Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 37 Issue 4
Author: Dimitris Symeonidis
Central Asia has always been in the fringe of the EU neighbourhood and, because of that, had a lot of significance for its foreign policy. However, the crises and the geopolitical shift towards a multipolar world have resulted in an intensification of the foregoing relations.
The EU-Central Asia format has certainly contributed towards that goal, nonetheless there are sectors of that policy that can be ameliorated, especially regarding important sectors such as energy, raw materials and diplomacy.
One way to help make progress in these segments is through harnessing the strategic location and importance of smaller-states through a C5+1 format, especially the ones in the European borders.
The report elucidates the potential that emerges from implementing this format for Greece-Central Asia relations, highlighting the mutual benefits and exploring the various topics and projects that can be undertaken within this framework.
The EU-Central Asia relations: Background Information
The EU-Central Asia relations have always been an issue of major importance for both parties and this does not happen without a reason. The European regional bloc accounts for more than 23% of the foreign trade across all Central Asian countries, however, it is the recent changes in trade figures that have sparked an even higher interest from Brussels.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, starting from 2022, import figures from Central Asia to Europe delineated a surge of 67%, whilst, correspondingly, exports towards the five Central Asian states grew by 77%. Looking at the broader picture, the approach from Brussels towards Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan can be deemed as successful.
However, going into sector-specific details, points for improvement can be found. One sector that poses as the biggest problem for European markets at the moment is energy. The crisis that spurred following the war on Ukraine has generated a huge gap in supply that has been very challenging for the EU to fill in.
Countries such as Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan have the potential to fill in this gap, but there has been a lack of cross-regional coordination. This shows that, despite its successes, the current EU-Central Asia dialogue format would require either improvements or a complementary diplomacy and format to facilitate progress.
The prospects of a C5+1 format in Europe
One format that have been successful the past years has been the C5+1 format, which was initiated by the United States and provided a platform for discussion on regional cooperation with trade partners that are looking to increase their volumes and expand their collaboration. This initiative has been regarded as successful and is recommended to any state actor aiming to gain strategic initiative in the region.
Taking this into account, EU member states followed this format, such as Italy, through the Italy-Central Asia Conference, depicting that is a practice that can be shared without jeopardising the overall EU strategy in the Eurasian space. Another issue that exists with the EU-CAM framework is the fact that the involvement of Eastern European countries does not have a fully active role in the cross-regional engagement.
Europe’s eastern flank is the part that shares the largest historical, cultural and societal values and could have a lot to add to the dialogue. From an energy standpoint, there is a discernible state actor situated in the South-East.
Greece has long been serving as a transit hub from Asia to the European Union for numerous goods, but also for intangible ones such as cultures and languages. It would, hence, be significant to map the relations of the country with the five Central Asian states, its evolution over the years and prospects of how a C5+1 dialogue with Athens would look like.
Greece as a hub and its relations with Central Asia
Over the past decade, Greece has been developing plans to take advantage of its unique geostrategic location among the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. The development of pipeline infrastructure in Northern Greece (TAP Pipeline), as well as the recent developments on LNG Terminals in Revithoussa, Alexandroupoli and potentially in Thessaloniki and Crete, are transforming the country into an energy hub for the EU, but also globally.
At the same time, foreign direct investment towards data centers and transportation routes in creating an infrastructure capable of converting the country into a liaison both for goods but also digital information.
This has not gone unnoticed by Central Asian states, whose landlocked status signals that it would be helpful to find diversified sea routes and other ways to reach supply-hungry markets such as Europe and North America.
More precisely, trade volumes have steadily increased with all countries in the region. Trade with Kazakhstan showed a fluctuating trend from 2015 to 2020 like $1.4 billion, whilst afterwards it saw a rise to $1.6 billion.
Similarly, trade with Uzbekistan, starting from 2020, rose from $4million to $50million in 2022, depicting a surge of 250%. Similarly, trade with Turkmenistan has doubled over the same period, reaching $25.5 million in 2021. Total trade with Kyrgyzstan shows a small increase from 5 to $7million, whereas Tajikistan followed a similar trend.
Upon examining the primary trading volumes, numerous patterns can be identified. The first is that petroleum products, mineral products and chemicals comprise the largest part of the trade volumes, which also happen to be the products that constitute the backbone of the largest Central Asian economies, namely Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but also the emerging energy giant, Turkmenistan.
Reflecting on the volumes, they grow at a much higher pace than those of the EU average, showing that the Southeast Europe country is becoming a location of strategic importance for Central Asian nations to distribute their goods and diversify their revenue streams, as all five states are looking to open up to as many markets as possible, something that is also evident from the desire to join the WTO both from Uzbekistan, but also from Turkmenistan.
Another reason that makes it clear is the fact that the Turkmen energy sector has been looking to expand its portfolio of gas buyers by participating in fora and bilateral discussions in the Gulf, in Iraq, but also in Turkey. The Alexandroupolis and Revithoussa terminals already have reached a capacity of over 375,000 cbm, the proposed Thessaloniki one has a capacity of 70,000 cbm.
Reflecting on the aforementioned, it can be understood that they are significantly lower than large EU member states. Nonetheless, reflecting on the previous status of the Greece-Central Asia relations, they are becoming a topic of uttermost importance for both parties and that, with the development of the right communication dialogue and initiatives, there are prospects for both parties to pursue their interests and achieve further economic growth. It is important, however, to focus on the strong points of each partnership and incorporate them into a dialogue format that can help reach the optimal outcome.
