support. (The EU is one of the few donors that provides such support.)

EU assistance needs to be measured against the investments of the region’s two heavyweight neighbors. China is the biggest lender to the region, and all countries but Kazakhstan are heavily indebted to it. Russia keeps its labor market open to economic migrants from Central Asia and serves as the main source of poverty alleviation in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Looking ahead, the EU appears poised to take on a new role in Central Asia, but the relationship remains one in which the two sides have different agendas, and it is too soon to determine whether a pivotal moment in the relationship between the two partners has come.

Stability and Autocracy

All Central Asian leaders have stated their commitment to enhancing the stability and prosperity of their countries and to engaging in international cooperation. Even though all five states are formally committed to democracy under their constitutions, all are, broadly speaking, autocracies—with the partial exception of Kyrgyzstan. Domestic politics are dominated by superpresidential systems in which the decisions made by the leader are all-important. Central Asia offers one example of dynastic succession in Turkmenistan, where President Serdar Berdymukhammedov succeeded his father in 2022, and another such case may be in the making in Tajikistan.

In post-Soviet times, the region has experienced bouts of political turmoil, beginning with the civil war in Tajikistan in the 1990s. The lesson that the leaders have apparently drawn from this turbulence is to believe that political freedom leads to chaos and that regime stability is the reason for positive economic growth. Decisionmaking is driven largely by a security agenda. Controlling tendencies hold back democratic development, civic participation, and policy innovation.

At the same time, a plethora of state institutions that lie beneath top-level politics has adapted to modern times to ensure the provision of services such as healthcare, education, transportation, policing, and civil and land registries. Citizens’ expectations of these institutions to deliver for them underpin these bodies’ survival and continuity.

Overall, democracy in Central Asia is in decline. Developments in Kyrgyzstan, the only partial bastion of democracy, have been disappointing since the last revolution in 2020—and, arguably, since 2010. That year saw several developments: a violent change of regime in April; interethnic clashes in the south of the country in June, in which about 470 people died, according to the international Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission; and a lack of accountability for these clashes and continuing persecution of the Uzbek minority. Tajikistan plunged into full-scale authoritarianism despite having a genuine multiparty system until 2015. The new presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have initiated some positive openings, but persecutions after the 2022 upheavals in both countries showed that there is a long way to go.

Turkmenistan is isolated and repressive. Despite its energy wealth, the country’s government has impoverished its people: according to reports, only 2.8 million people live in Turkmenistan as a result of population flight and falling birth rates. Hopes were raised that the new young president would pursue more open policies, but it is too soon to tell whether this will be the case.

The West’s approach to Tajikistan is characterized by tension between security and a human rights agenda. As the only low-income country in the region, it is the largest recipient of bilateral aid—€91 million ($97 million) for 2021–2024—and benefits from security cooperation as a frontline state in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking. Tajikistan’s location on the borders of Afghanistan and China explains its strategic significance for the EU, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and the country accounts for a large share of regional security spending.

The majority of the region’s population is Sunni Muslim. As Central Asian societies have been growing religiously devout in the last decade, antisecularist pressures have mounted, and secularist constituencies feel challenged.1 Conservative tendencies and nationalist-patriotic rhetoric impinge on women’s rights, even though gender equality is supposedly protected by law in all countries. The region’s governments fluctuate in their responses to increasingly religious societies, from promoting aggressive secularism that seeks to control public manifestations of religion to attempting to use religion for electoral politics. Central Asia has been affected by the forces of violent extremism: the region’s citizens have been significantly involved in international terrorist movements abroad, and several domestic attacks have taken place.

In recent times, identity politics has started to raise its head in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with demands from political and societal actors to move away from Soviet-era multiethnic societies toward a state identity built explicitly on the primacy of majority titular groups. Minority populations are watching these developments nervously, and perceived attempts to change the status quo lead to resistance, for example after Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in 2022 proposed constitutional amendments that aimed to withdraw the right of the Karakalpakstan autonomous republic to secede from Uzbekistan. Although the controversial amendments were quickly dropped, the move sparked public protests. European minorities are exiting Central Asia, maintaining a substantial presence only in Kazakhstan.

