Central asia and the european union: towards the new eu regional strategy

Abstract. In July 2019, the EU has presented in Bishkek its long expected new strategy towards Central Asia. Many experts regarded this event as the fact of deep geopolitical significance. However, a some skeptical approach is saving among analytical community. The strategy, on paper at least, revises the EU’s policy toward the region and how it cooperates with its organizations. It sets out how the EU and the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - can work much more closely on issues such as resilience, prosperity, and regional cooperation. The strategy’s text outlined in the conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Council of June 17 also includes a multitude of other topics, from human rights and working with civil society to a greater focus on security, the environment, and good governance. While the EU has often been criticized for taking too general an approach to the region, the new strategy at least asserts the need to “differentiate between specific countries”.

Is the regional dimension of the EU Central Asia strategy adequately conceived or appropriate for the twenty-first century? This question is particularly relevant given the growing re gional role of China and India. The majority of Central Asian elites share many common views about the EU. They feel that the EU is barely visible in Central Asia, that it is unknown to the general public, which it has complex bureaucratic procedures, and finally, that it has ambitions greater than its actual leverage and ability to deliver [1].

It should be also mentioned that these researchers have quite a positive attitude towards the EU. The majority of Kazakhstan’s political analysts (similar to representatives of other Central Asian nations) traditionally view the EU as a positive geopolitical factor, and an example of economic success and effective regional integration. Attitudes towards the EU were unbiased: the EU did not have a burden of imperial history (as Russia), did not act aggressively and arrogantly (as the USA), and was not a source of potential threats (as China) or actual threats (as the Islamic world) threats. In short, regional activists had a very high opinion of the EU, in particular in the 1990s.

These feelings were encouraged by the EU’s actions, including abundant economic assistance, and various large-scale programs like TACIS, and also by the geopolitical statements, announced by Brussels that claimed that Europe considered Central Asia and the Caspian region as areas of its strategic interests. Consequently, the EU was considered an adversary of former Soviet nations’ reintegration due to its policy aimed at post Soviet area segregation in 2000[1] (paradoxically, the EU always advocated intensification of regional integration within Central Asia). “Double standards” in EU’s policy (though they are much milder compared to those of US’ policy) and other signs of “western solidarity” were also strongly criticized. It should be mentioned that Central Asia always recognized the difference between the motives of the West European nations and so called New Europe.

The Traditional EU Strategic Interests in Central Asia

In fact, Europe did not have a definite strategy in Central Asia during the 2000s. At the same time, the EU goals related to Central Asia were clear from the very beginning, but the Union did not have instruments to reach them.

According to a paper named the EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership adopted on 31st May 2007 which covers the period from 2007 to 2013, the EU set forth the following goals for the region:

  1. To ensure stability and security;
  2. To maintain poverty reduction and to increase the standards of living within the Millennium Development Goals; and
  3. To promote cooperation both among the Central Asian states, and between these nations and the EU, especially in energy supply, transport, higher education and environmental protection.[2]

Primarily, the paper states that Central Asia traditionally brings Europe and Asia together and that Central Asian states adhere to the OSCE (i.e. become close to the European political space). The EU and Central Asia have common goals such as maintaining stability and achieving prosperity. It is also important that the EU intends to hold constructive dialogue with regional organizations, in particular with the Eurasian Economic Community (EURASEC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Conference on Interaction and the Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC).

Still, it is not clear to what extend the EU will exert its geopolitical influence on Kazakhstan and Central Asia given growing Chinese influence, Russia’s attempts to regain control and the possibility of the USA suspending its activities in the region.

The European policy (the European policy in general, not only in Central Asia) is mainly defined by Europe’s Big Three (the United Kingdom, France and Germany) as opposed to the EU institutions in Brussels. German policy towards Central Asia appears different for its so-called regional approach. Berlin takes Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations together, as if they have common geographic and market conditions. It is possible to draw a parallel between German policy and the EU comon policy. German interests in the region include the German ethnic group (dwelling mainly in Kazakhstan), reforms aimed at implantating the German model of social and market development, the expansion of German business, and regional resources.

