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EU-Central Asia Leaders’ Meeting Latest to Highlight Region’s Geopolitical Centrality

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EU-Central Asia Leaders’ Meeting Latest to Highlight Region’s Geopolitical Centrality

Last year, the EU’s meeting with Central Asian leaders followed their summit with Putin; this year it trailed their meeting with Xi.

EU-Central Asia Leaders’ Meeting Latest to Highlight Region’s Geopolitical Centrality

Last week, European Council President Charles Michel gathered with four of the five Central Asian presidents in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, for the second high-level EU-Central Asian meeting. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev attended, with Turkmenistan represented by Deputy Chair of the Cabinet of Ministers Nurmuhammet Amannepesov.

The gathering came on the heels of the third China-Central Asia summit, hosted by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Xi’an last month, and serves to further highlight the region’s geopolitical importance. 

Over the past three years, China, Russia, and the EU have each focused efforts on developing these regional leader meetings into regular affairs; a similar U.S. effort (dubbed the C5+1) gathers foreign ministers together, rather than presidents. China first instituted its effort in this area with a virtual summit in 2020, and after the most recent summit the plan is hold such leaders meetings every other year (next up: 2025 in Kazakhstan).

Last October, Michel met with the four Central Asian presidents (and a Turkmen representative) in Astana, Kazakhstan, for the first EU-Central Asia high-level meeting (note: not a summit). That gathering came just two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the first Russia-Central Asia summit (branded as a summit) in Astana.

Whether meetings or summits, the order and the timing could not be missed: Both Russia and Europe were looking to Central Asia, seeking to expand cooperation under the dark clouds of the war in Ukraine. 

Last year I noted that “the joint communiqué after the EU-Central Asia Leaders’ Meeting did not mention Ukraine directly and neither did the Kremlin readout of Putin’s October 14 summit with the Central Asian presidents.” (The Russia-Central Asia joint statement also did not mention Ukraine.)

This year’s EU-Central Asia meeting stuck to that trend. Both last year’s and this year’s joint communique included what has become boilerplate language in Central Asian statements with some external powers: “The Leaders expressed continued commitment to uphold the U.N. Charter, particularly the principles of respect for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity of all countries, non-use of force or threat of its use and peaceful settlement of international disputes.”

The China-Central Asia Xi’an declaration published on May 19 formulated it like this: “China firmly supports the development path chosen by the Central Asian countries, and supports all countries in safeguarding national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and adopting various independent domestic and foreign policies.”

The closest last year’s Russia-Central Asia joint statement got was a reference to “reaffirming commitment to the fundamental international legal norms and principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter” and “reaffirming our common position on strict observance of the fundamental principle of equal and indivisible security.”

The phrase “equal and indivisible security” has its roots in the Cold War. First appearing in the 1975 Helsinki Accords — which recognized “the indivisibility of security in Europe” — The Guardian last year defined the phrase like this: “At its most crude, it means security should be seen as a collective concept so if the actions of one state threaten the security of another, the principle of indivisible security is breached. Therefore no state should strengthen its security at the expense of another.”

Russia has turned the phrase to its own use and doubled down on its characterization of NATO expansion (and Ukraine’s turn toward Europe) as innately threatening to Russia. There isn’t necessarily space in this formulation for “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” That these three appear in both the EU and the China joint statements with Central Asia, but not the Russian one is interesting, if not significant. It could be that Russia is shy of using such words while at war in Ukraine — a state whose territorial integrity Moscow is actively violating, to say nothing of its views on Kyiv’s independence and sovereignty. Russian leaders and commentators have notoriously, over the years, made remarks questioning how real Central Asian independence and sovereignty is, much as they have about Ukraine. 

China has its own version of the “indivisible security” concept, branded now under the “Global Security Initiative” framework — which the Central Asian states have, per the recent joint statement, bought into. The statement said that “Central Asian countries speak highly of and are willing to actively implement China’s Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and Global Civilization Initiative” — without specifying what that means in practical terms.

Returning to the EU-Central Asia meeting last week, the resulting joint statement touched on a range of Central Asian priorities, from Afghanistan and terrorism, to trade and connectivity, to the Aral Sea. In discussing terrorism, however, the statement used this language: 

“They emphasized the inadmissibility of public appeals and incitement to terrorism and extremism and advocated the intensification of efforts to combat the spread of terrorism ideology and propaganda through the internet. In this regard, the Leaders called for consistent implementation of relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions on countering the spread of terrorist, separatist and extremist ideologies, including on the internet.”

This is an example of diplomatic language that each side interprets quite differently. What a European may see as political opposition challenging a government, or at worst irritating protesters, a Central Asian leader may brand as incitement to terrorism or blatant separatism. Tajikistan’s campaign against local leaders in the Pamirs is one such example, and Uzbekistan’s crushing of conversation about independence in Karakalpakstan is another.

Ultimately, joint statements can only tell us so much about relations between states — or groups of states in this case. It’s clear that Europe, Russia, and China (and others) see value in trying to engage with Central Asia as a region, and that the geopolitical climate of the day places Central Asia as a fulcrum between East and West. Central Asia’s interests remain stable across these relationships, but prioritization and phrasing shifts between the different partners. And of course, each Central Asian state has its own set of interests, and they don’t always align.

The EU and Central Asian leaders have agreed to elevate their engagement to a summit starting next year in Uzbekistan.