Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 13 Issue 5
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi
The recent visit of the Kyrgyz Foreign Affairs Minister to Italy and his meetings with the Italian counterpart highlighted the Italian attempt to become more involved in the Central Asian market and dynamics and Bishkek’s desire to expand its diplomatic and economic relations to diversify its portfolio of partners and decrease the influence of Russia and China in the country.
On November 9th, 2021, within the framework of the first official visit to the Italian Republic, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic, Ruslan Kazakbayev, met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Italian Republic Luigi Di Maio.
Di Mayo thanked the Kyrgyz side for opening the Kyrgyz Embassy in Rome and expressed hope that he would significantly bring friendly relations between Kyrgyzstan and Italy closer. In this context, the Italian Foreign Minister announced the intention of the Italian side to open its Embassy in Bishkek soon.
Kazakbayev stated that Kyrgyzstan is interested in further expanding and strengthening trade, economic and investment cooperation with Italy, taking into account Kyrgyzstan’s Generalised system of preferences+ status and the prospects for creating a Kyrgyz-Italian investment fund, which will give impetus to attracting Italian investments in Kyrgyzstan.
During the meeting, the parties paid particular attention to cooperation issues in the cultural and humanitarian sphere. The Italian side expressed its readiness to increase the number of scholarships for students from Kyrgyzstan, to consider opening an Italian school and cultural and educational centre in Kyrgyzstan.
In the context of celebrating the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Kyrgyz Republic and Italy next year, the Kyrgyz side submitted for consideration the Roadmap for the development of bilateral cooperation for 2022-2025 and a joint plan of events to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations, which includes the holding of scientific and cultural events, round tables and conferences, both in Kyrgyzstan and in different regions of Italy, as well as days of culture.
To further develop the political dialogue, the Italian side proposed to organise a visit of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic Sadyr Japarov to Italy in 2022. For his part, Kazakbayev invited his counterpart to visit Kyrgyzstan. Di Maio accepted the invitation to pay a return visit to Kyrgyzstan shortly and announced with satisfaction that Kyrgyzstan was included in the list of priority countries in Italy for the isolation of vaccines against coronavirus infection within the framework of the COVAX mechanism.
The parties discussed the importance of developing the political platform ‘Central Asia + Italy’, within which it is planned to comprehensively examine the situation in Afghanistan, trade and economic issues and humanitarian issues.
Kyrgyzstan has a strategic position in Central Asia since it shares its borders with Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan is a fundamental asset in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. This economic and transport route will cross the Kyrgyz territory, linking Urumqi’s city in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with Central Asian cities such as Samarcanda (Uzbekistan) and Dushanbe (Tajikistan), crossing the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.
Kyrgyzstan is financially dependent on China because more than 40% of the Kyrgyz foreign debt (1.8 billion dollars) is owed to the Export-Import Bank of China due to Chinese investments in a series of infrastructure projects the last decade. Recently, Bishkek and Beijing discussed enhancing their cooperation in the military sector to guarantee border control and security, especially after the U.S. troops withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban rise to power (China and Kyrgyzstan strengthened security cooperation).
Italy has a strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea that might be connected to the Eurasian market and Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, in March 2019, Italy was the first prominent European country and the first G7 member to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with China on the Belt and Road Initiative highlighting the importance of Eurasia. Since Italy is well-known abroad for its know-how in specific sectors, the Italian Government has tried to diversify its trade exchange and economic strategy, looking at new frontier markets in Eurasia. The Italian Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Manlio Di Stefano has paid official visits to Central Asian countries several times to explore economic and trade possibilities in the region and support Italian companies’ local investments.
Central Asia has always been a ‘geopolitical battleground’ among international and regional players. Nowadays, especially after the U.S. troops withdrawal from Afghanistan (The new geopolitical game of Afghanistan), several geopolitical actors are trying to fill the ‘apparent vacuum’ left by the United States. However, Washington has never abandoned Central Asia but only shifted its strategy, focusing on cultural and economic diplomacy (AUCC supports U.S. economic cooperation with Uzbekistan).
Why does this matter?
The recent opening of the Kyrgyz embassy in Rome and the Italian Foreign Affairs Minister’s promises of establishing an Italian embassy in Bishkek are significant steps towards closer relations between Italy and Kyrgyzstan. If in 2020 the Italian export to Kyrgyzstan amounted to 20.63 million dollars according to the United Nations COMTRADE, a closer partnership between Rome and Bishkek might give a positive impulse to the bilateral trade and allow Italian companies to establish offices and business activities in the Kyrgyz territory which is strongly linked with China and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Italy might benefit from establishing its business presence in Kyrgyzstan because the country is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and an essential asset in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Apart from France and Germany (German investments in the Uzbek energy sector), among the European Union members, Italy might want to find its space and become more active in the Central Asian market since local republics are rich in natural resources and play a decisive role in the Eurasian interconnection.
A significant Italian presence in Kyrgyzstan, and consequently in Central Asia, also supports the European Union strategy in the region whose purpose is to focus on resilience (covering areas such as human rights, border security and the environment), prosperity (with a strong emphasis on connectivity) and regional cooperation. In this framework, Kyrgyzstan might benefit from Italian involvement in its territory, attracting foreign direct investments (FDIs) and diversifying its economic and trade partners, thus decreasing the dependence on the Chinese economy or Russian support (Opportunità di investimento in Kirghizistan).
Whether the Italian action in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia will become more structured and efficient, Italy might become an important geopolitical actor in Eurasia supporting the European Union (and the United States) strategy in the region and enlarging its possibilities export.
Security problems such as the Afghan crisis, terrorism, criminal organisations, illicit trafficking and inter-ethnic conflicts and geopolitical confrontations are the main threats for the Italian companies and Rome’s strategy to establish its presence in Central Asia.