Berlin influenced the EU common strategy towards Central Asia on several occasions. In 2000, the German experts developed the Caspian Sea Stability Pact. In May of 2001, the German Foreign Ministry prepared the Shcmillen’s Memorandum introducing a conceptual understanding of EU strategy in Central Asia.

In 2007, Germany took over the EU presidency chair on a rotation basis. One of its priority tasks was reconsidering the EU policy in Central Asia. In June 2007, a new strategy--mainly developed by Germany- -was offered for consideration by the EU Council. Experts from various parties, including Europe, the USA and Kazakhstan, believe that the EU must abandon its policy of a passive player in favor of taking anticipatory measures. Up to the present moment, the EU policy was a mere response to ongoing events. However, all anticipatory measures must be taken within a particular strategic plan.

Overall, experts claim that EU strategic tasks require the following measures to be taken:

  1. The threat of Islamic radicalism should be taken seriously; therefore, support should be provided to Central Asian nations, Uzbekistan in particular, in order to fortify their law enforcement bodies and support reforms in their security systems;
  2. More attention should be paid to Afghanistan and its role in regional economic development and security; transcontinental trade must develop more evenly in all nations, not only in Russia and Europe;
  3. Turkey should be considered a link, which would allow Europe to exert influence on processes in Central Asia; cooperation with Ankara on these issues should be encouraged significantly;
  4. Cooperation with reform advocates with local governments should be promoted; the EU program for inter-parliament cooperation must be developed further.

According to European politicians, stable democratic secular governments in Central Asia and the South Caucasus would form a security barrier protecting Europe from unstable Islamic regions. All in all, experts have different opinions about the importance of Central Asia to the EU. Nevertheless, European nations provide active support to their energy producing companies to ensure the stable supply of oil and gas from Central Asia.

In 2010, the leading EU experts in Central Asia supplied two types of recommendations: gener al strategic and more specific technical.[2]

The strategic aspects of EU-Central Asia cooperation included the following:

  • A possible re-vamping of the strategy would be more appropriate in 2011 when the new External Action Service is in place.
  • The EU has some clear security concerns with respect to Central Asia: energy supply secu rity through diversification of sources and linkages with Afghanistan. Contrary to the opin ion of some experts, this does not look like a conflict of interests vs. values as long as legit imate interests are pursued in a principled manner. However, Central Asia presents a real challenge in this regard, since the present state of governance in the region is far removed from these principles. This presents the EU with a choice: either to pass over its preferred principles in this case or to make a special effort to apply its principled approach in ways that are realistically operational in this difficult political environment.
  • The case of Kazakhstan deserves special mention as a key country in the region that has chosen to respond to the EU’s strategy by adopting its own “Path to Europe.”
  • The EU’s concept of regional cooperation in Central Asia needs revision. However, it should not be overemphasized with respect to the opportunities for regional cooperation with neigh bors external to the region (Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and South Asia) or in those areas where the EU has several major interests (e.g. in energy, transport, and security). The EU is working on this wider regionalism with projects to link Central Asia to its Eastern Partner ship initiative.

The technical aspects are as follows:

  • The EU intends to increase its diplomatic presence in the region, and with the impetus of the new Lisbon Treaty provisions this needs to be done decisively, with adequately staffed EU delegations in all five states.
  • A structured process has been set up in the human rights field at both the official and the civil society levels. But this needs to be carefully upgraded, without which it risks becom ing little more than a token routine of political convenience for both sides.

Kazakhstan’s Way to Europe and the OSCE

In March 2008, Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev proposed the Way to Europe conceptual program during his annual Message. The message covered important issues in regards to Kazakhstan’s position in the international arena and an outlook for its foreign policy. First, Kazakhstan was considered to be an important and powerful participant in the global energy security system. The President emphasized that this time investments would be attracted mainly from domestic sources. Second, Kazakhstan actively began taking measures to integrate into the world transport system, including the North-South and West-East directions. [3]

As a result of these projects, Kazakhstan was expected to become an important participant in the future Eurasian continental transport network, which would compete with transportations by sea that have dominated for five centuries. In addition, the President talked about the restoration of the Great Silk Road under new conditions. Kazakhstan continued accepting oralmans, ethnic Kazakhs from neighboring countries. This process implies further development of relations with nations housing large Kazakh ethnic groups. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan’s priorities remained the same: to develop relations with Russia, China and the Central Asian states. Astana would continue its support to regional and international security organizations, including the CICA, SCO and CSTO.

