BRUSSELS -- The European Union and Kazakhstan have concluded negotiations on an agreement forging closer economic and political ties.
Talks to put finishing touches on the 280-page Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, in the works for nearly four years, coincided with a visit to Brussels by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
The EU is eager to strengthen cooperation with Kazakhstan, which has the biggest economy in Central Asia and is a key partner of Russia in a Customs Union and the planned Eurasian Economic Union.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said after talks with Nazarbaev, "This agreement will greatly facilitate stronger political, economic, and strategic relations as well as the flow of trade, services, and investment between Kazakhstan and the European Union and contribute to Kazakhstan's political, rule of law, and economic reform as well as modernization and prosperity."
Nazarbaev appears keen to balance growing economic integration among ex-Soviet states with robust ties with China and the West.
The agreement, which will replace one of the deals the EU struck in the early 1990s with states that emerged from the Soviet collapse, is expected to be initialed in the coming months and signed next year.
It will make EU-Kazakhstan ties closer than relations between Brussels and Moscow, whose efforts to negotiate a similar agreement have been stymied by strains over issues ranging from energy-market access to the conflict in Ukraine -- which was sparked in part by Russia's unease over the prospect of closer ties between the EU and Kyiv.
The accord being negotiated is looser than the political association agreements and accompanying free trade deals that the EU has offered its eastern neighbors such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, but is more ambitious than anything agreed with any other Central Asian state or with Russia.
A senior European official told RFE/RL that Brussels does not foresee Moscow objecting to the accord and that the Kazakh negotiators had been "very careful that the agreement respects their country's commitments to the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Union."
Kazakhstan's upper parliament house ratified the treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union on October 9, as did the lower house in Belarus.
The EU-Kazakh agreement will not regulate tariffs, which is the province of the nascent Eurasian Economic Union, but will cover other forms of economic relations including technical barriers to trade, food safety matters, services, capital movement, raw materials, energy, and the protection of intellectual property.
The main goal is for EU businesses to be treated like Kazakh businesses in Kazakhstan and vice versa, a source said, and to ensure Astana is willing to play by the rules by agreeing on a trade dispute settlement.
The EU will also push for the country to join the World Trade Organization.
A senior official told RFE/RL that Kazakhstan may have the "same tariffs as Russia but ... the business climate is different."
The foreign policy portion of the agreement focuses on regional stability, the fight against terrorism, cooperation related to Afghanistan, and negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
An EU official stressed that there is a strong emphasis on democracy and human rights.
The agreement enables either side to take unilateral measures if there is a systematic and prolonged violation of principles it enshrines.
Brussels is also holding out the prospect of a visa facilitation and readmission agreement that would make it easier for many Kazakhs to travel to Europe.
Negotiations will take years, but that would be the first such deal between the EU and a Central Asian country.