There are socioeconomic divisions, too. A gap between rural and urban dwellers has been growing and fosters social tensions. Inequalities and social divisions in the countryside stem from neglect, long-term labor migration, deteriorating quality of education, and population growth. Migration improves citizens’ well-being but harms social cohesion.

The space for civil society in the whole region is shrinking, with restrictive laws on media and NGO activities, harassment of activists and their families, and constraints on cooperation with foreign NGOs. There is also a commonly heard discourse that paints civil rights advocates not as defenders of the public interest but as foreign agents or grant seekers and views their motivations with cynicism.

It is not easy for the EU to be an influential actor as it devises responses to these challenges, given that the partners’ values and goals are seldom congruent. The EU’s public profile remains low. As Catherine Putz, managing editor of the Diplomat, observed in relation to the October 2022 high-level meeting in Kazakhstan: “Europe would win no friends . . . if it came with overly critical remarks.”

In turn, Central Asian leaders understand the reality: the EU comes with a package that includes not only political and developmental support but also norms and values. Cooperation structures serve as vehicles to discuss these issues, set requirements, and raise individual cases—but behind closed doors. Progress is incremental at best. The EU can do little to fundamentally alter Central Asia’s lack of democracy, constraining the union’s influence in comparison with that of China, Russia, and other regional actors.

The Geopolitical Landscape: All Flags Flying

In a changing geopolitical environment, Central Asian leaders have taken their chances to expand their foreign policy options. In 2022, they became demandeurs in the relationship with the EU, extending invitations to EU officials and proposing meetings and ideas for cooperation in various sectors. The union responded with intensified dialogue, shows of support, and high-level visits to demonstrate its commitment. In Brussels, those in EU policy circles discuss the concept of the Central Asian states developing “strategic autonomy” to make themselves less reliant on their great-power neighbors.2

The United States has also activated its engagement with meetings and high-level visits, including by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in 2023. China and Russia intensified their contacts through their own regional formats: China initiated meetings in 2020, partly as a response to those of the United States, while Russia held a summit in 2022 two weeks before the EU’s.

Russia–Central Asia relations present a facade of business as usual that masks Moscow’s declining influence in the region. Yet, Russia remains an important security and economic actor and has powerful tools at its disposal. Central Asian leaders approach the situation pragmatically rather than ideologically, and four out of the five countries—all except Turkmenistan—are in the top ten on the Economist’s list of “Putin’s pals,” a measure of geopolitical closeness to Russia. Reliance on labor remittances is a part of the explanation: remittances constitute 32.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in Tajikistan and 31.3 percent in Kyrgyzstan. The volume of individual financial transfers to Kyrgyzstan in 2022 reached a record high of $2.7 billion against an annual GDP of $9.8 billion. In Uzbekistan, the region’s most populous country, remittances from Russia grew by 2.6 times in 2022 compared with 2021, reaching $14.5 billion and representing 18 percent of GDP.

Overall, the countries may benefit from a more pliant and deflated Russia that consumes Central Asia’s goods and employs its labor force, but they would not benefit from a defeated Russia that crumbles under the weight of its problems. In the past year, the volume of Central Asia’s trade with Russia has increased as Moscow has sought substitutes for Western imports. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan benefit from reexports to Russia within the Eurasian Economic Union, an arrangement that has also enabled businesses to relocate from Russia with minimal hurdles.