Kazakhstan will not avoid cooperation with the USA, the EU and NATO, which are important players in terms of stability in Central Asia. In 2009, Kazakhstan will become an OSCE co-chair and in 2010 the nation will take over the OSCE chairmanship. The President’s message differed from previous ones with the addition of a new proposal to develop the Way to Europe program. As before, Kazakhstan stayed among the members of the international coalition fighting against international terrorism and religious extremism. Pres. N.Nazarbayev also mentioned that Kazakhstan’s foreign policy was developing simultaneously with economic growth and consolidation of defense forces.

Brussels is convinced that Kazakhstan and the EU have major opportunities to deepen their bi lateral relationship with the objective of bringing the rapid economic development of this rich country into harmony with political and social progress, and its participation in an enlightened conception of international relations. The main feature of these new agreements is that they can cover the whole range of EU compe tences, combining those stipulated at the time the PCAs were negotiated with those in the spheres of justice, home affairs, and foreign and security policy. However, the trade policy content will be lim ited by the fact that Kazakhstan was joining the Customs Union with Russia and Belarus, which excludes the possibility of a free trade agreement with the EU unless done by all three together. The EU can also consider how close Kazakhstan could be brought toward or into the Eastern Partnership.[4]

From Central Asia to Eurasia

The EU has based its approaches to Central Asia on the idea of placing it in the Eurasian context. It seeks to foster regional cooperation among the five states and is allocating 30 percent of its budget to regional projects. It comes to Central Asia with a presumption in favor of regional cooperation, the prospects of which look vague. But has the regional dimension of the EU Central Asia strategy been adequately conceived for the 21st century? This question is suggested by the great and growing re gional role of China and India.

The EU Central Asia Strategy has already seen significant development of the regional dimen sion to the political dialogs between the EU and all five Central Asian states. Foreign minister meet ings are being held to discuss broad political and security issues, sector-specific dialog circuits for education, water and the environment, and the rule of law, even though they were sporadic and took place within a very short period between 2008 and 2010. No specific results of these activities are visible so far; there are some sharp contrary developments happening outside these meetings (e.g. the current breakdown of the regional electricity grid). The EU, however, seeks to promote a gradual movement of ideas among the Central Asian participants in favor of regional cooperation.

The objective limits to Central Asian regionalism are evident, and this is reflected in a shift in EU spending, reducing the weight of regional programs and increasing that of bilateral ones.

At the same time, there is also a case for a second concept of regional cooperation, which we can call “external” rather than “internal” regionalism. External regionalism would involve cooperative activity with neighbors external to the region, whereas internal regionalism is restricted to the five Central Asian states. With its modest population size, Central Asian regional cooperation does not have much potential if it is not part of wider economic openness. While there are some activities which intrinsically have a cross-border regional cooperative dimension, such as border management itself, transport corridors and, above all, water management, it is nonetheless the case that these three examples have vital cross-border dimensions linking to neighbors external to the region with transconti nental dimensions. Thus, border management largely concerns drug trafficking, where Central Asia is just a transit passage between Afghanistan and Europe, Russia and China.

There are important long-term implications for the EU’s relations with Russia, China, and India, as well as the shorter-term priority of finding some kind of political resolution of the Afghanistan imbroglio. The EU has already moved in this direction; it has regrouped Central Asia with South Asia, rather than in a former Soviet Union group. The EU has moved partly in this direction by grouping Central Asia with South Asia for the purpose of its aid administration.

Some think that a Eurasian frame is more suitable for the EU than just a link to South Asia. In this context, Central Asia is unique as a landlocked region sitting amidst the Big Four of Eurasia: Russia, China, India, and the EU. Today, the EU has to concentrate on a new picture of the multipolar world: there are new geo political players (or old players with new images), such as Russia, China, India, and the European Union itself. The new picture calls for new approaches and creates new strategic challenges - preserving order and the spirit of cooperation.

