The Ring of European Friends extended to Central Asia

The Ring of European Friends extended to Central Asia

 

On 29 April in Brussels, an event was held that few people have heard of, but it was nevertheless of enormous significance: within the European Parliament, the EU-Uzbekistan Friendship Group was established. Uzbekistan became the second Central Asian country to launch such a group after Kazakhstan.

 

Just a few words on “friendship groups”.  Such “groups” can be formed by members of the European Parliament together with representatives of non-EU countries to discuss closely EU relations with these specific countries. They are unofficial and the MEPs participating in there cannot speak on behalf of the European Parliament. As you have probably guessed, this practice is not very common for the European deputies, as it puts more responsibilities on them. Nevertheless, if the decision to create a Friendship group has been taken, it sends a very strong political signal not only to the European Parliament but also to the European Union as a whole.

 

What kind of signal? That Europe has recognised Uzbekistan as a promising Central Asian country that has fully committed itself to economic liberalisation and a comprehensive reform process. It has been also acknowledged that the country stands out from the rest of its neighbours in its strive for a better democratic future. Since the 2019 EU Strategy on Central Asia, the EU has many times recognised the geostrategic importance of an integrated Central Asian market and the region as a whole.  Still, the creation of this Friendship group marks the recognition of Uzbekistan’s key role in forging closer relations with the EU and bringing European values to the Central Asian territory.

 

In this particular case, the EU-Uzbekistan Friendship group is the unique opportunity for both of them to strengthen informal bilateral cooperation by bringing different cultures and people to work on common long-term solutions, strategies, and foresight. Despite its “unofficial status”, if managed well, this group could become a highly efficient tool of parliamentary diplomacy that would enable its members in keeping “one’s finger on the pulse” of EU-Uzbek relations, make split-second decisions and accelerate cultural diffusion.

 

Within this group, European counterparts have a great opportunity to keep a close eye on Uzbekistan’s democratisation process, its path towards political transparency and openness, following the international standards. European deputies have gained the possibility to support Uzbek ambitious reform agenda and – yes – bring the partnership and cooperation between the European Union and Uzbekistan to an even higher level.

 

Uzbekistan should lead the discussions on how to reach the EU’s greater involvement in its post-COVID economic and social recovery, transform its ageing energy infrastructure to solve the problem of power outages and bring European attention to the Aral Sea disappearance. It can promote the importance of the EPCA agreement and the creation of the Uzbek-European Council for Foreign Investments. It is obvious, that the country has discovered a new chance to transform itself in line with EU best practices.

 

However, to make the most out of EU-Uzbek cooperation, the Uzbek side has to promote not only its national interests but also speak on behalf of the whole Central Asia region to address its enormous water crisis, environmental and border problems. Uzbekistan has to become a “lawyer” of the region in promoting the regional cooperation approach in everything that it does.  Want it or not, its economic success is fully intertwined with the positive regional developments. The more integrated and resilient the Central Asian region is the more prosperous Uzbekistan will be. That is why Uzbekistan needs to make sure that in any kind of cooperation with the EU towards green, digital and democratic transition it fully includes all five (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) Central Asian states. As the recent developments have shown us, this process must be urgent.

 

Right after the inauguration of the Friendship group, tensions were reported between civilians along a Tajik-Kyrgyz border stretch which quickly escalated into shooting between security forces. Clashes between communities over land and water along the long-contested border are regular occurrences, with border guards often getting involved. However, that particular violence with 49 people killed was by far the most serious during the Central Asian 30 years of independence.

 

President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev was one of the first to speak with and assist both presidents during the crisis. On March 25, Uzbekistan reached a bilateral agreement with Kyrgyzstan that ended a 30-year territorial dispute, so he had many insights to share with the conflicting sides. Unfortunately, after many positive regional developments since 2016, this event shows us once again how fragile peace in Central Asia is and how it is pertinent to bring the European integration experience to solve these and upcoming misunderstandings.

 

To sum up, the creation of the EU-Uzbekistan Friendship group in the European Parliament shows that Uzbekistan goes higher on the European agenda and as I have mentioned before, the country is being more and more regarded in Europe as the rising regional leader.

 

However, as the reality shows, in order to make EU-Uzbek cooperation follow a win-win model, Uzbekistan has to intertwine its interests with the interests of the Central Asia region and realize that the EU and Uzbekistan have the same strategy: they both want to see Central Asia as well integrated and connected, the prosperous and resilient region that operates in the multilateral world.

 

In 2003, Romano Prodi (then President of the European Commission) set out a vision of closer ties between the European Union and its neighbours. According to him, the EU had to engage a lot with Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and the states of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to build a „ring of friends“ around the EU border and bring stability and prosperity to the region. Time flies and now the EU and its needs are not the same as they were 20 years ago. With the international balance of power shifted towards Indo-Pacific, the EU’s growing strategic autonomy and its increasing geopolitical responsibilities, the EU’s Ring of Friends now must be extended. And there is no better option than to extend it to Central Asian states, the heart of the Eurasian continent, the place which will finally connect our great civilizations.

Vita Kobiela, Communications Lead of Volt Belgium, first Pan-European political party and movement.