Tuesday

19th Oct 2021

Opinion

The EU and Central Asia: from great gaming to gradual playing

The European Commission is not prone to dramatic or sudden shifts, which is the product of a long tradition of rational contemplation that Europeans are so proud of, but more literally, it is due to the simple reality of juggling a decision-making process that has 27 members involved in it. One product of this are ruminative foreign policies, like the new EU policy on Central Asia, that may seem paralysingly slow to outsiders, but in reality have a distinct forward momentum.

It is instrumental to examine early drafts that have been circulating of the EU's new strategy on Central Asia through this prism and therefore view them with some tentative optimism. We have not seen any grand offerings of immense wealth or exaggerated security benefits; we instead view a branch being offered that attempts to marry the hard economic realities of European energy needs with a desire to help nurture European democratic norms in another part of the globe.

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  • The EU wants to build new gas pipelines from Central Asia, bypassing Russia (Photo: gazprom.ru)

It is not surprising that we have seen this renewed interest in Central Asia under a German Presidency. Germany remains the only European member state with a full complement of embassies in all five Central Asian states, and chancellor Merkel and foreign minister Steimeier have both repeatedly spoken of their desire to reach out and stabilize European relations with their Eurasian partners.

Furthermore, chancellor Merkel has also presented herself as a European leader who is willing to take a more robust stance in regards to Russia. This has not resulted, as some feared, in an apocalyptic schism with Russia, but rather it has produced the beginnings of a balancing in relations between Russia and the EU. While there are undeniable tensions coming to the surface once again - it is worth noting that so far no-one has suggested that Russia turn off the gas taps.

In this regard it is particularly interesting to note that Russia as a topic in early drafts fails to merit much mention at all. A very early draft referred constantly to a strong Russian presence in the region, while in later ones Russia is only noticeable where it would appear to be missing. There is an emphasis on the importance of gas deliveries from the region, the "construction of new oil and gas pipelines to Europe," and the word "diversification" is used regularly in an energy context. No mention of the EU's current key energy supplier and former big brother to Central Asia.

Instead, the EU strategy seems to be a seven-pronged approach with a heavy emphasis on the softer side of relations: youth and education; human rights, rule of law, good governance and democratization; economic development, trade and investment; energy and transport links; environment and regional water security; combating terrorism, transnational crime, and drugs; and finally a typically nebulous European desire to "promote dialogue within civil society and respect for freedom of religion."

At every level, the emphasis is made to work towards "common aspects as well as specific nation contexts," showing an EU awareness that each nation in the group has varying needs, and there are clear incentives - the doubling of "financial means to assist Central Asia" and the offer to "support...the WTO accession process and eventual membership" of all five members of the Central Asian cluster (currently only the Kyrgyz Republic is a member of the WTO, while Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan remain observers and Turkmenistan is completely outside).

On the other hand, however, there is an unavoidable emphasis on "democracy" and "human rights," something that sparked the anthropological rebuke to "take into consideration [our] countries' national traditions, history, and...mentality" from Uzbek foreign minister Vladimir Norov at a joint press conference on March 28th in Astana.

This is a not entirely surprising comment given the EU's ongoing retention of an arms and travel embargo on Uzbekistan. Initially a reaction to the May 2005 incident at Andijan (where an unknown number of protestors were killed by government forces) the sanctions and the subsequent Uzbek decision to ask the United States to abandon bases on its territory have left EU-Uzbek and US-Uzbek relations on hold. The main result of this has been for Uzbekistan to wander into the warm embrace of its Russian and Chinese neighbours, who offer a less emphatically "democratic" and more pragmatic relationship.

What is particularly interesting about the new EU strategy, however, is its awareness of the new "great game" that it is trying to play a part of in the region. "Human rights" may play a prominent role, but they are matched by a bevy of realpolitik economic and energy related carrots. While they are not quite the no-strings-attached offers put on the table by the Chinese, they do instead offer "sustainable development" and "capacity building" in contrast to the Chinese tendency to prefer to rely on their own firms to construct local capacity.

There is further no mention of the United States or NATO, both subjects with historical baggage: it seems the EU is eager to re-write its history from scratch in Central Asia. China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization only merit a strategically brief mention in the fight against drugs and transboundary crime in the region.

Internally within the EU, there are many reasons for optimism within this renewed strategy. Germany has made a point of aligning its policies as presidency of the EU with the next two presidencies (Portugal and Slovenia), providing some unusual continuity in European policy. Currently, the EU is broadly shut out of Central Asia, and shares no contiguous borders with the region: the positive side to this is that the EU is able to steer the rudder towards an internal consensus on the region without having too many onerous member state caveats attached to potential policy. And the member state with the most to worry about, Germany, is the one currently at the rudder anyway.

At a time when European credibility in the world is slipping, a successful policy towards Central Asia would provide the EU's Common Security and Foreign Policy with a much needed shot in the arm. Hopefully a nurturing incrementalist policy, that will not devolve into an all-too-common Euro-stagnation.

Raffaello Pantucci is a research associate at the London-based think-tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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