UK’s Cameron addresses British “lack of seriousness” in Central Asia with five-day tour

UK’s Cameron addresses British “lack of seriousness” in Central Asia with five-day tour
UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron meeting President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe. / UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
By bne IntelliNews April 22, 2024

British Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron has embarked on an extensive five-day tour of Central Asia aimed at reviving UK ties with the region following a damning report issued last November by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament. It concluded that the UK’s high-level ministerial engagement with Central Asia’s governments has been persistently inadequate and interpreted by partners as demonstrating “a lack of seriousness” from the British government.

Cameron is visiting Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, as well as Mongolia. He is the first British top diplomat to visit Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and the first to visit Uzbekistan since 1997. He is also the first to visit Mongolia at this level in over decade.

An awkward difficulty for Cameron is that in arriving in Central Asia at a time when Russia is attempting to maintain shadow trading with the region that sidesteps Western sanctions to help supply its war economy, he must address this sensitive matter. Adding to the potential embarrassment, as bne IntelliNews reported in February, even UK firms are playing an important role in equipping Russia’s war machine—data has shown that British companies are exporting hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment and machinery to former Soviet satellite states including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Georgia that is then re-exported to Russia. Drone equipment and heavy machinery have featured among surging shipments with no other logical end-destination but Russia.

Reports this week suggested that luxury UK cars are also still making their way to Moscow, taking routes through countries including Azerbaijan.

On April 22, speaking on a visit to the Ata-Beyit memorial to victims of Soviet repression near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Cameron said Britain wants to work with the countries of Central Asia to end the circumvention of sanctions in export and re-export to Russia.

Cameron proposed that Britain can talk to the Central Asian countries about the “common high-priority list” of Western items critical to Russian weapons systems.

He told ITV: “Of course we aren’t against trade between Kyrgyzstan and Russia – it is natural – it shouldn’t be that these items are exported here and then simply re-exported, simply building Russia’s war machine, without there being much advantage to Kyrgyzstan – so working with the government to try to put a stop to that.”

In talks with leaders from across the region, Cameron will seek to “advance discussions on sanctions circumvention, human rights and reform”, the British Foreign Office said.

Cameron’s engagement with Central Asia comes as countries including China, Gulf Arab states, the US, Turkey, France and Germany, as well as the EU, jockey for growing influence and economic links with the region, while Russia’s usual level of engagement with the Central Asian countries remains undermined given how concentrated the Kremlin is on its full-scale war in Ukraine.

In Kyrgyzstan, Cameron remarked that the the world is “undoubtedly a more dangerous place” than when he was UK prime minister, with “the lights on the global dashboard flashing red”.

“This is a more dangerous, more difficult, more disputed, more competitive world,” he said. “There are things we must do to strengthen our defences … our protections against interference, but also we strengthen our alliances – hold friends close and build new alliances as I’m doing here.”

In a meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon at the Palace of the Nation in Dushanbe on April 22, Cameron said there was “more we can do” in collaborating in areas including business, climate change and counter-terrorism. Tajikistan has a particular problem with disillusioned, radicalised Tajiks joining Islamist terror groups.

“I’m delighted to be the first Foreign Secretary to visit your country. I’m only sorry that it’s taken so long for one to come,” Cameron told Rahmon. “We want to signal a new era in relations between Britain and all of the Central Asia republics, starting here in Tajikistan. Overall, we’re here to say let’s make the partnership bigger, let’s do more things together.”

During the trip, Cameron announced that funding for Chevening scholarships awarded to Central Asian students would be doubled. The scholarships support people from overseas studying in British universities. The UK Foreign Office, meanwhile, unveiled £50mn ($61.8mn) of funding over the next three years in Central Asia development spending as well as a new scheme designed to promote the English language, including online teaching resources with tailored local content available to teachers throughout the region.

The UK Foreign Secretary in Tajikistan visited a number of key sites including the Nurek Dam hydropower project.

“[You are] at the sharp end of climate change with the melting of the glaciers and the problems that you face here. But you’re also a big part of the solution by providing that clean, green energy,” he was reported as saying by local media.

Tajikistan is in fact struggling to find the financing to finish its multi-billion-dollar hydropower mega project, Rogun.