EU Towards Creating Its Own Eurasian Strategy in Central Asia

_ Elena Alekseenkova, PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager, Research Fellow at Centre for Global Problems Studies, MGIMO-University. Moscow, 14 August 2017.

It was in 2015 that the EU started to prepare the review of the EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership, recognizing the fact that the EU is a player with the least influence in the region. According to the analytical report of the Directorate-General for External Policies at European Parliament, the region is becoming more unstable, and there was no redistribution of resources (primarily of gas), that had been forecast earlier (it is noteworthy that Turkmenistan, whose gas potential was so much relied on by the EU, does not even have a representation of the Delegation of EU). The trade between the European states and the region is very low (except, perhaps, with Kazakhstan), democracy is treated by the regional leaders as a menace to survival, corruption is hindering economic development and “blurs” international economic assistance to the region, the situation with human rights has not improved.

Under these conditions, the EU recognizes that it cannot and should not compete with Russia and China in the region, and encourages to concentrate on specific projects where concrete results can be achieved. In addition to the limited number of economic and security cooperation projects, the EU should focus on education, continue to insist on improving the human rights situation, and strengthen political and financial support for civil society.

The impact of the situation in Afghanistan on the Central Asian strategy of the EU has declined significantly since 2012, giving way to cooling in relations between Russia and the EU and to the Ukrainian crisis. In general, the region is not among the geopolitical priorities of the EU. In this regard, the EU prefers to focus on long-term rather than short-term strategies and results. A decrease in attention to the region was demonstrated in 2014, when the EU cancelled the post of Special Representative for Central Asia. However, in 2015 it was introduced again.

The security issue, although it disturbs the EU in connection with terrorism and participation of citizens of the Central Asian states in military operations on the side of the ISIS and Al-Qaeda, could not become the basis for cooperation between the EU and the countries of the region. In 2013 the EU tried to establish a High-Level Security Dialog, but the attempt failed. The major EU program promoting border security is BOMCA (Border Management Program in Central Asia), with a 5 million euro budget spent in three years since 2015. And even there is a difference of priorities: the countries of the region are interested in obtaining equipment, while the EU would like to invest more in staff training. The EU Central Asia Drug Action Program was transferred from UNDP to GIZ (German Corporation for International Cooperation). Thus, the EU is trying to involve more member states in specific work in the region. In the nearest future, the cooperation between the EU and Central Asian states in security will obviously remain very limited and will include BOMCA program implementation and a number of projects on conflict prevention.

The EU intends to continue to actively advocate for human rights in Central Asia through the Civil Society Seminars, as well as the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, EIDHR, that provides funding to organizations whose activities are related to the protection of human rights. Also, the European Endowment for Democracy is stepping up its activity in the region. The EU intends to link “pragmatically” the issues of economic assistance and humanitarian cooperation with the political changes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. According to European experts, the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and Kazakhstan signed on December 21, 2015, also serves the aim to support democratic transition in Kazakhstan and promotes significant advancement of trade and economic connections. Kazakhstan is the first country in Central Asia to sign a second-generation agreement with the EU, which actually is the key trade and investment partner for the republic.

The EU allocated 750 euro million (Development Cooperation Instrument) as development assistance in 2007-2013, one third was distributed regionally, and two thirds — through bilateral channels. 1 million euro is to be spent annually in 2014-2020. Given that in the previous period the assistance was distributed among a variety of projects, the new period will focus on projects in:

  • Kyrgyzstan — rule of law, education, and rural development;
  • Uzbekistan — rural development;
  • Turkmenistan — education.

Kazakhstan is recognized as a country that does not need development assistance, just like Turkmenistan (since 2017). Funding for Uzbekistan was almost doubled, with no visible reason like the progress achieved in the previous period. At the regional level, the EU had three programs — the rule of law (the program was developed under the leadership of France and Germany), the problem of access to water and the environment program (led by Italy and Romania), education (no EU country wanted to lead this program). At the moment, there is a full audit of the results achieved and, if they are found to be unsatisfactory, the programs might be scaled down. Obviously, the states of the region are not interested in dialog within the framework of the first program, the problems of water use are also extremely sensitive and cause tension between the parties, therefore it is also impossible to achieve any results in the foreseeable future. Latvia and Poland seem to be eager to take over the revival of educational program. There is an understanding in the EU that it is possible to influence the development of the region uniquely through education. Probably, in the near future there will be an increase in internship and exchange programs. In addition, a large number of European funds and organizations that finance scientific research, applied projects, and educational programs continue their work in the region.

