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Italy and Central Asia, a ‘proxy friendship’ or a serious foreign policy commitment?

Article by Davide Cancarini

March 17, 2020

Italy and Central Asia, a ‘proxy friendship’ or a serious foreign policy commitment?

In March 2019, Italy was the first main European country, and the first G7 member, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with China on its infrastructure strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that is of ever growing importance to the Eurasian region. The agreement between Beijing and Rome caused discontent on a European level, even though Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hurriedly reiterated that his Government acted in full harmony with what was finalised in Brussels on this issue.[1] Officially taken on the basis of economic/commercial evaluations,[2] the decision has many implications. Among them there is the further boost given by Italy’s support to China to one of the emerging tendencies in Rome’s foreign policy: the East pivot – also expressed through a growing focus on ASEAN member countries[3] – and the deepening of the relations with Central Asia, one of the key hubs of the BRI.

Taking a step back, last May the European Commission approved a new EU strategy for Central Asia.[4] It was an update of the first official document adopted by Brussels related to the region that dated back to 2007. The declarations of principle contained are numerous but, as it often happens with initiatives of this kind promoted on a European level, the definition of specific and concrete policies is lacking. Great room for action is therefore left to the Member States determined to approach the five post-Soviet Republics of the area. And in recent months it is Italy that has put in place a series of initiatives to take advantage of this room for manoeuvre.

The latest example is the meeting held in Rome in late January by Undesecretary for Foreign Affairs, Manlio Di Stefano, with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Tajikistan, Muzaffar Mahmurod Huseynzod. The meeting focused mainly on the details of Rahmon’s visit to Italy, scheduled initially for the end of March, but then postponed due to coronavirus spread, as well as the planned Business Forum between Italy and Tajikistan.[5] When the visit takes place, it will be a landmark event for the relations between the two countries, considering that no Head of state of Tajikistan has ever made an official visit to Italy.

The meeting came less than two months after the Italy-Central Asia Conference held in Rome on 13th December 2019, which was attended by the Italian Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio, Di Stefano, and the Foreign Ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Deputy Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The European institutions attended as well, represented by Peter Burian, Special Representative of the European Union for Central Asia. The aim of the Conference, which led Italy to be the first European country to interact simultaneously with all the actors in the area at such a high level, was to define Italian interests and a national strategy with respect to the region. On the side-lines of the event, the Undersecretary stressed the political, not only economic, nature of Italian involvement in Central Asia.[6]

Di Stefano is one of the figures most involved in this dynamism. He has made numerous trips to Central Asia – the last one in November 2019 to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – and attended high-profile meetings – such as the Business Forum between Italy and Turkmenistan held in Milan at the beginning of last November. Even if also the social and educational spheres are involved[7], Italian institutions are acting primarily to ensure that Italian companies acquire greater knowledge of the opportunities provided by regional markets, which are still little known at an entrepreneurial level.[8]

So, Rome’s efforts seem to be directed primarily towards deepening the economic relationship between Italy and the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. As for European Union, trade with the region has grown relatively fast in recent years. It has in fact increased from $31.5 billion in 2007 to almost $36.5 billion in 2018.[9] A weak growth that has, however, allowed the EU to conquer the first place in the ranking of the main commercial partner of the region. The 2nd place is occupied by China – which recorded $23.6 billion dollars of trade with Central Asia in 2018 – and the 3rd by Russia – $21.7 billion dollars.[10]

Looking at Italy and its commercial relations with the main economic players of the area, the picture is positive:

  • Rome is Nur-Sultan’s second largest trading partner at a global level, with a share of 14% of total Kazakh trade, second only to Moscow, which reaches 19%. The relationship is particularly strong in the energy, agricultural machinery and agricultural production sectors and the total turnover reached $13.2 billion in 2018.[11]
  • Economic relations with Uzbekistan, historically much less significant, are however growing strongly, thanks in part to the opening up of the country favoured by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been in power for more than three years now. In 2018, exchanges between Rome and Tashkent grew by 71%, to $337.6 million, thanks above all to the consistency of the bilateral link in the textile and agri-food sectors.[12]
  • Regarding Turkmenistan, the natural gas regional giant, Italy occupies 14th position in the ranking of Ashgabat’s main trading partners. As emerged during the already mentioned Business Forum in Milan, trade in 2019 rose to about €200 million, compared to €90 million in 2018. The figure is still far from the peak reached in 2016, of €605 million, but in the last year it has more than doubled. Confirming the growing significance of relations, at the beginning of November the leader of the country, Berdymukhammedov, made an official visit to Italy. Rome imports mainly mineral products and oil derivatives, while above all exporting industrial machinery to the Turkmen market. It must be said, however, that, in Turkmenistan, Italy almost completely rhymes with ENI: the company has in fact been present in the country since 2008 and since then it has invested more than €2 billion overall. Locally, ENI employs more than 1,000 workers, 95% of whom are Turkmen citizens.