The EU has reason to take further steps in its conception of the multiple regional dimensions of its foreign policy, which already has the Eastern Partnership, Northern Dimension, Union for the Mediterranean, Black Sea Synergy, and now the Central Asia Strategy. Each of these initiatives has its rationale.

What is missing, however, is an overarching Eurasian dimension, looking for ways to devise cooperative ventures reaching across these several regions into the wider Eurasian landmass, adapted to the needs of the emerging multipolar world.

Such an initiative would, inter alia, be a constructive move toward Russia after the awkward period in which the launching of the Eastern Partnership has been seen as deepening the segmentation of the postSoviet space in EU policies.

European analysts are convinced that the present “internal” regionalism of the Central Asian strategy should continue its role of facilitating a dialog with and among the five states. But major is sues should find their place in “external” regionalism that could be framed as part of a wider Eurasian strategy. The European Union is exploring how the Central Asia strategy might fit into a global concept of EU foreign policy. The EU already has relations with most of the world’s regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, as well as the European neighborhood, and bilaterally through strategic partnerships with China, India, and Russia.

According to analysts, there are at least three spheres of policy where the EU, Central Asian countries, and other powers (Russia, China, the U.S., India, etc.) can work together.

First, cooperation to combat the common security threats coming from Afghanistan and Pa kistan, in particular in the form of drugs and radical Islamic terrorism. Second, the regional water-hydropower nexus, where major solutions could best rely on in ternational consortia with all major players present. Third, optimization of transcontinental transport routes for trade.

As for organizational initiatives, the EU might, if invited, become an observer member of the SCO. Or, alternatively, the EU meetings with the five Central Asian states could for some purposes be extended to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Moreover, since the EU has decided to have a Central Asia strategy, it is obliged as a matter of strategic consistency to articulate this in its world view.

The Expectations for “New” EU Strategy toward Central Asia

Unknown yet highly strategic, Central Asia attracts the interest of major global powers due to its vast energy resources and crucial geographic position. Russia, China, and the European Union view this region as an indispensable springboard to enhance their political and economic influence on the Eurasian landmass. Thus, facing strong competition and working on low budget, the EU is attempting to establish itself as a relevant and influential actor in an environment in which its leadership role is far from certain. Unlike in other postcommunist regions, the EU is not able to rely on the attractiveness of its political models, and risks being marginalized by other global powers.

The crucial question then is: How does the EU exert influence in such a challenging geopolitical context? Which strategies does the EU apply to be an actor who counts? Through an analysis of the EU’s discourse, instruments, and the reception of its policies in Central Asia, this study argues that the EU consciously takes the position of a second-tier actor who acts as a “consultant” and projects a picture of itself as an honest broker with no geopolitical agenda. The EU’s influence is confined to niche domains in the security sphere that are nevertheless important for the regional security. The EU is not a great power in the region nor is it willing to become one. It does, however, have comparative advantages in being perceived as inoffensive and for occupying areas that are neglected by the other actors, such as governance and water security.

European institutions face deep internal difficulties: the EU is reeling from Brexit and controversies with Hungary and Poland, and the Council of Europe faces serious problems with countries on Europe’s eastern and southeastern flanks that, much like Kazakhstan, straddle the boundaries between Europe and Asia.

It remains the only Central Asian country to have an Individual Partnership Action Plan, through which it actively cooperates with the alliance. By contrast, the country’s relationship with Council of Europe is surprisingly underdeveloped. In fact, as a European country, Kazakhstan other CA states and should normally be eligible for membership in this organization. To date, European states and organizations have largely failed to recognize Central Asian and mostly Kazakhstan’s European identity. The exception is the OSCE, which, of course, embraces the broadest definition of Europe from “Vancouver to Vladivosotok”, and encompasses all of Central Asia as well as Mongolia.

