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Kestutis Jankauskas

Interview with Kestutis Jankauskas, Ambassador for the European Union to Kazakhstan

From Nick Holdsworth - November 23, 2022

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As DARYA – the European Union’s new project in Central Asia – that aims to bring people and ideas together to create new opportunities for young men and women in the region gets underway, the European Training Foundation is talking to key figures involved in education, training, the labour market and economic development to better understand what can best help develop skills, and key 21st century competences including green, digital and entrepreneurial aptitudes.

DARYA – Dialogue and Action for Resourceful Youth in Central Asia – will work with people across the public and private sectors in education and the labour market in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as organisations and peer groups in Europe during the coming five years to support self-sustaining, long-term strategies for skills and labour market development.

Kestutis Jankauskas, Ambassador for the European Union to Kazakhstan says that although Central Asia has always been an important partner for Europe, recent geopolitical changes have brought it much higher up the agenda.

“The EU and Central Asia are at a new stage of discovering each other,” he says.

“The value chains that have been here for years have now been disrupted because of the war [in Ukraine]. In Kazakhstan there are additional changes because the country has also started reforms following the January events.”

January’s unrest – when fuel protests escalated into what appears to have been an attempted coup by clans opposed to the President Kassim-Jomart Tokyaev – became the catalyst for major changes in the country. Tokayev, re-elected as president in November 20, will serve for the next seven years, but future Kazakh leaders will be limited to just one seven-year term. Reforms under the rubic of a “new and fair Kazakhstan” look to set the country on a stable path of modernisation that will bring the EU closer – both to Kazakhstan and the wider region.

For many Europeans this region used to be far, far away,” the ambassador, a fluent Russian speaker who grew up in Lithuania when it was still under a Soviet occupation. . “But that is not the case anymore. We support countries that follow rules based on international order. Kazakhstan and other countries now see that the value chains developed over the past 30 years are broken and need to be replaced or at least complimented by other alternatives.”

That provides an opportunity for the EU to implement programmes such as DARYA that increase economic and social links with Central Asia. The European Union has recently signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan covering 29 areas, Jankauskas notes, and similar agreements are at advanced stages with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, while negotiations have also begun with Tajikistan.

“Kazakhstan – and the region – has a lot to offer. The EU is already the biggest investor, and these agreements will provide for more investment and trade. Old trade routes through Russia are broken; the Trans-Caspian route now becomes more important.”

This, combined with a new emphasis on human capital – President Tokayev recently declared socio-economic reforms, different patterns of wealth distribution and an emphasis on health care, education and jobs – means that DARYA comes to Central Asia at a key moment.

“In order to have Central Asia peaceful and developing, we need to ensure that the largely young and growing populations of this region have the jobs they need,” the Ambassador stresses. “EU companies are coming here to invest in production, not just mining and extraction. In the future we shall see more production and investment into  the  human capital.”

Since many years EU has been working  with higher education in the region, through Erasmus Plus, but DARYA will boost cooperation in vocational training, prioritising study that will give people the skills they need to get them into the labour market and “give them a decent future.”

“We see this as mutually beneficial – it is important not only that the EU talks with the region, but the countries of the region talk among themselves,” he adds.

This is where the European Training Foundation’s long experience in Central Asia comes in. With a quarter of a century’s experience of working with all the countries of the region, it has the contacts and trust to implement such a major development programme.

“When European Council President Charles Michel visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at the end of October, he said we want to listen to this region, to offer European experience,” Jankauskas adds. “He stressed that what Europe has achieved today is thanks to cooperation. Central Asian countries will be stronger if they can cooperate better together.”

The EU’s “consistent” sponsoring and provision of programmes encouraging regional cooperation – from border controls to sustainable water and the green transition – and the ETF’s long work in education and training, gives the foundation for sharing the experience of the 27 member states of the EU, and that within the region. 

DARYA comes at a critical time when the overwhelmingly young populations of Central Asia were no longer identifying themselves as a “post-Soviet” society.

“I’ve often heard this region refer to itself as ‘post-Soviet’ – but we now need to invest in the new generation that is not defined by the past. This region has rich history and traditions of its own, they need to build their own future, define their own unique identity.”

Summing things up, he concludes simply: “It is time to invest in youth.”