With an eye on boosting its profile amongst key players on the international stage, the First Connecting Eurasia Dialogue in Brussels ended its 15 March summit with barely a whimper as representatives from the EU and others in the West’s diplomatic circles opted to stay clear of the event, whose aim was to discuss how to bring Europe and Asia closer together in the period of political and economic turbulence in the world.
Italy was the one outlier among EU members as Rome sent a delegation to the event. Though the aim of the dialogue was to discuss how to bring Europe and Asia closer together in the period of political and economic turbulence in the world,
The largely ignore exposed significant differences between Russia and Kazakhstan – the key members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – as Moscow’s delegates were less-than-shy when it came to lambasting the EU for the state of bilateral relations as well as the dozens economic and political points of contention that have emerged in the last several years.
The Russian delegation’s combative tone raised several eyebrows, particularly amongst those who have opted to take a softer approach in the dealings with Brussels, none more so than the representatives from Kazakhstan, who underlined that they were in the position to act as a neutral observer in the ongoing EU-Russia confrontation.
The organisers of the Eurasia Dialogue had hoped to build some much-needed hype around the event as part of their attempt to shed some positive light on what has been a deeply pessimistic mood in Brussels due to the drawn-out, and seemingly endless, Brexit negotiations.
The event was, however, was hamstrung from the start as meetings that involve Russian officials and diplomats are mostly boycotted by Western journalists and the EU’s policy-makers.
No one from the EU’s institutions showed up to the event, though the organisers had hoped to expect ‘key figures’ from the European Commission, European Parliament, and the European External Action Service.
Moreover, Russia’s strategic partner – China, who signed last year in Astana a free trade agreement with the EEU, also neglected the even though the organisers confirmed that an invitation was sent to the Chinese mission to the EU. This ignorance, in turn, raises questions about the true nature of the declared strategic relationships between China and Russia, political leaders of which diligently underline it during their frequent meetings.
Another unpleasant surprise for the Russians came from the representative of one of Moscow’s closest allies in the post-Soviet space – Kazakhstan. The event took place only days before the Central Asian nation’s longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev shocked the world by stepping down after 30 years on the job, his representative at the event – Aigul Kuspan, who serves the head of the Kazakh office to the EU and NATO – deliberately kept Astana at a distance from the open hostility that Brussels and Moscow have been directing at each ever since the war in eastern Ukraine began nearly five years ago.
Kuspan threw cold water on Moscow’s plan to turn the Eurasian Economic Union into a deeper alliance, saying the bloc will never go beyond the point of close economic integration. Her position appeared to contradict the ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin who uses both hard and soft power to exert Moscow’s influence over all of the former Soviet republics – a geographic space that Putin often refers to as Russia’s “near abroad”.
Kazakhstan, along with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, has been engaged in a series of intense talks that are aimed at solving several outstanding disputes between the Central Asian republics. Kuspan described the talks a game-changer for the region and praised the EU for its input and support.
Kazakhstan’s politicians have been making a concerted effort to de-couple the huge, energy-rich nation from Russia ever since the Kremlin opted to engage is an irredentist foreign policy tract when it forcibly annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Putin has justified his moves as part of an ideology that dates back to the 19th century which says that the Kremlin has the moral and ethical right to protect all Russian speakers, regardless of where they are located.
Russians account for nearly one-quarter of Kazakhstan’s population of 16.8 million, which has led Astana to have its own reasons to be suspicious of its northern neighbour in light of what occurred in Crimea and Ukraine.