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Boris Larochevitch on the Features of the EU Policy in Central Asia

Head of division at the European External Action Service (EEAS), dealing with Central Asia, Boris Iarochevitch spoke about the features of the EU policy in Central Asia, and shared his assessments of other problematic aspects in the countries of the region.

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4 years have passed since your appointment as head of the Central Asia Department of the European External Action Service (EEAS). How have your ideas about the region changed during this time? And how did you influence the EU to change the region?

Boris Iarochevitch

Yes, I have seen a lot of progress, particularly linked to the opening in Uzbekistan. We see that since even 2016 – 2017 regional cooperation has increased a lot. The spirit is much better than it used to be and we feel it when working with the countries, also when we have our joint meeting with Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Central Asia. I would also say that the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced this regional cooperation, assistance has been provided by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan to neighbors and trade has been continued between the countries. Another important change is the relation to Afghanistan not only seen as a threat but also as potential trade partner, partner for connectivity projects, electricity lines and railways.

In your opinion, what changes can be made to the new 2019 EU Strategy for Central Asia under the influence of the pandemic and in connection with the change of leadership in the EU?

The strategy was quite wide, it is a framework, which was planned to be valid for ten years. So, we do not want to change it, but we might have some adjustments, for instance healthcare was not a priority, but we mentioned a lot resilience, the capacity of states and societies to resist to challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic is one of these challenges. Health was however y a priority for instance in our cooperation with Tajikistan. The Strategy will also help us to develop our future assistance programmes. As you know, we have a seven-year frame and we completed a cycle last year. Now we are working on the next cycle 2021-2027 based on the strategy. Regarding leadership, our previous EU High Representative Mogherini was very interested in your region. Our new EU High Representative Mr. Josep Borrell plans to come to the region when the situation allows us and we hope to have our next Ministerial meeting in Dushanbe later this year. Central Asia will remain on the radar screen and the best proof is that we will continue to engage in a number of high-level events in the region this year such as an EU-Central Asia Economic Forum in Bishkek and a Civil Society Forum in Almaty.

How do you assess the results of exporting the good governance and human rights to Central Asian countries? To what extent did you manage to influence the development of democratic processes in the countries of Central Asia?

It is a longtime process. I think we have accompanied the reforms in Uzbekistan for instance with a political dialogue. We always call countries to respect their international commitments (under the UN, OSCE, our bilateral agreements) and have contributed to some improvements, with Uzbekistan a good case in point. We are also discussing individual cases every year with each country with our human rights dialogues.  In Kazakhstan, there have been some issues after the elections and we have to see the longer term how our values are shared by the national authorities.

What is the EU’s interest in Central Asia manifested in: democratic messianism, geopolitical rivalry, a logistics center on the communication routes from Asia to Europe, or something else?

The EU wants to be more geopolitical and we are interested in stability, in economic relations, connectivity. Kazakhstan is the biggest trade partner of the EU in Central Asia. We have a strategy for connecting Europe and Asia and we are also interested in developing connectivity within the region as well as supporting North-South connectivity and connections with Afghanistan. The EU has experiences to share in that respect, as well as standards that could be applicable in the region. We are facing common challenges, like climate change, which is a very serious issue in Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan, Kirgizstan and around the Aral Sea. We want to help Central Asia to cope with this issue and to share our own experience.

To what extent is the EU interested in regional integration in Central Asia? Does the EU see Afghanistan as a participant in regional integration?

Of course, we are interested in regional integration and we see a big potential to develop trade within the region, which could create jobs and bring economic growth. We have the issue of water, which cannot be solved by one country, we need to work all together – Kirgizstan, Tajikistan as upstream countries, and Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as downstream countries. We are interested in integrating Afghanistan into the region, as an export market for Central Asian products, energy resources, electricity, as well as for connectivity (railways for instance, in which Uzbekistan is very much interested).

