Monday, 14 December 2015 00:00

The EU and Kazakhstan: Developing a Partnership in Trade and Transport

by S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell

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In 2015, the EU revised its Strategy for Central Asia, and finalized an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan. These welcome steps will not turn the EU into a regional powerhouse overnight, but provide the EU with a platform to play a constructive role in Central Asia. The EU can achieve that if it avoids focusing on issues where it has little hope of direct influence, such as regional security affairs and domestic governance. Instead, to gain such a role eventually, the EU should focus on revitalizing the promise of its visionary initiative of the 1990s – the Transport Corridor linking Europe to Asia via the Caucasus and Central Asia – which it allowed to slip, handing the initiative to other powers, primarily China.


An Enhanced European Profile in Central Asia
On December 21 in Astana, the EU and Kazakhstan signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. This agreement, the first of its kind with a Central Asian country, had been initialed in January 2015, and provides an important platform for European engagement with Central Asia. In June, the EU Council in June 2015 also adopted so-called Council Conclusions on the EU Strategy for Central Asia, effectively updating the document dating to 2007. The signing of the Enhanced PCA took place on the sidelines of the eleventh EU-Central Asia Ministerial Meeting, which gathered representatives of the five states of post-Soviet Central Asia, and at which EU High Representative Federica Mogherini termed developments in Central Asia “extremely important” to the European Union.
Yet the PCA, and the broader Strategy, remain general documents that largely lack concrete priorities. They emphasize human rights as well as security and stability, yet the EU is unlikely to develop a sizable role in either area anytime soon. Security and stability in the region remains dependent largely on the regional states themselves, not least of them Afghanistan, and on the priorities of and interaction between Russia, China and the United States in the region. The EU can, and does, play a supporting role in enhancing border control and drug enforcement in the region, but has neither the intention nor the ability to expand its role to other areas. And whereas a number of EU member states have voiced strong concerns over the human rights situation in Central Asian states, the EU lacks the influence to affect the situation. Europe is simply not important enough a partner to affect the domestic priorities of Central Asian leaders, and certainly not to mitigate the adverse effects of the informal power struggles within regional elites that are often at the heart of the lack of meaningful reform.

The EU’s Comparative Advantage: Trade and Transport
There is, however, an area in which the EU could have significant impact – and one that would, in the long run, make it a much more credible force in enhancing security and promoting human rights. That is the development of Continental Transport and Trade – an area where the EU took the initiative in the early 1990s but ran out of steam.
With its visionary but poorly implemented TRACECA project (Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia), the EU pioneered the idea of rebuilding trade and transportation arteries between Europe and Asia across Central Asia and the Caucasus. Since 1998, when the EU co-hosted a conference in Baku on the “Restoration of the Historical Silk Road,” the term “New Silk Road” has gained currency in a virtual competition of initiatives. The U.S. launched its New Silk Road (NSR) initiative in 2010, which nevertheless remained focus on a North-South axis centered on Afghanistan, and failed to get the endorsement from the Presidential level needed for its success. In 2013, China launched the much more well-endowed Silk Road Economic Belt. It is remarkable that the EU is now absent from the list of leaders of this grand project. In fact, initiatives of the regional countries themselves have gained a profile much greater than TRACECA’s. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have made major investments in railroad development; Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have each developed modern port facilities on the Caspian Sea; and Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey are about to complete the missing links in a railroad corridor that could link Hamburg to Hanoi. Further west, Georgia has developed the capacity of its Black Sea ports, while Lithuania has pioneered a “Viking Railway” linking the Baltic and Black Seas across Belarus and Ukraine.
But while overland trade links offer great potential benefits, these corridors are only in a formative stage. Approximately 90 percent of the cargo from Europe to China is transported by ship via the Suez Canal; most of the remaining volume is flown by air. The overland corridors traversing Central Asia are shorter compared to sea routes, but are presently inefficient and, in some cases, relatively expensive. Several obstacles must be overcome in order to make overland transport corridors genuinely competitive. Notable among these are slow borders, but other causes for delay range from impediments in the legal, economic, tax, organizational, and banking sectors to issues with security and communications. Furthermore, there is a need to create integrated and competitive intermodal transportation and logistics networks across the region. The fact that Central Asia is landlocked compounds these problems, but the heart of the problem is that bottlenecks in one section of a given route end up affecting the entire route and those trading along it. It is in these areas that the EU could play an important role.
As European leaders consider the expansion of trade and transportation links, Kazakhstan occupies a unique position in at least three ways. First, by virtue of geography, Kazakhstan forms a one-country link between China and the Caspian Sea. Second, as the signing of the Enhanced PCA shows, Kazakhstan is the Central Asian country that has gone the farthest in terms of deepening institutional cooperation with the EU. Third, in a regional context Kazakhstan offers an improving business environment crucial to the establishment of a trading hub: In the World Bank’s Doing Business 2016 ranking, Kazakhstan jumped 12 positions in a year, from 53rd to 41st. If the EU were to take a more strategic approach to continental transport and trade, it will be natural to focus initially on the partnership with Kazakhstan. Importantly, this should not occur at the expense of a focus on other regional countries, but as a first step in what must ultimately be a regional effort that includes all Central Asian states, including Afghanistan.
To date, the EU and Kazakhstan have focused their efforts almost entirely on the link between China and Europe. In light of the advanced development of infrastructure along this route such a focus is entirely natural. However,Europe's long-term interest will include an equal emphasis on connecting Europe and India. This development is almost inevitable, given the demographic future of the Indian sub-continent (India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan). Within twenty years this region will be far more populous than China and, unlike China, with its rapidly ageing population, all three countries on the Indian sub-continent will have a far larger working age population. In this respect, India's cohort alone will far outstrip China. Even if the economies of the subcontinent progress at a slower rate than China did in the period 1991-2016, one can be certain that the importance of their land trade with Europe will soar.
Kazakhstan's location offers great potential for such trade with both northern Europe and Russia, but such potential will not be achieved without focused and joint attention to the Europe-Kazakhstan-India route by the EU and Kazakhstan together.

