After taking over a year-long break, the European Union and Kazakhstan have reengaged in negotiations on an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.
The negotiations, the third round of which were held October 9-10 in the Kazakhstani capital Astana, aim eventually to replace the current PCA. A statement issued by the EU delegation in Kazakhstan quoted the chief European negotiator, Gunnar Wiegand, as saying; “We covered most of the aspects of the new Agreement, including political dialogue, cooperation in foreign and security policy, economic cooperation, justice and home affairs, and people to people relations. At the next round, trade and investment provisions should also be negotiated."
While the two sides may be talking again, the discussions appear deadlocked due to mounting disagreements on political reform, including much needed attention to Kazakhstan’s Rule of Law and Human Rights record. Kazakhstan’s delayed accession to the World Trade Organization is another stumbling block.
Central Asia observers have heard numerous times about the importance that Kazakhstan and the EU have for each other. But most public comments overlook the fact that the relationship is not evenly balanced. The scale, at least in terms of trade, tips heavily in the EU’s favor.
The EU has been Kazakhstan’s leading trade and investment partner since 2007, with over 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s exports going to the EU market. This mostly concerns oil, a widely available global commodity, and uranium. Meanwhile, EU exports to Kazakhstan account for roughly 0.4 percent of the Union’s foreign trade turnover. In other words, Kazakhstan isn’t really a significant market for Brussels.
On the other hand, Kazakhstan has a clear need to have substantial trade outlets beyond its large, immediate neighbors China and Russia. Besides, Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is predicated on a so-called multi-vectored approach, which needs strong relations with the EU, and to a certain extent the United States, to offset the constant pressure exerted on Kazakhstan’s sovereignty by Beijing and Moscow.
As the EU partnership discussions proceed, international concerns are spreading about Kazakhstan’s lack of democratic development, as well as the country’s severe shortcomings in upholding the rule of law. These concerns became pronounced following Kazakhstan’s tenure as the OSCE chair in 2010. Democratic reform pledges made prior to the chairmanship not only haven’t been fulfilled, Astana has actually backtracked. The Kazakhstani government’s handling of the Zhanaozen protests in late 2011 highlights this point. EU observers found that authorities fell short of delivering justice. Reported torture of witnesses and defendants and falsified verdicts were commonplace.
As a recent EUCAM policy brief describes, the EU seeks a stable and reliable partner in Central Asia, a region beset by numerous security threats and economic development challenges. A major problem hindering a closer EU-Kazakhstani partnership, then, is the fact that Astana and Brussels understand the concept of stability differently. For the EU, a Kazakhstan based on democratic values, good governance and rule or law would make the best partner in the region.
Kazakhstani leaders, meanwhile, place the greatest emphasis on stable economic growth, and they seem to believe that expanding civil liberties would pose a threat to their steady development paradigm. In addition, Astana appears to think that merely initiating lots of international meetings and paying lip service to pressing problems will somehow magically strengthen security and produce a more stable neighborhood.
The renewed negotiations on an enhanced PCA present a good opportunity for the EU to engage in both public and quiet diplomacy. The existing partnership and cooperation agreement between the EU and Kazakhstan, which has been in force since 1999, is automatically renewable. Thus there is no urgent need for a new agreement. For the PCA to become genuinely ‘enhanced’ it should offer clearer prescriptions on democratic development and stronger obligations on Kazakhstan’s part. It shouldn’t be about the EU naming and shaming a partner, or interfering in its domestic affairs: it should be about creating a stable and reliable partnership that is built to last.
This will not be easy. Whereas Kazakhstan initiated the negotiations in 2009 hoping to get a quick enhanced agreement that would shore up ties with the Brussels, and increasingly distinguish it from its neighbors, the country has become weary of EU demands for reform. On the other hand, the EU was not keen at the outset to discuss enhanced PCA talks, but now wants to move ahead and see progress after making a substantial investment of time and effort. The negotiations are likely to continue for a long time, and, in that sense, the process of engagement – including discussion about matters Kazakhstan seeks to avoid – might be more important than the end result.
The EU has been a careful actor in Central Asia, trying to balance the economic interest of its member states with the values the EU stands for as a whole. As a normative actor, the EU should not shy away from making democratization and human rights a central aspect of these negotiations. The EU has leverage; its market is going to remain attractive, even crucial, for Kazakhstan’s exports including their potential need for European know-how and technology.
Ultimately, an enhanced partnership based on truly democratic commitments will be beneficial for the EU, its member states and Kazakhstan, and would provide for a reliable partnership. But for that to happen, Kazakhstan needs to get serious about democratization.
Jos Boonstra heads the EUCAM programme, and is a senior researcher for FRIDE. Tika Tsertsvadze is a EUCAM programme manager, and FRIDE advocacy officer.