The EU should be lauded for successfully negotiating an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with only Central Asia and Kazakhstan. In the short to medium term, the task for both Brussels and Astana should be the implementation of this agreement. But the EU should be prepared in the longer term to look beyond this agreement, especially in light of the changes taking place in the Eastern Partnership. Now that the Eastern Partnership is no longer synonymous with Association Agreements and DCFTAs, the EU should consider the merits of Kazakhstan at a future date joining the Eastern Partnership. Indeed, such a move could have beneficial implications for the initiative itself and more broadly for EU interests in the broader region. By extending the Eastern Partnership across the Caspian Sea, the EU would be in a much enhanced position to support the development of energy infrastructure across the Caspian Sea, providing it with access to Central Asian oil and gas reserves.

Equally important, it would put the EU in a better position to support the development of continental land trade routes along the New Silk Roads, which are currently being constructed to link Europe with China as well as the Indian subcontinent.

Approximately 68 million peoples have been allocated for the implementation of the program and clearly expressed its willingness for more close and comprehensive relations with the EU with a wide range of expectations such as: stable foreign trade incomes from the EU’s developed economies; diversification of consumers of region’s energy resources; encouraging FDI for the country’s economic development, employment, social welfare and prosperity; balancing out Russian and Chinese political, economic, social and cultural influence; ensuring the safety of transportation routes that traverse the country; incorporating foreign experiences for improving the economic and financial system; eliminating the deficit of technology and innovation; getting support in resolving security issues; promoting Central Asian image as a valuebased region.[5]

The EU is likely to lose the game to Russia and China as long as the geopolitical agent per se remains physically stronger than the normative one in the international system. However, this game could be made more sophisticated by turning a soft power, where Europe is stronger, into a geopolitical asset. If the EU would decide to narrow its focus on a few matters where it would seek concrete impact, the focus should be on: bilateral partnerships and increased ties with civil societies; support for democratization and strengthening the defence of human rights; modest security cooperation based on conflict prevention; and a more simplified and effective development policy with a heavy emphasis on education.

One should remember that the very title of the EU’s strategy implies a priori the existence of the region under the name, Central Asia. This, in turn, requires consideration of all Central Asian countries as indispensable parts of a single region and the display of an explicit regional dimension in the strategy. The new strategy should be made more “aggressive. This means shifting from a simple, general dialogue with the target country based on axiomatic ideas and principles, to a more meaningful dialogue based on explicit and prompting criteria to implement those ideas and principles.

The authors of the new strategy should also envisage the upcoming power transition in authoritarian Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where the notorious “transition period” is coming to an end. In this context, such values as democracy, freedom and human rights should receive stronger articulation. Europe, before promoting its strategy in the Central Asian region based on a normative and value-driven programme, must prove itself in the eyes of Central Asians as the best example or role model in terms of a firm commitment to those values.

The reopening of transport corridors connecting Europe and Asia via Central Asia is sure to be one of the most momentous developments of the coming decades. By creating land routes that will enable the booming economies of China and its neighbors to trade directly with the large economies of the European Union, it will increase the speed and drive down the cost for everyone involved. The benefit of such a development for Europe’s manufacturing sector is obvious. The Central Asian transit countries also have much to gain from this project, including new hard and soft infrastructure, yields on tariffs, the creation of jobs, and efficient outlets for their own products.

Initiatives to develop these new trade corridors warrant the strong support of both the European Union and of Central Asian countries. Beyond these procedural conclusions, this study identifies four issues that the EU and Central Asian countries should take up immediately and address together. These recommendations are treated in turn below.[6]

Nearly all attention regarding continental trade by land has thus far been dominated by governmental initiatives. But future success will be determined as much or more by market realities, and dependent on the private sector. Therefore, the first challenge is to embrace and build upon the inevitable shift from activities initiated and funded by governments to those market-driven activities in many spheres that must exist for the project as a whole to succeed.

To now, virtually all discussion of the New Silk Road has focused on the roles of China and the European Union. But for the project to succeed, it will be necessary to develop “soft infrastructures” along the route itself. To now, virtually all discussion of the New Silk Road has focused on the roles of China and the European Union. But for the project to succeed, it will be necessary to develop “soft infrastructures” along the route itself. The EU and Central Asian countries to work together to identify and remove existing impediments to the establishment of locally based soft infrastructure and to encourage private sector firms in their countries to seize opportunities in this area.