Promoting Market-Oriented Initiatives and ‘Soft Infrastructure’
So far, the efforts to promote Eurasian trade routes have been dominated by governmental programs, as is understandable with infrastructure. However, henceforth the progress of the initiatives will increasingly be determined by market realities. The key question is whether shippers in the EU, the Middle East, and Asia will choose to use the infrastructure that governments have helped provide. The development of land routes is occurring at a time when ships are going back and forth between Europe and Asia partially empty. Therefore, the building of trade links in Europe and Central Asia should focus not just on the completion of TRACECA, but more importantly, on making these transit routes attractive from a market standpoint.
The program will rise and fall on the basis of soft infrastructure, which depends solely on the private sector. This means that governments have to focus on easing the crossing of borders, implementing low or at least competitive tariffs, as well as providing frameworks that ensure the quick and fair resolution of disputes arising from shipping. In sum, the task will be to focus on the market and make trade routes both predictable and attractive to businesses near and far.
It is unfortunate that enthusiasm for the construction of “hard infrastructure” has relegated all other forms of infrastructure to a secondary status. The world is littered with grand infrastructure projects that failed due to the postponement or non-existence of the supporting institutions that are essential to their functioning. The widely quoted phrase “Build a road (or railroad) and people will use it” is simply wrong. They are just as likely to ignore it.
“Soft infrastructure” takes many forms. The most obvious is the structure of tariffs imposed on shippers using a given railroad or road. The case for low tariffs is obvious, for without them shippers will turn to more competitive routes. But if they are too low, citizens of the transited country will object, claiming that their territory is being used by others, without adequate payments to them. Reasonable and firm agreements between the EU and Kazakhstan can prevent this from happening. Such agreements must involve all interested countries and parties and must be solidly endorsed by the private sector as well.
A second dimension pertains to private firms in such fields as freight forwarding, logistics, insurance, storage, supplies and equipment maintenance, and hotels. Each of these is important. Indeed, the absence of any one of them could break the chain of institutions necessary for the smooth functioning of an international trade corridor.
To date, there has been little, if any, serious discussion of these crucial issues. Even though private firms in many countries have quietly carried out their own analyses of the needs and prospects, there exists no major study by either European or Central Asian experts on how to encourage the establishment of the network of companies and industries as a whole. Such studies, in which European and Kazakh experts could take the lead, should seek to identify the impediments that will inhibit the free development of private initiatives in each of these areas, and which may arise from national legislation, permit requirements, overly restrictive labor laws, taxation of essential imported equipment, or controls on the repatriation of earnings. The first task of policy must be to identify all such barriers to the development of soft infrastructure in each of the areas listed above and to lead a systematic process to alleviate them.
Further, effective measures must be taken to ensure that a key node is created along the China-Europe route for firms in all the key areas of soft infrastructure, e.g. freight forwarding, logistics, insurance, storage, supplies and equipment maintenance, and hotels. A glance at the map, as well as the country’s economic situation, shows that Kazakhstan is ideally situated to serve as a hub for these services.
However, geography is not destiny, and any number of impediments could neutralize the potential benefits Kazakhstan should derive from its location. While Kazakhstan has embarked on laudable efforts to diversify its economy and has a more beneficial business climate than its neighbors, the country does not presently offer market-friendly conditions to host firms in all these areas. Still less is it able to generate firms of its own that will be able to successfully compete with the international giants that will inevitably appear on the scene. Restrictive regulations, bureaucratic lethargy, and outright corruption are the chief villains. Without a firm hand from the Government of Kazakhstan, backed up by clear and effective support from the EU, Kazakhstan will be doomed to the status of a passive transit country and not an active participant in the new continental economy and a beneficiary of its fruits.
Serious and well-known impediments in Afghanistan and Pakistan/India have caused policy-makers to ignore the opening of a Europe-India route via Kazakhstan. This is a mistake. Both Europe and Kazakhstan have a serious long -term interest in this second continental corridor, and they should therefore be working together now to remove these impediments. Recent visits by the presidents of Pakistan and India to Central Asian capitals, the signs of a practical detente between India and Pakistan on the issue of trade, and the opening of work ion the TAPI pipeline, which involves India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in a collaborative effort, justify cautious optimism. The EU and Kazakhstan should therefore place diplomatic work in behalf of a future EU-India corridor via Kazakhstan at the top of their regional diplomatic agendas, and begin making practical plans for such a land corridor in the event that a breakthrough occurs.

