Another ‘New Great Game’?

The EU and Central Asia

Although the EU’s engagement with Central Asia has increased significantly since February 2022, the region is not about to abandon ties with Russia. With the US and above all China also competing for influence in this resource-rich part of the world, Central Asia is undergoing a complex and perilous process of realignment.

As Russia presses on with its brutal invasion of Ukraine and the EU wrestles with an energy crisis, the European Union has taken visible steps to build closer ties with Central Asian countries. In 2022, the European Council president Charles Michel stated that the two regions are ‘becoming more and more connected’.

Given Central Asia’s geographical location, abundant raw materials, and key role in global security, this heightened interest comes as no surprise.

Despite enhanced efforts at regional cooperation, however, each state in Central Asia – a region that Russia has often characterised as its ‘near-abroad’ – is extremely different. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia’s five heavily subsidised Soviet republics became independent nations. This was largely against their citizens’ will, as was made clear in the 1991 all-union referendum on the future of the Soviet Union, where 9 in 10 people in the Central Asian republics voted to preserve it. Since then, however, each country has forged its own distinct path.

In the multifaceted arena of Central Asian politics, nothing is black-and-white. It is a region of immense disparities, where every decision is a geopolitical tightrope act; a region of vast wealth and crippling poverty; of remittance-based economies where labour migrants are both marginalised and indispensable.

As power balances shift in the face of mounting pressures, Central Asia is ever more reliant on China as a trading and logistics partner, particularly in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Concurrently, to varying degrees, the region has increasingly begun to look west to the EU and the US, even if Russia remains an important, though increasingly erratic neighbour.

Aside from Central Asia’s geopolitical location, the key to this four-way tussle for influence, which has seen the five nations pull in different directions, is the region’s natural resources, including its largely untapped rare earth elements (REEs).


Over the past decade, Kazakhstan – a vast nation the size of western Europe, with powerful neighbours in the form of China and Russia – has become an increasingly important link between east and west, both in terms of trade and diplomacy. Given its geography, many decisions in Kazakhstan necessitate a balanced and far-reaching foreign policy outlook. Indeed, ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ and ‘mutually beneficial strategic partnership’ have become the watchwords of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s presidency.

Projects such as BRI and the Middle Corridor have made Kazakhstan an indispensable ally for China, with estimates of the total amount of Chinese investment in Kazakhstan over the past 18 years reaching up to $36 billion. Trade turnover between the two countries continues to expand, reaching $31.5 billion in 2023 (a 30-percent increase on 2022), and new transit routes are constantly under construction. The Bakhty-Ayagoz railway line, for example, will see the opening of a third border crossing and increase throughput capacity between the two nations from 28 to around 48 million tons. Cultural and political ties continue to expand, with a 30-day visa-free travel regime coming into force in November 2023.

As a bloc, however, the EU is Kazakhstan’s biggest overall trading partner. Speaking in February 2024, the Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko hailed the EU as ‘the largest trade and investment partner for Kazakhstan, accounting for approximately 40 percent of the country’s foreign trade and 45 percent of attracted investments since 2005’. Brussels and Astana are also looking at deepening their energy collaboration, with Kazakhstan to supply more energy resources to the EU.

Kazakhstan also aims to produce 2 million tons of green hydrogen annually by 2032, which would make it a major player in the market. In 2022, Kazakhstan signed a $50 billion deal with the German energy group Svevind to build one of the world’s largest green hydrogen plants supplying Europe.

Through initiatives such as the C5+1 and the B5+1, platforms that advance American collaboration with Central Asian countries, Washington has also increasingly sought to engage with the region, and with Kazakhstan in particular. With investment totalling $19.4 billion, the US ranks second in terms of foreign investment over the past five years. A driving force behind this engagement has been Kazakhstan’s huge untapped reserves of REEs. With Brussels having concluded a ‘strategic partnership with Astana on raw materials, batteries and renewable hydrogen’, this scramble for REEs has also pitted the US against the EU, which is increasingly seen in the US as wanting to ‘do their own thing’.

Given its shared Soviet past and its vast 7,600-kilometre shared border, Russia remains of huge significance to Kazakhstan. In 2023, trade turnover with Russia amounted to $26 billion, though this represented a 3.7% decrease on the previous year. Whilst preserving ties, however, Kazakhstan has consistently distanced itself from Russia’s war in Ukraine, with the authorities permitting rallies against the invasion. Even the death of Alexei Navalny – historically no friend of Central Asia – saw makeshift memorials erected.