Most Central Asian migrant workers have not returned home from Russia. In 2022, the volume of remittances to Uzbekistan doubled after Russia removed the limit on the number of Uzbek migrant workers in the country. High-skilled Russian citizens, attracted by special economic zones such as Uzbekistan’s IT Park, moved their businesses out of Russia because of the war, while banks in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan continue to receive inflows of Russian and Belarusian clients. At the same time, Russia’s new tripartite gas union with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is supposed to deliver Russian gas to the two Central Asian domestic markets in 2023. Russian investors are interested in Uzbekistan’s energy sector, and Russian energy giant Gazprom already cooperates with hydrocarbons producer Uzbekneftegaz.

Other regional powers, including China, Turkey, India, and Iran, are vying for influence. Beijing is concentrating on the economy and actively building political ties. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were the first countries that Chinese President Xi Jinping visited in 2022 after coronavirus-related travel restrictions were eased. China concluded a $15 billion trade and investment agreement with Uzbekistan, struck an oil exploitation deal with Afghanistan, and courted Turkmenistan’s new president on his official visit to China in January 2023.

After unsuccessful attempts to promote itself as a Turkic big brother, Turkey prefers to stay in the pragmatic domain of economic and security cooperation, where it has tangible benefits to offer. In May 2022, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited Turkey to sign fifteen bilateral deals within the strategic partnership between the two countries. Meanwhile, Turkey’s drones have proved popular: Kazakhstan plans to begin domestic production of Anka drones; Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have bought Bayraktar TB2s, while Uzbekistan has expressed interest in them. Tajikistan mulled over the idea of buying TB2s as well, but Turkey, facing strong objections from Kyrgyzstan, could not finalize the drone sales to Tajikistan, which then turned to Iran and signed a deal there. The danger is that the growing drone arsenals in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may exacerbate cross-border tensions between these two countries.

India includes Central Asia in its extended neighborhood policy, but its commitment has come in fits and starts and focused mainly on the Afghan-Pakistani angle. Countering violent extremism has long been the focal point of India–Central Asia relations, and the first meeting of top Indian and Central Asian security officials in December 2022 underscored that agenda.

Finally, Iran seeks to be an active player in the region and has made Central Asia one of its foreign policy priorities. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi normalized Iran’s relationship with Tajikistan, whose majority population is a Persian-speaking and ethnically closely related group, and secured economic deals with the presidents of other Central Asian countries. Iran seeks to benefit from regional infrastructure projects, given that transportation routes across Iranian territory have much potential if political obstacles can be overcome.

Regional Cooperation: No Easy Feat

The EU approach to Central Asia has traditionally promoted regional cooperation, but the region’s states have seldom paid more than lip service to an agenda that requires them to give up even small amounts of sovereignty. Instead, the countries look to regional cooperation because they hope that supranational structures will help them solve problems with their neighbors, not because they are committed to it as a common good. One country, Turkmenistan, remains isolated by choice, and its neutrality is enshrined in its constitution and even in the words of its national anthem.

Interstate relations have been difficult for decades. Uzbekistan had been hostile toward Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, although this has changed under the current president. But then, Kyrgyz-Tajik relations, which were previously congenial, deteriorated into overt hostilities because of contestations over the two countries’ border in the Fergana Valley, which led to a series of military confrontations and dozens of deaths in the last decade. Russia’s diplomacy worked to de-escalate tensions, but no outside actor could help resolve the dispute.

Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations are also full of tensions, which manifest themselves in political contestations, trade wars, periodic border closures due to real or perceived security concerns, and the unproved but widely believed participation of actors from Kyrgyzstan in the January 2022 riots in Kazakhstan. Still, cooperation has improved thanks to the positive role of Uzbekistan. The border delimitation issue between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan was finally settled in January 2023, and a simplified border crossing procedure will foster trade and connectivity in the Fergana Valley.

Regional organizations with peace and security mandates are abundant but have declined in the last few years. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe no longer serves as a vehicle for East-West security dialogue and has lost the political leverage it once had. Equally, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is in trouble: it was unable to prevent violence on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, and there is overt hostility among the organization’s members. Kyrgyzstan’s refusal to participate in joint CSTO exercises in 2022 undermines the collective defense shield, and both Russia’s poor battlefield performance and the transfer of some Russian forces from Tajikistan to the front line in Ukraine make Russia look less credible as a security guarantor.

