Germany’s Zeitenwende: Redefining Relations with Central Asia

March 2024

Regina Ikramova

Research Fellow

Central Asia, historically positioned at the crossroads of civilizations and trade routes, has once again become a point of heightened interest in the global arena. Amidst geopolitical recalibrations and the pursuit of strategic interests, Germany’s burgeoning involvement with the Central Asian republics emerges as a compelling case study. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has prompted both Germany and Central Asia to explore new avenues and alliances. With a primary focus on securing raw materials and energy supplies, Germany is actively advocating for Central Asian regionalism, aiming to uplift the region from Russia’s shadow and thereby diminish the influence of the regional hegemon.

This intertwines Central Asia into Germany’s political ‘Zeitenwende’— the cornerstone of Germany’s national security strategy—where novel partnerships, diversified alliances, and nuanced diplomatic strategies converge to mitigate dependencies on geopolitically volatile actors. However, the full implications of this cooperation for Central Asia remain to be seen, as uncertainties persist regarding its sustainability and potential impacts on the region’s autonomy and resilience.

Zeitenwende: Shaping The Way Forward

Every December, the Association for the German Language publishes its annual linguistic review, identifying the most influential terms shaping German public discourse for the year. In 2022, the coveted Word of the Year award was bestowed upon the term ‘Zeitenwende.’ (‘Zeitenwende’ amid Ukraine war named German word of the year 2022) Translated as ‘watershed,’ this noun conveys a broader significance, referring to “an event or period that is important because it represents a significant change in how people think or act” (Cambridge University Press, n.d.).

The term gained prominence following a speech delivered by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who declared, “We are living through a watershed era. And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before” (Scholz, 2022). Spoken on February 27, 2022, these words resonated throughout the German Bundestag and the international press. Formulated in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ‘Zeitenwende’ symbolized a significant shift in Germany’s defence policy, marked by increased military spending, enhanced energy security, and revised economic strategies. The essence of ‘Zeitenwende’ is encapsulated in Germany’s inaugural

National Security Strategy, published in June 2023, outlining the nation’s commitment to bolstering security in the supply of raw materials and energy sources (“National Security Strategy: Integrated Security for Germany” 2023a). The success of Germany’s ‘Zeitenwende’ relies heavily on the diversification of partners. Against the backdrop of deteriorating relations with Russia, Germany, once heavily reliant on Russia as a key supplier of gas and crude oil, initiated a diplomatic quest for new alliances. Central Asia, often regarded as Russia’s backyard, emerged as a focal point. Comprising five republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—the region became a key area of interest. In September 2023, following the inaugural Central Asia-USA summit in Washington, the leaders of these republics exchanged handshakes with Chancellor Scholz at the first-ever Central Asia-Germany summit in Berlin (Putz 2023).

The success of Germany’s ‘Zeitenwende’ relies heavily on the diversification of partners.

Enhancing Partnerships with Russia’s ‘Backyard’

Caught between Russia, identified as “for now the most significant threat to peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area” (The Federal Government, 2023a, p. 12), and China, described as “a partner, competitor, and systemic rival” (The Federal Government, 2023a, p. 12), the Central Asian leaders were presented with a partnership opportunity “grounded in shared values, mutual respect, and common interests” (The Federal Government, 2023b).

Key focal points of this strategic regional partnership include energy security, technical collaboration, and the advancement of the Middle Corridor – a transportation and trade route linking Central Asia with the EU. Environmental conservation efforts titled ‘Green Central Asia,’ with a focus on the region’s water and climate resilience, represent another key area that will be expanded with Germany’s support.
The Federal Government is further committed to providing financial support for regional endeavours aimed at enhancing border management, preventing violent extremism, addressing the intersection of climate and security concerns, and promoting women’s empowerment in Central Asia.