The geopolitics of transport and trade must be fully understood and their importance acknowledged by clear-headed policies. It is in the interest of both Europe and Central Asia to ensure that no power gain the ability to monopolize or control the emerging EastWest transport corridor. This means utilizing the existing road and rail links to Northern Europe via the Russian Federation. But it also calls for balancing that northern route with the emerging corridor to Europe via the Caucasus and Turkey.

The European Union and its Central Asian partners to hasten the full opening of the transport corridor through the Caucasus and to facilitate its use by simplifying access through the Kazakh-stani port of Aqtau and Turkmenistan’s new port at Turkmenbashi. Working also with China they should enter into negotiations with Russia and Iran to assure that no Caspian littoral power has the right or power to impede such trade.

Discussion and action on trans-Eurasian land corridors to date has focused almost exclusively on reconnecting China and Europe. Looking forward, it will be necessary also to take fully into account the almost certain rise of the Indian subcontinent (i.e. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) as a major economic force by the year 2040. Acknowledging this emerging reality, the EuropeanUnion and its Central Asian partners should combine forces to advance the opening of the most direct and efficient transit corridors between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

The European Union and the United States have many shared interests in Central Asia, but follow different approaches. The main points of convergence are the pursuit of human rights standards, democratic development, stability and security, and the broader economic and social development of the Central Asian states. In this context and despite the many difficulties, the EU and the U.S. would be well-advised carefully to coordinate their approaches, especially in the fields of security, development and shared values. Allowing Central Asian governments to pick and choose partners enables them to play one actor against the other without engaging in much- needed reforms. EU-U.S. coordination and cooperation on border control support; promotion of democratic and human rights values; and development aid would help to increase leverage over local regimes, as well as increase the effectiveness of their respective or joint assistance programmes in the region. [7]

The EU has vowed to promote democracy and human rights in its foreign policy through various policy and financial instruments; the European Parliament (EP) is an important institution in ensuring that these matters are firmly on the radar of the Union’s executive institutions. The European Parliament also carries significant weight in negotiations over some international agreements, for example on trade.[8] While the EEAS and the European Commission are the chief negotiators, international agreements such as Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) will only enter into force after EP consent. The new EP legislature will need to build on the work of its predecessors, while deepening European engagement with Central Asia.[9]

As Prof. F.Starr and S. Cornell propose, the EU, by contrast, defines itself on the basis of norms and values rather than pure interests, though as will be discussed in this paper, in Central Asia the EU often acts on the basis of a combination of European interests and values. This makes the EU particularly hard to pin down, and certainly implies that Central Asian leaders are predisposed to viewing the EU in the way it views other great powers. In spite of this, the role of the EU in Central Asian states’ strategy has grown along the EU’s own evolution. Several factors account for this.

First, the Central Asian states are inherently positively predisposed toward non-regional powers’ presence in Central Asia. Second, Central Asian states have seen growing trade relations with the EU. The EU is, alongside China, the region’s largest trade partner, with a total trade turnover of close to US$40 billion. Third, the EU is a source of both technology and ideas for Central Asia. This is not necessarily always a positive factor in the relationship, as Europeans often berate Central Asians for their human rights record and the lack of democratic reforms, criticism that Central Asian leaders do not necessarily welcome. [10]

The Strategy divided EU priorities into seven areas. The first is “Human rights, rule of law, good governance, and democratization”. It leads with the HR dialogue to be established, but in concrete terms, focuses mainly on the EU Rule of Law Initiative, which was subsequently set up to address specific initiatives identified by each country. Under this umbrella, the EU offered to second experts to Central Asian state institutions, as well as engage in training, support legal reform, and foster cooperation with the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.

The second priority area was Youth and education, where the EU strategy adopts a very broad purview, aiming to help develop primary, secondary, vocational, as well as higher education. The fourth priority is “Strengthening energy and transport links,” including supporting an integrated Central Asian energy market, as well as the development of sustainable and renewable energy.