However, the CSTO is better seen as wounded rather than dead. The organization’s allies lack a viable alternative to Russia for the role of security broker in the region. Possessing military facilities in three Central Asian countries and controlling over two-thirds of arms imports to the region, Russia is still seen as an important security patron. The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization concentrates more on long-term security relationship building than on action.

The EU promotes a regional approach through institutionalized dialogues: meetings between the EU foreign affairs high representative and the Central Asian foreign ministers; EU human rights dialogues; and the EU–Central Asia Civil Society Forum, among others. These dialogues provide opportunities to discuss sensitive issues at a high level, which is crucial given the centralized nature of politics in the region.

The EU stresses that, given their interdependencies, Central Asian countries need to cooperate more, and this cooperation will be rewarded: €140 million ($150 million) has been allocated for regional cooperation and integration in 2021–2024 for initiatives that include strengthening security, responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and fostering trade and education exchanges. This approach has advantages for the EU: regional and thematic actions do not necessarily require formal governmental approval and are a way of working on sensitive issues. This also allows the EU to provide assistance to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which, as upper-middle-income countries, are no longer eligible for bilateral aid.

Geoeconomics: A Question of Routes

One of the EU’s main interests in Central Asia in 2023 is the region’s dual role as a source of energy and a transit route for East-West trade—two priorities that have increased in light of the Ukraine war.

Central Asia is getting more prosperous. The region not only recovered from the coronavirus pandemic but is now also predicting accelerating growth. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), GDP in Central Asia as a whole was set to grow by 4.3 percent in 2022 and by 4.9 percent in 2023. Still, the sanctions imposed on Russia because of the war in Ukraine hit the region, and the EU lent support through the EBRD to cushion the effects of these measures.

Isolation is a growth-constraining factor for Central Asia. Few direct flights from the region go to the West. The thinking in Brussels is that the Central Asian countries need to be better connected to Europe. As EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told leaders in Samarkand in November 2022, “connectivity is going to be the key word for the future.” This focus is in line with the EU’s Global Gateway foreign policy initiative to boost digital, energy, and transportation links, with the aim to mobilize €300 billion ($322 billion) in investments through a partnership among European institutions.

The reality is more complicated. Little progress has been made on the EU’s long-running Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia scheme to promote transportation links between Europe and the region. No new roads have been built, as the program has focused on countries to the west of the Caspian Sea and on nonphysical aspects, such as dismantling regulatory barriers.

In 2023, most East–West freight traffic still passes through the Northern Route via Russia—a situation that the EU seeks to avoid—or the Maritime Route, also called the Southern Route, via the Suez Canal. Attention has focused on enhancing a third route, known as the Middle Corridor or, more formally, the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR). This is a multimodal rail, freight, and ferry system for cargo transit that links China with Europe through Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, bypassing Russia. Estimates suggest that the TITR would be able to transport up to 120,000 containers annually.

The EU’s political imperative is to give the Middle Corridor a chance. The union commissioned the EBRD to identify transportation connections between Central Asia and the extended Trans-European Transport Network. The bank’s preliminary findings are that the capacity differences between the Northern and Middle Corridors are immense: the former carried 1.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2021, while the latter reached an estimated capacity of only 80,000 TEUs in 2022 at best. Eighty percent of Uzbekistan’s trade passes through Russian territory. A diversion of transit cargo exceeding 10 percent of the Northern Corridor’s tonnage will require an estimated €3.5 billion ($3.8 billion) in investment for immediate infrastructure upgrades.