The timing for the enhancement of relations comes as no surprise. Although Germany’s National Security Strategy doesn’t explicitly highlight the Central Asian region, preliminary drafts disclosed to the SPIEGEL unveil the German Foreign Ministry’s intent to place increased emphasis on Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the Western Balkans. This strategic shift is driven by the imperative to thwart potential future dominance by Russia or China over these regions (Gebauer, Kormbaki, and Schult 2023).

Harnessing Central Asia’s Potential

It is opportune that Central Asia is rich in raw materials which are critical to Germany’s economy. Moreover, these nations are receptive to the prospect of refining these resources within their borders, a move that promises environmental benefits and a reduction in Germany’s ecological footprint (Heller 2023). Kazakhstan, positioned at the heart of this revitalised regional interest, boasts rich reservoirs of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, alongside promising opportunities for the advancement of renewable energy sources. In the wake of the Central Asia-Germany summit in September 2023, the Svevind Energy Group, headquartered in Germany, embarked on a visionary endeavour: the construction of a green hydrogen production facility in Western Kazakhstan. This ambitious project is poised to emerge as one of the world’s largest hydrogen ventures, symbolising a harmonious fusion of innovation and German-Kazakh collaboration (Sakenova 2023). Overall, the country stands as Germany’s paramount trading ally in the region, facilitating over 80% of Germany’s foreign commerce with Central Asian nations (Sakenova 2023).

Uzbekistan, with a population of approximately 40 million, stands as the most populous nation in the region. Amidst the challenges of Germany’s diminishing workforce, ageing population, and declining birth rates, Uzbekistan presents enticing opportunities for skilled migration. Similarly, Kyrgyzstan is envisioned as a prospective collaborator in legal labour migration initiatives. Germany has forged ahead with both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, signing a declaration of intent to foster extensive cooperation on migration affairs. This agreement, however, also mandates the two Central Asian nations to readmit their citizens who lack legal authorization to remain in Germany, cementing a commitment to a two-way migration management (Migration agreement: Federal Government signs declaration of intent with Kyrgyzstan” 2023). The economic interest in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan remains marginal. Tajikistan, the smallest country in the region with the lowest GDP per capita among the republics, faces significant challenges related to its banking sector structure, infrastructure deficiencies, energy shortages, and legal uncertainties, all of which adversely affect the investment environment (“Germany and Tajikistan: Bilateral Relations” 2023).

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan, despite possessing the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, is governed by one of the most repressive regimes globally. The business climate in Ashgabat is characterized by strict adherence to authority, often at the expense of the rule of law. Given the history of legal disputes between German companies and Turkmenistan, the German economic development agency advises enterprises to exercise caution and ensure secure payment methods, such as advance payment or irrevocable confirmed letters of credit, in their business dealings (Strohbach 2023). In essence, Germany’s interaction with Central Asia is driven by its economic and strategic pursuits, particularly focusing on renewable energy sources, raw materials, and human resources.

Central Asian regionalism is marked by pragmatism, and the cohesive approach to external relations through the C5+1 framework reflects a transformative Zeitgeist.
Pragmatism in Unity: The C5 Approach

Given Central Asia’s strategic geographical location – nestled amidst nations like Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran, grappling with Western sanctions – a broadening of trade partnerships becomes imperative. Despite occasional turbulent episodes, such as the border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2022, fostering collaboration among the five Central Asian states remains vital. This unity serves as a crucial buffer against geopolitical upheavals triggered by events like the Taliban’s rise to power or Russia’s incursion into Ukraine (Buranelli 2023).

Central Asian regionalism is marked by pragmatism, and the cohesive approach to external relations through the C5+1 framework reflects a transformative Zeitgeist. With leadership transitions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, a fresh wave of regional integration has begun. This narrative is anchored in a shared identity rooted in cultural, linguistic, religious, and historical ties, fostering unity among the nations. Beneath this pragmatism lies a conviction that presenting Central Asia as a unified bloc – the C5 – elevates its global visibility, strengthens its international stature, and magnifies its impact in external affairs.