On the basis of these important starting points, the dynamism of the Italian authorities shows the will to further deepen the economic relationship with Central Asia. Broadening the look to the strategic dimension, Rome’s recognition of the importance of the region regarding the development of Eurasian connectivity is also evident.[13]

By linking the growing attention reserved to Central Asia, to the aforementioned support to the Chinese infrastructure initiatives, it is clear that Rome is increasingly looking East in terms of foreign policy, and Central Asia plays a fundamental role in this pivot. But one more factor must be considered. Central Asia represents in fact more and more a strategic confrontation ground between great powers. The region, historically considered by the Kremlin as a sort of “backyard”, now represents a real test for the relationship between Moscow and Beijing, which in recent years has deepened also thanks to their common anti-US stance.[14] Despite recent Washington’s release of its new strategy for Central Asia and the official visit that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid to the region – the first of this kind in years – the US seems to be in the background. Considering also the weakness of European strategies for the region, it is clear how the game for regional dominance is being played on the Sino-Russian axis. Russia maintains its political influence in the area but has had to accept China’s growing economic power, for example with reference to Beijing’s growing control over the external debt of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.[15]  However, Beijing is also taking its first steps in the military sphere of Central Asia, a much bolder move[16] because it is not certain that the Kremlin is willing to accept an overtaking also in terms of influence in the regional security dimension.

All this is to underline how the attempts of the Italian authorities to increase their role in the region are part of a wider game. Acting as a strong supporter of Beijing’s policies in Central Asia, supporting the political/economic initiatives of China too deeply, could prove risky in the medium-long term. On the one hand, because this positioning could undermine relations with Russia, especially if the honeymoon between Moscow and Beijing were to end due to frictions in Central Asia. Let’s not forget that Italy is the fifth largest trading partner for the Russian Federation, with a trade turnover that in 2018 reached $27.5 billion dollars, with a 12.7% increase compared to 2017.[17] On the other hand, there is a growing resentment in Central Asia about Beijing’s activism in the region. Firstly, on the investment front, presented by the People’s Republic as mutually beneficial but in reality, often perceived dangerous by local populations, frightened by the economic and demographic overwhelming power of their Eastern neighbour. Secondly, regarding the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs of Xinjiang, a Chinese region with a Muslim majority. The repression they are subjected to has also involved ethnic Kazakhs in recent months, triggering resentment and public protests in Kazakhstan.

Behind the high-sounding statements and Chinese rhetoric, therefore, some shadows have begun to be seen. The dynamism that is characterizing Italy in the region is certainly a positive factor. Mutual benefits can come from the growth of political and economic relations. But Italy must act independently, avoiding appearing too much influenced by Chinese strategy. The cooperation between Italy and the Central Asian republics should develop as it has done until now: independently. Otherwise, the risk is that regional leaders begin to consider it not a mutual beneficial relation, but a “proxy friendship” sponsored by China.

Davide Cancarini is an independent researcher and freelance journalist based in Milan. He holds a PhD in Institutions and Policies from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan and has worked extensively on Central Asian affairs. His articles/research have been published in various outlets such as Limes – Italian Journal of Geopolitics, EastWest, and think tanks, including IAI – Institute for International Affairs (Rome) and ISPI – Italian Institute for International Political Studies (Milan).

[1]Luciano Fontana and Massimo Franco, Italy-China, a clear understanding: the goal is to grow, Corriere Della Sera, March 2020,

[2] Federiga Bindi, Why Did Italy Embrace the Belt and Road Initiative?, Carnegie Endowment, May 2019,

[3] Fabio Figiaconi, How Italy Is Deepening Its Relationship With ASEAN, The Diplomat, December 2019,

[4] EU Commission and EEAS, The EU and Central Asia: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership, May 2019,

[5] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Di Stefano receives the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan, January 2020,

[6] Agenzia Nova twitter account, December 2019,

[7] For example the Turin Polytechnic University has already opened its own branch in Uzbekistan, and the University of Pisa is defining its collaboration with Uzbek institutions.

[8] Aidana Yergaliyeva, Kazakh-Italian cooperation offers immense unexplored opportunities, says top Italian official, November 2019,

[9] Sam Butia, The EU’s new Central Asia strategy: What does it mean for trade? Eurasianet, June 2019,

[10] European Union-Trade in goods with Central Asia 5,

[11] Deloitte CIS Research Centre, Business Outlook in Kazakhstan,

[12] Embassy of Uzbekistan in Italy,

[13]Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Undersecretary Di Stefano on mission to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, December 2019,

[14] Davide Cancarini, Central Asia, a test bed for the Russia-China relationship,  Aspania Online, November 2019,

[15] More than 45% of the total amount of Kyrgyzstan’s debt, about USD 3.8 billion, is related to loans obtained by Bishkek from the Export-Import Bank of China, Beijing’s international investment arm. As for Tajikistan, 50% of Dushanbe’s external debt, in complex about $2.8 billion, is in Chinese hands. See: Bradley Jardine, Why are there anti-China protests in Central Asia?, Washington Post, October 2019,

[16] Gerry Shih , In Central Asia’s forbidding highlands, a quiet newcomer: Chinese troops, Washington Post, February 2019,

[17] RT, China tops list of Russia’s biggest trade partners, February 2019,

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