Why a C5+Greece makes sense
As mentioned, the C5+1 format has the benefit of boosting regional cooperation, which, in similar cases such as Southeast Asia, has proven to help develop industrial policy and find new markets.
So far, this format has been used for the relations with the USA, which has the downside that it might trigger a conflict of interests with Russia as, in numerous sectors, competition between these two countries is a zero-sum game.
This is not expected to be the case with Greece, which is not in direct competition with Russia, hence this risk can be considered as neutralized and there is an even higher chance for this cooperation to be a win-win game for all participating parties.
How the format would look like – Sectors for Cooperation
The first point of discussion in such a format between the aforementioned parties should be energy. In this framework, the Trans-Caspian pipeline should be a key priority. Construction of the pipeline will substantially increase the exporting capacity of all five nations for gas towards Greece, through Turkey.
From there, Central Asian gas cannot only be distributed in the EU, but also, through LNG terminals within the country, to other regions that have an increasing need for gas. In the future, this might include many African nations, which show major economic growth numbers, but not all of them possess the natural resources to power this growth.
Moreover, this is a topic that will benefit Athens. By putting the Trans-Caspian pipeline on the EU agenda, questions regarding the taxonomy of investment in gas projects are, in a way, resolved. This can help the Southeast European country push topics such as the EastMed pipeline on the agenda.
Because the Trans-Caspian will also be a matter that concerns Turkey as well, space for dialogue between Ankara and Athens will emerge anew, which was also one of the major issues that inhibited the project in the Eastern Mediterranean.
A downside of this project at the moment is the escalation of conflicts in Gaza that makes any progress from the point of collaboration with Israel all but impossible, however this platform can have beneficial effects in this front as well.
Central Asian states, as well as countries in South Caucasus, always functioned as mediating actors between Palestine and Israel, and the same can be said for Greece. Overall, this approach is highly likely to create an increase in energy flows in Europe and beyond, boosting energy security and also giving a new lucrative source of revenue for oil and gas producing countries, such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Looking further into the future, the same pipelines can function perfectly also for hydrogen production, which is a topic that concerns all countries in Central Asia, hence this C5+1 format can be fully justified, instead of a quadrilateral dialogue. For Greece, hydrogen would be a great topic of interest, as it is developing its own hydrogen hub in Atherinolakkos, Crete to ship hydrogen from Africa. If a similar project takes place in Alexandroupolis, it will be of great interest for the whole Eurasian realm.
One final point regarding energy is geothermal energy. Greece has already developed several successful projects with geothermal energy and hence has the scientific workforce that can provide the expertise to countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with enormous geothermal potential, to develop new, continuous energy flows. This gains increasing importance considering that the water levels of the existing hydropower plants in both countries are in a constant fall and, hence, even hydro power is becoming unreliable.
Another sector where collaboration would have a lot to contribute is the digital one. Collaboration in that sector has not grown as much yet, however the digital and telecommunications interconnectivity gap in Central Asia is still large and it has been set as a priority by the EU to bridge this gap, through the Capacity4dev program.
Greece is developing its digital infrastructure as a regional hub to where it is expected to account for 10% of its GDP over the next 5 years. Correspondingly, its data center sector is growing at a pace of 9% per year, which is functioning as a backbone for the development of an AI, ML and web 3.0 industry, which is paramount for the digital economy.
Central Asian states can put the digital sector on the agenda, both for best practice sharing among the private sector of all the parties, but also for exchange of views between policy makers on what policies work and what do not.
Finally, other sectors that can help build strong bonds, without having a large impact on both economies, would be beneficial to be addressed through this format.
An example is the fashion and clothing industry. In all countries, natural fur is still not banned and, if produced under farming practices using sustainability and circularity, they can prove to be a source of economic development. The reason is that in all 6 countries, clothing has been produced in local cooperatives using traditional methods.
Exchange of traditions opens a potential collaboration on history and culture as well. Even if this has not been exhaustively mentioned, Greece’s history is intertwined with the region.
The ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia came in contact with the kingdoms of Sogdiana, Bactria, Scythia, Media and the Achaemenid Empire, as well as the Persian Empire, which was close to the Central Asian kingdoms, and there have been exchanges of cultural and artistic characteristics among the aforementioned civilizations.
Combined with the numerous historical ties of Greece with the Turkic world, the two parties share many cultural elements that they can develop into projects of cultural and historic heritage, as well as artistic projects of high-quality.
In sum, the so far approach of the EU and Central Asia has had considerable success, especially the two years that followed the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the new one that followed amidst the invasion of Ukraine.
However, there is still a long way to go so that both parties achieve their goals, both in finding new markets, reducing energy and food insecurity and strengthening their infrastructure. In this plan, one major advantage is being overlooked, and that is the special nature of the relations of Eastern European countries, despite their small size, with Central Asian states.
One of them, Greece, also has the major significance found in its geostrategic location and can help boost Central Asia’s interests in finding new markets for raw materials and processed products.
In these efforts, the C5+1 format can function very well, nevertheless some amendments are to be made to adapt to the nature of these 6 countries’ relations.
Focusing on topics that can prove to be strong points of cooperation, there is a high chance that trade between Central Asia and Greece will continue to skyrocket, but towards a direction that is beneficial for the economies of all 6 states and that converts the Southeast European country into a major hub for products shipped worldwide, that can enhance energy and food security globally.
Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia.
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