Going Forward: EU-Kazakhstan Cooperation on a Logistics Hub
The EU and Kazakhstan, involving official bodies but especially the private sector, should develop a partnership in all fields of logistics to accomplish two goals: first, to have them base their Central Eurasian operations in Kazakhstan and, second, to work with Astana to create Kazakh-managed entities locally. In other words, the goal should be to strengthen Kazakhstan’s public and private sector in all the relevant fields of soft infrastructure. Since nearly all of Eurasia’s leading logistics firms are European (mainly German, Swiss, and Danish), it would be possible within the framework of the EU-Kazakhstan partnership to mount a systematic program to build Kazakhstan’s capacity in the area of soft infrastructure to a world-class level. Once this is realized, it is more likely than not that such success will nudge Kazakhstan’s neighbors toward emulating the reforms that were needed for this to be realized.
A recent Kazakh initiative is relevant in this regard: the Astana International Financial Center, modeled on the equivalent center in Dubai, which was announced in July 2015. Confirmed by the Kazakhstani senate in November 2015, the AIFC will be lodged on the grounds of the EXPO 2017 in Astana, be based on British law, and will have a special tax, currency, and visa regime to attract foreign personnel. To establish Astana as a financial center, the AIFC will essentially operate under its own legal regime, derogated from national law. Clearly, this initiative, if realized, will go a long way toward encouraging the type of investments in soft infrastructure that will be crucial for the development of the transport sector, and on this basis, further specific initiatives in the transport sector should be considered.
It would be highly desirable for the EU to propose the creation of a special entity within its consultative process with Central Asia that would focus on land transport and would recommend joint actions that are needed in that area. Since the establishment of such an entity will take time, the EU should begin the process at once on a bilateral basis through its Enhanced PCA with Kazakhstan. However, a bilateral approach can only be a precursor and never a substitute for the region-wide arrangements that both the EU and Central Asian countries need.

S. Frederick Starr is Chairman and Svante E. Cornell Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Center affiliated with Johns Hopkins University-SAIS and the Institute for Security and Development Policy.

Read 10062 times Last modified on Monday, 11 January 2016 15:58





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.