Technically, the Middle Corridor is not an easy route. The Caspian Sea crossing is at the mercy of bad weather and constrained by small vessels and irregular shipment schedules. Much of the internal road and rail infrastructure in Georgia is poor. However, the capacities of the ports and terminals along the route are much larger than the volumes currently transported, and the terminals could handle more. Companies can buy bigger ships that are more resilient to weather conditions—but firms will invest in them only if they have volumes to justify them. Commercial volumes are generated by China, Japan, South Korea, and other East Asian countries, which can use the network but do not own it. Goods from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are low in quantity and value, and what is produced is often hard to move. For example, the EU does not buy aluminum from Tajikistan because transporting it to Europe is virtually impossible, even though Tajikistan is one of the world’s top aluminum producers.

The success of the Middle Corridor will depend on the determination and cooperation of countries that have a history of bureaucratic obstacles and do not belong to a single regional regulatory regime. So-called block trains, which have documentation arranged in advance, may be a way forward but are so far limited in scale. The role of governments is crucial here, as the private sector alone cannot make the markets work and bring investment in, but currently governments do not appear prepared to invest commercially and politically in making the corridor happen. Instead, transit countries evade responsibility for delays, and there is no single champion that could make tough decisions. Political problems, a lack of a market mechanism and of guaranteed volumes, and unpredictability and huge variations in schedules that drive up costs have turned optimism into frustration. European companies are increasingly switching to the Maritime Corridor, and the window of opportunity for the Central Asian route may be closing.

For the EU, the chief imports from the region are energy and raw materials: oil from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and gold from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The EU seeks to increase its engagement in these sectors and in October 2022 signed a memorandum of understanding with Kazakhstan on access to raw materials. Oil and gas are crucial for European countries to diversify their supplies away from Russia; an increase in Kazakh oil may be an attractive option, but transportation encounters the same challenge: about 80 percent of oil exports flow through the Caspian pipeline to the Russian Black Sea terminal, with minor use of cross-Caspian shipments due to commence in 2023.

Natural gas from Turkmenistan can make a difference for Europe, as the country is the sixth-largest gas reserve holder in the world and was the eighth-biggest gas exporter in 2021. The EU and Turkmenistan continue to work toward a gas deal—but previous such efforts led to few results. In 2021, the company TransCaspian Resources presented a new proposal for a Trans-Caspian Pipeline to bring gas under the sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and onward into the Southern Gas Corridor, which runs via Turkey to southeastern Europe. The pipeline could supply up to 12 billion cubic meters (424 billion cubic feet) of natural gas per year. However, energy wealth is a double-edged sword for the producing countries. While Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan enjoy record revenues as a result of increased prices and export volumes, this success is likely to cement the dominance of fossil fuels in their economies, which may be a long-term disadvantage to their developmental potential.

Security: Moving up the Agenda

Being neighbors of the EU’s own neighbors, the Central Asian countries do not have a direct security bearing on the union. Still, security-related issues are becoming a higher priority as the EU transforms more into a security actor.

The most concerning issue is Afghanistan, Central Asia’s volatile neighbor. For the first time in forty years, the country is experiencing no war, but it has been plunged into greater poverty and has few friends left. The future implications for Central Asia are troubling. Since the Taliban took power again in Afghanistan in 2021, the Central Asian countries, with the exception of Tajikistan, have practiced a policy of engagement without recognition, pioneered by Turkmenistan during the Taliban’s first spell in power. The Taliban have assured the Central Asian governments that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used for attacks against the country’s neighbors. Central Asian leaders, in turn, have made it easier for the Taliban to govern, for example by enabling trade and supplying Afghanistan with electricity on the condition of deferred payments.

Indications are that the Taliban are losing their grip on security in the north of Afghanistan to the Islamic State–Khorasan Province group, a branch of the Islamic State in Central Asia. The Taliban’s ill treatment of minorities and inability to alleviate humanitarian problems combine to attract recruits to the international terrorist movement. Radical groups of Central Asian militants, who were allowed a safe haven in Afghanistan on the condition that they stayed peaceful and moved away from the northern frontier, are amassing on the Afghan-Tajik border with seemingly hostile intentions. The concern is that if the Taliban lose their restraining influence, a successful cross-border attack in spring 2023 is likely.