In general, in recent years the EU has been determined to build relations with the states of the region on a bilateral rather than a multilateral basis. However, at present, there is a significant transformation of the European approach. Despite the fact that the EU is currently more focused on domestic challenges, Brussels is gradually developing its own strategy towards the Eurasian region. This thesis was confirmed by EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Ambassador Peter Burian in his speech on February 14 this year at the round table in Tutzing (Germany), where FES and SIPRI joint report “The Silk Road Economic Belt: Considering Security Implications and EU–China Cooperation Prospects” was discussed.

In the opinion of the official and the authors of the report, the EU and other key powers of the continent are seriously thinking about creating a common security zone for Europe and Asia. Ensuring this security is possible only through the development of the states of the region and the formation of common economic “connectivity” of the Eurasian space. In addition, Brussels can not help noticing that the region is becoming increasingly unstable.

The Chinese “One Belt, One Road” initiative in this space does not reduce European anxiety about the future of the region. The huge financial resources promised within the implementation of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” projects and China’s desire to “take out” excessive labor and construction capacities draw international attention to China’s determination to implement what has been planned. Under these conditions, the EU is naturally concerned about how all this will be put into action.

Europeans are getting nervous because of the information scarcity about economic projects under SREB initiative. Therefore, the EU insists on the need for multilateral formats for SREB initiative discussion, transparency and publicity of projects. There is also the need for each project to comply with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, perspectives for interaction between all the stakeholders engaged in the OSCE, SCO, and CICMA frameworks, and the need for multilateral coordination of all key regional donors and financial institutions. It is obvious that the EU will try to bind SREB’s hand and foot in order to ultimately institutionalize all formats for cooperation, financing procedures, and negotiation processes within the project.

What is the EU afraid of? It’s no secret that Central and South Asia are regions with a significant share of “gray” economy, informal practices, and non-transparent decisions. It is clear that the bilateral negotiations of elites and easy access to financial flows from China going through SREB initiative, are the most obvious pathways of future events. The consequences of this may be increased corruption, further social stratification, and the growth of social tensions in societies with predominant young population most affected by recruiters of extremist organizations.

There is another important factor: ensuring economic development is impossible without the development of human capital. It would seem that this is understood not only in the EU, but also in China at the level of rhetoric. However, China has not made any concrete proposals yet in the sphere of education, professional development, or professional training. And this means that there is a possibility for a scenario when China builds infrastructure for Chinese money and with Chinese labor involved, and the benefits of using this infrastructure will be received by the government, with no changes for the local population.

Another challenge is the formation of a strong economic dependence on China for the regional states. Chinese loans are by no means cheap and in the future may turn out to be unsustainable for the Central Asian economies. This is likely to entail Central Asian and South Asian states’ political orientation towards China. While the European Union, who has long been trying to “tear off” Central Asia from Russia after the collapse of the USSR, obviously would not like to completely devolve the region into the power of China. The EU also fears the geopolitical consequences of the Chinese initiative implementation, in particular, the intensification of the conflict between Pakistan and India and the rivalry between India and China. And most importantly — the EU sees almost no benefit from the Chinese initiative for Afghanistan — the southern route of the “Road” (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC) is not likely to be beneficial for Afghanistan. This means that the severity of Afghanistan’s economic development is likely to “lie on the shoulders” of the U.S. and the EU.

Thus, there is an understanding in the EU that the Union has a task of “fitting” itself in the current situation in order to later try and influence its development from within. For this purpose, the EU will try to create the most institutionalized and multilateral format for the implementation of SREB in order to reduce risks and maximize benefits. Obviously, this will lead to strengthening the interaction between the EU and the countries of Central Asia, who are the key link in the transport projects on the way from China to the EU. It is likely that cooperation of European foundations, expert structures, and international organizations with the expert community of Central Asian countries, as well as creation of bilateral and multilateral (taking into account the specifics of relations between the countries of the region among themselves) platforms to discuss the upcoming projects will be one of the formats for this interaction.

Cooperation with the countries of the region on preventing the spread of radicalism and extremism might be another possible basis for the future strategy. A number of authoritative analytical centers in the EU are already quite seriously involved in the study of radicalization risks in Central Asia. The EU understands that preventing the “spread” of extremism from the Middle East to Central Asia requires, first of all, serious research on social, religious, economic, and political prerequisites for radicalization and systematic work with the societies, expert structures, public, and religious organizations in the countries of the region. It is also clear that if this kind of work is not going to start in the near future, it is very likely that the EU, like Russia, may face the most serious challenges to its own security, that come not only from the Middle East, but also from the Central Asian region.


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