The majority of Central Asian elites share many common views about the EU: they feel that the EU is barely visible in Central Asia; that it is unknown to the population; that it has complex bureaucratic procedures; and that it has ambitions greater than its actual leverage. Ruling elites believe the EU lacks pragmatism in comparison to Chinese and Russian cooperation and influence. To conclude on a positive note, the EU can increasingly play to its strengths. European culture is admired by political and civil society elites in Central Asia. The strategy’s fifth heading was “Environmental sustainability and water,” which focuses heavily on the promotion of cooperation on water management, a perennial apple of discord in Central Asia.

The sixth priority area listed is “Combating common threats and challenges”, a section that focuses on the modernization of border management, fighting narcotics trade and organized crime, specifically mentioning the EU’s Border Management Program in Central Asia (BOMCA). The strategy also emphasizes the fight against corruption, as well as countering the weapons trade to and from Afghanistan.

Moreover, the EU offers an important alternative to the overwhelming influence of China and Russia. The EU is also seen as an actor with fewer stakes and interests in the region in comparison to China, Russia and the U.S., often turning the Union into an impartial player that can foster regional cooperation and understanding. But for the EU to increasingly engage in Central Asia it will need to strengthen its visibility. This can perhaps best be achieved by more transparent development assistance and a policy focused on those areas in which the EU most excels and for which it is most admired: culture, education and regional cooperation.

The strategy should be made more flexible in terms of the projects and mandates that special EU agents in the recipient countries are authorized to accomplish. For the sake of achieving more efficiency and flexibility, a somewhat dynamic consultancy mechanism could be established in the EU offices of the recipient countries, such as an operational monitoring system and the appointment of highly qualified and independent national professionals for these offices. The strategy should imply frequent interactions between three sides – EU representatives, state authorities and civil society activists, experts and analysts – recognizing their potential to achieve joint inputs and outputs. For instance, joint sessions of official and non-governmental representatives might be organized on a regular basis.

In this respect, the collaboration of European organizations, foundations and institutions with the diplomatic representations of EU countries in the region can be of great significance.


The European Union had radically revised its Central Asian policy and the way it cooperates with the regional structures (including the SCO). There was a previous document –“The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership for the Years 2007-2013” – dated by 31 May, 2007. For obvious reasons, the EU needed Central Asia as a sustainable source of natural resources. This is not all, however: Brussels was convinced that it should expand its regulatory values to the region.

On the other hand, the European states (NATO members in particular) play an important role in combating the threats emanating from Afghanistan. The European Union does not hail the steadily increasing involvement of the United States in Eurasia and has to take Russia’s interests into account. Recently, European experts have come to the conclusion that the EU will balance out China’s increas ing influence in the region, since Russia has stepped aside. These factors should be taken into account when formulating Central Asia’s position in relation to the European Union.

The launch of an EU Strategy is an opportunity to take a step back and assess the EU policy toward Central Asia. The overview of EU policy in preceding pages suggests that from relatively modest beginnings two decades ago, the EU has devoted considerable attention and resources to its relationship with Central Asia – with a very organized approach, involving the production of concrete strategies, reviews of these strategies, and European Council conclusions on the region on a bi-yearly basis. This is laudable and compares well to the more disorganized policy of the United States toward Central Asia.

An overview of EU strategies raises a series of issues that continue to confront EU policy in Central Asia. First among these is scope. The EU is active on numerous fronts and has to take into account the interests of 28 member states, different EU institutions, civil non-government and activist organizations, and Central Asian governments. Navigating the different priorities advanced by different actors raises the risk of the EU trying to do too much with too little, instead of focusing its energies on several specific matters. Second is the regional question: the EU is frequently criticized for taking a regional approach to countries that have distinct differences.

In the near future, the relations between Central Asia and the EU will be affected by the geo-economic situation and geopolitical factors, such as Washington’s new strategy in Central Asia; the vague military-strategic prospects in Afghanistan; the relations between Russia and the West; growing enormous China’s economic and political influence; the world economic crisis; and the much greater importance of energy sources and food safety.

This can either positively or negatively affect the relations between Europe and Central Asia. Much will depend on the political will of the actors involved in the geopolitical intricacies. One thing is clear: Europe and Central Asia need each other for objective reasons. In short, the EU will need to increase its visibility if it wants to have influence in a region facing immense challenges not only from China and India, but also from Afghanistan and the threats of terrorism.