Countries in the region expect the EU to be proactive in its support to address these challenges. Before the 2021 withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan, Central Asian leaders felt that their European counterparts did not listen sufficiently to their perspectives on developments in their neighbor. This situation is changing, as the EU has established a dialogue on Afghanistan that acknowledges Central Asian viewpoints: terrorist groups exist, and arms trafficking and cross-border shootings are real.3 The EU has created a coordination platform on border defense, counterterrorism, and information and analysis exchange.


The EU’s main critical priorities in Central Asia are connectivity, security, and geopolitics, which broadly match the countries’ own priorities. However, if the EU aims to further enhance its status in the region, it needs to step up its efforts and present a positive alternative to the regional powers while preserving its reputation as a benign actor. The EU can deploy significant tools and is held in high esteem as a source of cultural and social attraction, but it needs to be more engaged in addressing the security threats to the region. The most pertinent issue is Afghanistan. However abhorrent the Taliban’s behavior is, the EU will be doing Central Asia a favor if it helps stabilize Afghanistan economically and works with Central Asian partners in dealing with their border security concerns.

The EU also needs to invest more resources in making the Middle Corridor a viable route. That means providing financial investment, working with partners who can be averse to cooperation, and acknowledging that Central Asian geoeconomic ambitions are greater than merely serving as a conduit for Chinese goods. The EU needs to persuade private companies to invest and go beyond feasibility studies, regulatory powers, and the attractiveness of the European market. The union also needs to cooperate with China as a potential donor to the project, which will require political crafting.

Much depends on how long the war in Ukraine lasts, how it ends, and what the consequences of the conflict will be for relations between Russia and the West. An infrastructure policy has to be for the long term rather than driven by current politics: the imperative of blocking Russia may alter, while the Northern Corridor will remain a cost-efficient alternative to other routes. In the future, diversification of transit routes will help the region to overcome its isolation, improve its bargaining power, and strengthen its ties with the EU, but the Middle Corridor is best regarded as a complement to the Northern and Maritime Corridors rather than a substitute for them.

Overall, the war in Ukraine has focused European attention on countries with close links to Russia and posed a quandary: Should the EU continue providing aid to, and building political ties with, states that did not condemn Russia’s invasion and, to some extent, help Moscow evade sanctions—or should it make them pay a price? Alternatively, should the EU step up its efforts to attract Central Asian governments to its side as the window of opportunity to expand its geopolitical influence opens? If so, what could the EU offer in practical terms?

In the course of 2022, these questions were answered. The EU decided to deepen its engagement in the region. Central Asian leaders welcome an enhanced EU role with open arms, because it gives them options and renewed significance on the global stage, which had been scaled down after the international withdrawal from Afghanistan. For them, Europe is a source of technological and social innovation, investment, and inspiration as far as living standards are concerned. Central Asian elites are largely Europe oriented, which, in their view, distinguishes them from countries that were never part of the Soviet Union.

Could this new engagement work? In all likelihood, yes, if both sides recognize the limitations of the partnership. The Central Asian countries will not break their ties with Russia, even if they seek to redefine them, and the EU will not stop reminding the region’s states of its normative agenda. Incremental changes may develop organically but not as a result of external pressure.

Anna Matveeva is a senior visiting research fellow at King’s College London.


1 Author’s observation and experience while working for the United Nations in Central Asia, 2020; and interviews with Murad Tangiev and Chingiz Batyrbekov, January 2022.

2 Interviews with EU officials conducted by WhatsApp and phone, February 2023.

3 Interviews with EU and European officials conducted by WhatsApp, phone, and Microsoft Teams, February 2023.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.