Can Kazakhstan join the European Union

EU uncertain: is Kazakhstan European?

Kazakhstan is looking for a post-Soviet identity - somewhere between traditional Kazakh and Turkish roots, Europe and multiculturalism. Despite Kazakhstan's strategically important location and potential, the EU has made little effort to develop closer ties with the young country.

Why is Azerbaijan considered European and Kazakhstan not? Where are the borders of Europe? Is Kazakhstan in Europe, is it European?

The famous phrase "Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok" does not come from Vladimir Putin (who, however, likes to use it), but from Charles de Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth Republic in France. Mikhail Gorbachev also liked to refer to the phrase. But the concept does not seem to be meant or understood equally by everyone.

The Russian tsarist empire and later the Soviet Union Europeanized the vast areas east of the Urals to the Kamchatka Peninsula. In this respect, “Europe” is not a geographical area but a cultural characteristic. This can be seen in Central Asian Kazakhstan. The former capital Alma Ata, 200 kilometers west of the Chinese border, is a good example of what a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” can mean.

"Alma Ata is strikingly European, and the contrast becomes stronger the closer you get to the border with China," a European diplomat in the new capital Astana told EURACTIV.com.

The question of where Europe begins and ends continues to receive contradictory and unclear answers. For example, the EU member state Cyprus is partially located on the Asian continental plate and is therefore part of the Asia group in the UN. Turkey, on the other hand, belongs to Europe for the United Nations, although only ten percent of the country is actually on the European continent.

According to this point of view, Kazakhstan should also belong to Europe: A small part of the Kazakh national territory is geographically also in Europe. Oddly enough, Kazakhstan is not part of the Council of Europe, even though it fulfills the institution's two membership criteria: it is “completely or partially” in Europe and is a country “whose culture is closely linked to European culture”.

But the geographical perspective also seems to have prevailed when the EU launched its “Eastern Partnership” in 2009. Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are part of the initiative - Kazakhstan is not.

From today's perspective, many diplomats argue that there were no tenable political or substantive reasons for offering Azerbaijan a preferred relationship with the EU rather than Central Asian Kazakhstan.

Instead, Kazakhstan signed an expanded partnership and cooperation agreement with the EU two years ago, showing that it can maintain good relations with both Russia and the EU.

The question of whether Kazakhstan is now a European state was recently re-heated - with the publication of the authors Svante E. Cornell and Johan Engvall in the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies.

In the 70-page paper, the two authors write that Kazakhstan's centralized form of government and top-down orientation in reforms limited the country's European ambitions when the EU was developing its new neighborhood policy. Those times are now over: Kazakhstan has been on a modernization course since 2015 and is trying to improve the transparency and efficiency of the government.

Not only geographically is Kazakhstan a (partially) European state, argue Cornell and Engvall. Kazakh Euro-Asianism does not focus on the distinction between Europe and Asia but tries to be a positive point of contact between the continents and to adopt elements from both.

Cornell and Engvall also say: “If you take a closer look at Kazakhstan's development since its independence, the European aspects of the state become clear. Kazakhstan is a secular state with a bourgeois conception of what the nation is. There is an inclusive understanding of citizenship. ”Anyone who has citizenship is also Kazakh. This understanding is "highly compatible with European standards and principles."

Peter Burian, the EU envoy for Central Asia, also said in the late October Astana Times, the EU welcomed the "new atmosphere" in Central Asia. It is "beneficial" for regional cooperation. In neighboring Uzbekistan, too, a less autocratic course has been taken since the death of longtime President Islam Karimov in 2016. Karimov's successor, Shawkat Mirsiyoyev, reformed and liberalized the country.

Relations with the neighboring country have also improved: “Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have increased their trade by almost 30 percent within a few months. We welcome these developments and we know how important regional and neighborhood cooperation is for stability, ”said Burian.

There are now good prospects for a strong partnership, added the EU Commissioner: “I am pleased that we have created a good foundation - based on common interests and values ​​- and I hope that it can be further strengthened. I see the potential of the region with its important strategic location and as a link between Europe and Asia. I also see growing potential for Kazakh investors who want to be active in the European market. Kazakhstan will make good progress in all areas of the reform process if the reforms are fully implemented. "

At the same time, he showed with his statements that the EU wants to proceed cautiously so as not to alienate Russia. “The EU has no specific, exclusive sphere of influence and neither does it want to have it. Instead, we are looking for cooperation with other countries and want to avoid geopolitical games in the region. I hope that regional and interregional cooperation will help the Central Asian region achieve the position it deserves, ”concluded Burian.