Some western experts have characterised Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia as fraught and even defined by ‘multi-generational trauma’. Others, however , have claimed that Russian influence continues to grow, citing Russia’s control over the Caspian Pipeline Consortium and 25 percent of Kazakhstan’s uranium production. Overall, it seems that Kazakhstan is attempting to edge away from Russia without provoking its more powerful neighbour. In many ways, this contention over Kazakhstan’s orbit speaks to the effectiveness of Tokayev’s multi-vector foreign policy, an approach based not on choosing sides, but on maximising potential benefits for the nation.


Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the relationship between the EU and Uzbekistan was of limited scope, with the EU only setting up a delegation in Tashkent in 2011. However, the war has provided fresh impetus for cooperation, with Uzbekistan eager to secure stable growth and forge a path for integration into the global economic landscape. With this in mind, President Mirziyoyev’s government has followed international sanctions against Russia and issued a statement supporting the ‘territorial integrity of Ukraine’, with the courts going so far as convicting a citizen for joining Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.

Uzbekistan is not a member of either the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), nor the Eurasian Economic Union, and since the start of the conflict Tashkent has been actively ‘strengthening relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey’ as it seeks new trade routes. But Uzbekistan’ massive energy deficit (having turned from a gas exporter to a gas importer, due to increasing domestic demands) puts it in a precarious position. With Russian natural gas transiting through Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan set to increase from three to 11 billion cubic metres by 2026, Moscow will continue to have considerable leverage. Energy apart, however, Uzbekistan has vast reserves of numerous raw materials, including silver, titanium, lithium, copper and uranium.

Surpassing Russia, China is now Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner as of 2023, with trade between the two increasing 1.5-fold to reach over $13.7 billion, or roughly 22 percent of total turnover. A long-mooted railway project connecting Uzbekistan and China, however, seems to be losing momentum. It should also be noted that this remains a deeply unequal relationship, with Uzbek exports accounting for just $1.6 billion of the total figure.

Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s economic outlook has been gradually improving, and, in October 2023, the EU reached an agreement confirming the country would join the Critical Raw Materials Forum. In April 2024, Tashkent signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the EU, though sceptics have described the document as a ‘list of possibilities for cooperation without a guarantee of follow-through’. In May 2024, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan also signed a Memorandum of Cooperation on the integration of their power systems to produce green energy for export to Europe. At this stage, however, the deal remains little more than an agreement to explore possibilities.

Uzbekistan has also been actively courting the US, with trade between the two nations continuing on a steady upward trajectory. A sweeping programme of privatisation of state enterprises and properties is gathering pace, whilst in Washington, Uzbekistan has been eager to play up the pace of reform and anti-corruption measures, and plans to relax the tax burden on foreign investors.

With its budget deficit expanding, Uzbekistan can be characterised as having a multi-vector foreign policy and to be actively seeking new partners.


Tajikistan’s relations with the EU are on a positive trajectory, as demonstrated by the parties’ ongoing negotiations over the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA), which, they have said, will bring the EU’s partnership with Tajikistan to a new level. On 16 January 2024, Vice President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas made an official visit to Tajikistan. Whilst in Dushanbe, he met with Tajik prime minister Qohir Rasoulzoda and other high-ranking officials.

The EU’s ongoing discussion with Tajikistan’s leadership is focused on connectivity issues in the context of its Global Gateway strategy, with talks touching upon transport, digital connectivity and the water-energy nexus. Topics such as Tajikistan’s investment potential, climate change and security threats – including the fight against terrorism – are also being covered.

There are signs, however, that the EU is also paying closer attention to the state of civil society in Tajikistan. In January 2024, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on human rights in the country, which condemns the ongoing crackdown against government critics, human rights activists and independent lawyers, as well as the closure of independent media and websites.

Tajikistan’s mass media landscape is overwhelmingly state-controlled, underscored by the fact that the country fell two places in the World Press Freedom Index in 2024, to 155 out of 180 countries. Only two significant independent media voices now remain; the privately owned news agency Asia-Plus and the Prague-based Radio Ozodi, the local service of the US Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Both regularly face harassment and threats.

In the aftermath of the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack in Moscow, when four Tajik suspects affiliated to ISIS-K were arrested for the murder of a reported 145 people, rare fissures have appeared in the relationship between Tajikistan and Russia. Tajikistan’s foreign minister denounced the ‘torture’ of the Tajik suspects in the Moscow atrocity, urging the need for a ‘thorough investigation and a fair trial’.

