Exclusive interview of the Michael Gonchar, President of the Centre for Global Studies STRATEGY XXI (Kyiv)
1 How do you evaluate the first meeting of the Visegrad Group (V4) with Central Asia and the new EU strategy for CA?
The first meeting was sooner symbolic; in many aspects because of the domestic Hungarian context – the upcoming parliamentary elections on April 4 The Orban's ruling regime needs success and the V4+CA5 meeting at the level of Foreign Ministries in Budapest was largely a PR-action of Szijjarto for Orban. The main idea that was promoted by mass media was as follows: Central Asia is a region rich in raw
materials and energy resources, which are needed for the growing B4 economies, as well as a large market for sale of V4's products and services.
However, V4 was seriously preparing for a new initiative: V4+CA5. The 2017 and early 2018 were dedicated to the "brainstorming" on the new initiative. Hungary, in view of its chairmanship in V4, proved to be a moderator of the process. The Corvinus University held 3 roundtables on the new format:
Hungary, as the country presiding in V4, sets the cooperation strategy for a new possible format. Its quintessence may be found in the statement of P. Szijjarto, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Hungary:
"A bridge between the Visegrad Countries and Central Asia needs to be built so that mutually beneficial cooperation between the two areas may be achieved in the fields of politics, economy and security," Szijjarto said at a conference gathering his counterparts from the Visegrad Countries (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Szijjarto explained that the Central Asian region could play a key role in the diversification of the European energy supply in the near future. He also recalled that these countries had significant hydropower resources, but used only a small portion of them, hence "Mutually beneficial investments could be made by Central European companies in the region, as there is a large variety of water technology in Hungary and Central Europe."
The new format is unlikely to have serious prospects in the spheres of politics and security – too different are the V4 and CA5 countries in their internal nature, socio-political structure and geopolitical position. However, there are doubtless prospects for economic cooperation, although in many ways Russia will be jealous of the CA4-V4 expanding cooperation with, since Moscow is automatically viewing all formats without Russia's participation as anti-Russian and potentially hostile. The new format was also paid attention in China, viewing it primarily through the prism of its OBOR project.
In one way or another, the communication space for cooperation will pass through Belarus (Poland) and Ukraine (Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland). The V4 countries and Ukraine are interested, for example, in gas imports from Central Asia, primarily from Turkmenistan. The Ukrainian gas transportation system (GTS) has 50 billion cubic meters of free capacity, which could be used for gas transit from Central Asia. In the 1990s and 2000s such transit was a fact, and Turkmen gas was sold in the markets of EU countries. Since 2009, however, Russia stopped the resale of gas from Turkmenistan. Now, the Russian Federation treats gas from Central Asia as Gazprom's competitor and blocks any chances for its transit through its GTS and further to Europe.
What V4 can do is to mobilize the EU for pressure, so that the European Commission demands from Russia to open transit for Central Asian gas. However, it is unlikely that Hungary will initiate it. The weight of CA5 is not sufficient for pressure on the Russian Federation, especially since all of them (with the exception of neutral Turkmenistan) are somehow involved in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and depend on Moscow.
2 Today how important for Ukraine are its mutual relations with Kazakhstan and others Central Asian countries?
The development of relations with CA5 is interesting for Ukraine, especially since Ukrainian industrial products have always been present in CA5 markets. But now and in the short term, it is hardly possible, because of Russia's policy to block any transit of Ukrainian exports through its territory to Central Asia. Another way is possible – by bypassing the territory of the Russian Federation, via the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, but it is more expensive due to the need of making four trans-shipments in the Black and Caspian Seas.
Therefore, Ukraine is increasingly focusing on Middle Eastern and African markets, to which it has access by sea, in contrast to Central Asia, enclosed inside the continent and still under Russia's influence.
3 What can be expected from the oncoming NATO Summit in Brussels?
There are no super-expectations. It is hardly possible to expect any proposals within the Membership Action Plan (MAP). A group of pro-Russian satellites will most likely block such a prospect; while Hungary will try to disrupt the participation of the president of Ukraine in the summit altogether. At the same time, agreements have been reached to strengthen Ukraine's cooperation with key NATO member countries – the USA and Britain. The Hungary's position is more and more irritating the US, and, probably, after the elections in Hungary, where the positions of Orban's political force (Fidesz) will predictably weaken, Washington will increase its pressure on Budapest in order to prevent Hungary's further evolution towards Russia. However, a possibility of NATO's proposal of some analogue to MAP exists.