Astana (Kazakhstan)– EU chief Charles Michel called on Thursday for closer ties with Central Asia on his first official visit to Kazakhstan, the main economic powerhouse in a region where Russia’s influence has come under question.
“Central Asia and Europe are coming closer together and becoming more and more connected,” Michel said at a press conference with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the capital Astana.
The head of the EU Council said Kazakhstan was a “crucial partner” and the EU hoped to “develop our cooperation”.
Michel’s visit comes eight months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has made Moscow’s former Soviet neighbours nervous and intensified the Kremlin’s clash with the West.
“My visit takes place at a difficult time for Europe and the wider region,” Michel said, condemning Moscow’s “war of aggression”.
He is due to meet the leaders of all five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — at 4:00 pm (1000 GMT).
This is the first EU-Central Asia summit, a gathering Michel described as “much more than just a policy dialogue between two regions”.
“It’s a powerful symbol of our reinforced cooperation,” he said.
He singled out Kazakhstan as a major trading partner for the EU and called for investment in transport infrastructure in the country, which has looked to reduce its dependence on Moscow since the latter sent troops to Ukraine.
Michel’s visit comes two weeks after Astana hosted several summits attended by Russia — as well as by China and Turkey, who are also seeking to strengthen their influence in the region.
Central Asian countries, traditional allies of Moscow, have trod a fine line on the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine, neither condemning nor openly supporting it.
Tokayev even clashed with Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly in June, refusing to recognise the self-declared separatist republics controlled by pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Russia has since claimed to have annexed the regions.
Meanwhile Astana is seeking new routes for its oil exports, around three quarters of which transit Russia.
In early July, Tokayev pledged greater energy cooperation with the EU.
In a joint statement on Thursday, Tokayev and Michel said they discussed how to avoid “unintended negative impact on Kazakhstan’s economy” of EU sanctions against Russia, imposed over the Ukraine conflict.
They also discussed relocating to Kazakhstan “European manufacturing companies”, whose products are not subject to sanctions.
Rich in hydrocarbons and minerals, Kazakhstan lies at the heart of China’s massive new silk road project.
Like Beijing, Turkey is also advancing its interest in the region, highlighting its ethno-linguistic and religious ties to Central Asia.