While Moscow has taken steps to preserve the ‘time-tested alliance’ between the two countries, Russia is no longer an accessible destination for Tajik migrant workers, upon whose remittances about a third of Tajikistan’s economy ($2.5 billion in 2023) depends. Amid reports that Tajik citizens are being singled out for mistreatment since the attack, Tajikistan’s government has urged its nationals to temporarily refrain from travelling to Russia ‘unless absolutely necessary’.

Despite this, Tajikistan’s interests still depend heavily on cooperation with Russia. For example, the country still uses Russian military personnel to train its army. In 2024, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, officers from the Russian 201st base in Tajikistan will train 1,000 members of Tajikistan’s armed forces.


In Kyrgyzstan, the tightening of controls on foreign-funded NGOs as part of a proposed Russian-influenced ‘foreign agents law’ has been viewed in many parts as backsliding on democracy. The law has led the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundation to say it will close its doors in the Central Asian nation. Since 1993, a year in which Kyrgyzstan was mired in crisis, the Foundation has spent more than $115 million in the country on projects in education, public health, criminal justice, supplying water to rural communities and other areas.

Kyrgyzstan’s ‘foreign agents law’ is one of Kyrgyzstan ’s main points of contact with the EU. In February, several European human rights bodies, including the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Ireland’s Front Line Defenders, wrote an open letter to the EU’s representatives and member states, urging the European Union to support Kyrgyz civil society in challenging what they called a ‘Russia-inspired draft law’.

The European Union is only a very minor trade partner for Kyrgyzstan. Only Germany (which receives 1.7 percent of Kyrgyz exports and provides 0.7 percent of the goods that it imports) and Belgium (0.7 percent of exports) do appreciable volumes of business with Kyrgyzstan. By comparison, the country imports over 41 percent of its goods from China.

The terrorist attack at the Crocus City Hall music venue has led to a backlash of suspicion, harassment and violence in Russia towards Central Asian migrants, including those from Kyrgyzstan. The government of the Kyrgyz Republic has urged its citizens to avoid travelling to Russia if possible, citing media reports of the ‘mass refusal of entry’, and saying people should wait until Russia lifts tighter security measures at its borders.

Kyrgyz-Chinese relations, meanwhile, are enjoying a fruitful period. According to Kyrgyzstan’s General Customs Administration, the nation increased its annual exports to China more than two-fold in the first quarter of 2024, and total bilateral trade turnover currently stands at $4.5 billion per year. According to Chinese statistics, trade turnover between the two countries in 2023 amounted to $19.8 billion.

Beijing and Bishkek are discussing the possibility of expanding their collaboration in rare metals mining, as well as opening a new air route between Kyrgyzstan’s second city of Osh and Kashgar in China’s western Xinjiang province.


As one of the world’s most closed-off countries, Turkmenistan remains an outlier, even within the region. Whilst the majority of Central Asia has been looking for ways to increase tourism and engagement on a global scale in general, Turkmenistan retains one of the most restrictive visa regimes in the world, and is equally reluctant to let its own citizens leave.

As noted by the International Trade Administration of the United States, ‘reliable and timely trade data is not available’ for Turkmenistan. According to figures from CAREC, in 2021, Turkmenistan’s exports to China – almost all of which were natural gas – amounted to $5.63 billion, more than ten times more than its second biggest trading partner, Turkey. Perhaps surprisingly, Turkmenistan’s top source of imports was Italy (aircraft), followed by the US and Germany (tractors).

For many years, Turkmenistan has played up the possibility of a Trans-Caspian pipeline delivering gas to Europe. This was on the agenda again at a forum held in Paris in April; on 14 May, an agreement was inked on the transportation of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Turkey via Azerbaijan and Georgia, with the aim of providing additional gas in unspecified volumes to Europe by 2030.

Turkmenistan, meanwhile, remains a ‘loyal partner in the region for Russia’, with pro-Russian propaganda ‘vilifying the West for supporting Kyiv and whitewashing Moscow’s image’.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has significantly altered the level of engagement between the EU and Central Asian countries. The Council of the European Union’s Joint Roadmap for Deepening Ties between the EU and Central Asia, released in October 2023, signals that further expansion of trade and cooperation with the EU is certain. At the same time, however, the region continues to court China and handle Russia.

Is location and great mineral wealth (in certain states) has elevated Central Asia’s standing on the global stage. But this remains a perilous time of realignment for the region, one fraught with repercussions, both internal and external.

Published 4 June 2024
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Stephen M. Bland / Jonathan Campion / Eurozine



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