The Strategic Calculus: Proceeding With Caution

Despite varying degrees of assertiveness, the republics are prioritising and publicly affirming their national interests, even when diverging from those of the Kremlin. A notable illustration is the Central Asian republics’ keen interest in advancing the Middle Corridor—a Trans-Caspian multimodal transport route circumventing Russia. Nevertheless, to anticipate Bishkek, Tashkent, Almaty, Dushanbe, and Ashgabat completely disengaging from Moscow would be unrealistic. The shared history remains recent, and the fear of repercussions looms large.

Navigating the region’s unique path while attracting foreign investment demands a delicate balance. This is particularly true when it involves making public commitments to adhere to and respect the global sanctions imposed on Russia, while concurrently exporting Kazakh oil to Germany through the Druzhba pipeline, which traverses Russia, Belarus, and Poland.

Assessing the Impact of Germany’s ‘Zeitenwende’ on Central Asia

The question at hand is the extent to which Germany’s ‘Zeitenwende’ will benefit Central Asia’s own pursuit of national interests and its efforts to decouple itself from regional powers like Russia and China. It remains uncertain whether the heightened interest in the region, primarily spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will persist once the geopolitical landscape stabilises.

Furthermore, it remains to be seen how distinct and sustainable this new wave of cooperation with Germany will be compared to the previous three decades of partnership. While raw materials have traditionally defined the trade relations, the increased focus on human resources warrants special attention. For countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, remittances constitute the primary source of foreign currency earnings, rendering an agreement on migration highly appealing. Nonetheless, there is a risk of potential brain drain that could impede the long-term development of the region.

Whether the intensity of Germany’s bilateral engagement with the individual countries will hinge upon their gradual distancing from Russia, or be bound to pragmatic interests only, is yet to be determined. It is imperative for Central Asia to diversify its strategic partners, a necessity akin to that of Germany. The primary challenge facing Central Asia lies in fostering a cooperative framework resilient to geopolitical fluctuations, ensuring that the region is not solely perceived as a focal point of interest during crises in its proximity.

Nonetheless, Germany’s pivotal position within the European Union, and consequently its influence on the EU Global Gateway initiative, has the ability to further catalyse regional integration in Central Asia. The signs thereof are unmistakable. On January 29, 2024, the European Investment Bank, along with other international financial institutions, declared their pledge to invest 10 billion euros into the Middle Corridor—a venture that holds the potential to substantially transform economies across Central Asia (Assaniyaz 2024).

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, Germany’s growing engagement with Central Asia amid geopolitical shifts marks a significant juncture in regional dynamics. As Central Asia reclaims its historical role at the crossroads of civilizations, Germany’s strategic manoeuvres hold promise for fostering economic prosperity and geopolitical balance. The term ‘Zeitenwende’ encapsulates this transformative period, where new alliances are forged, and old paradigms are challenged.

The effectiveness of Germany’s initiatives relies heavily on partnerships, diversification, and pragmatic diplomacy. Equally vital are these principles for the Central Asian republics striving to enhance their global stature and entice investment. However, uncertainties persist regarding the durability of this emerging cooperation and its impact on Central Asia’s autonomy and resilience. Only time will tell whether the new wave of cooperation will break with the traditional focus on a trade of raw materials, signalling a shift towards more diversified and sustainable economic engagement. Whether cooperation and trade with Germany will provide incentives for individuals to stay in the region, or if there will be an increase in brain drain, remains to be seen.

As the region navigates these complexities, the commitment to shared values and mutual interests offers a beacon of hope for a future of mutual benefit and collaboration. With the EU Global Gateway initiative poised to amplify regional integration, Central Asia may stand on the brink of a new era, where cohesion and innovation pave the way forward.


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———. 2023b. “Kazakhstan, Germany Expand Cooperation in Green Energy.” The Astana Times, November 21, 2023.

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