One would be cooperation to combat the common security threats coming from Afghanistan and Pa kistan, in particular drug trafficking and radical Islamic terrorism.

Another is the regional waterhydropower nexus. Solutions need international consortia with all major players present. There is also a crucial need to improve transcontinental transport routes for trade. This could include the full opening of the transport corridor through the Caucasus and to facilitate its use by simplifying access through the Kazakhstani port of Aktau and Turkmenistan’s new port at Turkmenbashi.

The Central Asian transit countries also have much to gain from this project, including new hard infrastructure developments - manufacturing plants, bridges, transportation, and communications networks - and soft infrastructure such as the creation of jobs and efficient outlets for local products. As for organizational initiatives, for some issues, EU meetings with the five Central Asian states could include Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

The 2019 Strategy is a solid next step in the EU’s engagement with Central Asia. It has strong elements of continuity with the previous EU documents, while also showing the ability of adaptation to new developments, as seen most directly in the EU’s stronger endorsement of regional cooperation in the region. The 2019 document also fulfilled an important and difficult task through the very process through which it was developed, succeeding in ensuring that important constituencies in both Central Asia and the EU were consulted, without losing control of the scope and breadth of the document’s priorities. [3]

As the EU turns toward implementing the priorities set out in its new Central Asia strategy, this study proposes several concrete recommendations for policy. This overview of EU strategy toward Central Asia suggests that over time, the EU has paid an increasing amount of attention to Central Asia and is in many ways the primary force representing the West in the region. Not only has the EU’s attention to the region been on the ascendant, its constantly evolving approach to the region has exhibited consistency and predictability, while succeeding in conducting a realistic assessment of the most fruitful way to advance both European norms and European interests in

Central Asia. Most important, the EU has continued to maintain a regional approach to Central Asia.



  1. See: Spaiser O.L. The European Union’s Influence in Central Asia. Geopolitical Challenges and Responses. – New York: Lexington Books, 2018. – XXI+245 pp. Paramonov V., Strokov A., Alschen S., Abduganieva Z. European Union Impact on Central Asia: Political, Economic, Security and Social Spheres (European Political, Economic, and Security Issues). - New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2018. – 131 p.
  2. See: M. Emerson, J. Boonstra, N. Hasanova, M. Laruelle, S. Peyrouse, Into Eurasia: Monitoring the EU’s Central Asia Strategy. Report of the EUCAM Project, CEPS, Brussels; FRIDE, Madrid, 2010, III+143 pp.
  3. Ulviyya Aydin. The European Union-Central Asia Relations: Kazakhstan as A Leading Actor // Central Asia and Caucasus (Lulea, Sweden). 2018. № 3, pp. 25-33.
  4. See also: Cornell S.E., Engvall J. Kazakhstan in Europe: Why Not? – Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. – Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University, 2017. – 70 p.
  5. Ospanova B., Sadri H.A., Yelmurzayeva R. Assessing EU perception in Kazakhstan’s mass media // Journal of Eurasian Studies. 2017. Vol. 8, Issue 1, pр. 72-82. Peyrouse S. How does Central Asia view the EU? - EUCAM Policy Brief, No. 18, 2014. – 13 p.
  6. Starr S. F., Cornell S., Norling N. The EU, Central Asia, and the Development of Continental Transport and Trade. – Washington, DC: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, 2015. - 64 p.
  7. See: Starr S. Frederick, Cornell Svante E. (eds.), The Long Game on the Silk Road: US and EU Strategy for Central Asia and the Caucasus. – Lanham (MD), Boulder (CO): Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. – 160 p.
  8. Tsertsvadze T. What role for the European Parliament in Central Asia? - EUCAM Commentary Brief, No. 25, 2014. – 2 p.
  9. Peyrouse S. Human Security in Central Asia. Can the EU help out? - EUCAM Policy Brief, No. 21, 2011. – 5 p.
  10. Cornell Svante E., Starr S. Frederick. A Steady Hand: The EU 2019 Strategy and Policy toward Central Asia. Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. – Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University, 2019. – 72 p.
Year: 2020
City: Almaty