In December 2020, the European Union and China signed a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Earlier, the EU and China had agreements on joint monitoring of the quality of communications in the Central Asian section of the route from Asia to Europe. Do you think the CAI agreement will strengthen infrastructure cooperation between the EU and China in Central Asia?

I am not familiar with all the details of the CAI. In any case, it has to go through the EU Parliament and national parliaments. As you mentioned the joint monitoring, we have launched a feasibility study together to assess the most efficient, profitable railway connections between China and Europe. Central Asian countries will be consulted, as it is not about EU and China deciding alone which are the best corridors, it should be done together with Central Asia. This feasibility study will give us some indication on which corridor we should be working on, and where are the bottlenecks, not only in terms of infrastructure, but also in terms of procedures, where customs issues can accelerate flows between Asia and Europe. To me the feasibility study will have an impact on that in the future. And once again it is not only building railways, but also to look for instance at border management to facilitate the movement of good and people.

What are the features of the EU policy in Central Asia, which distinguishes it from the policies of the China, Russia and other powers?

First of all, we do not insist on exclusivity, we are not asking Central Asian countries to choose between EU and others. We have new agreements to enhance the partnership and cooperation, in force with Kazakhstan, negotiated with Kyrgyzstan. They are both members of the Eurasian Economic Union, and we do not oblige these countries to choose between it and an agreement with the EU, we are not exclusive. We are also not only talking about physical infrastructures, we are working on soft issues like standards, norms, business climate, which is extremely important. We are supporting fighting against corruption in a number of countries and we are also prioritizing issues like water, which is maybe less important for other actors, trade facilitation, education and so on. In that respect, we differ from Russia and China and of course we do not have military bases in Central Asia, while human rights are quite important for us.

In your opinion, since the coming to power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has Uzbekistan changed dramatically, or has only the “facade” changed?

I think there is a lot of progress, it is not a facade change and there is a genuine willingness to open up. It is a slow, top-down approach, with also sometime a problem of capacity to implement the reforms. The country was almost closed for many years, now there is an opening up. So for us is something that we witness almost every day. I mentioned earlier lists of individual cases, which is now not existing in Uzbekistan. We see an opening as well to the other countries in the region. In the field of economy, the progress is slow, but we see that there is more freedom and privatization. Child labor in the cotton industry is forbidden, and while there are still cases of forced labor, it is not systemic any more. So, there we see a real progress, of course it takes time to change the whole society, but we believe that the changes are or real.

Almost every year, water and territorial conflicts occur in the border areas between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. All EU officials dealing with Central Asia talk about the importance of a stable and secure Central Asia. What mechanisms can the EU use to find a peaceful solution to the current situation?

We have the EU Special Representative for Central Asia Mr. Peter Burian, who before the COVID-19, was travelling a lot, and trying to support integration processes in the region. We have an annual ministerial meeting 1+5, with our High Representative and the 5 Foreign Ministers. Now we have also Central Asian mechanisms, there have already been two informal meetings of the Presidents. The first one was in Tashkent, the second one in Ashkhabad. They are locally initiated and such initiatives should indeed come from the region itself. For instance, when it comes to border disputes, we are ready to provide some support and mediation. I understand that the Central Asian countries want to do it themselves, we have never been asked by Kirgizstan or Tajikistan to help solve the border issues. We interact a lot with Central Asia and we are ready to do more if there is a willingness, readiness for the EU to play a bigger role.

How do you assess the recent events in Kyrgyzstan related to the plans of the constitutional reform? And in what form would the change of power in the Central Asian states be preferable, considering the principle of resilience?

First of all, it is up to country to decide its own system. In the EU, we have strong presidential systems, like in France, then we have fully parliamentary regime with limited role for the president like in Germany, we have monarchy in Spain, Denmark, Sweden, and so on. There is no ideal model, and we do not impose any model on any country. That is why if Kyrgyz people choose the presidential regime, it is their choice. By the way, even in the past, the regime was not fully parliamentary. We do not feel disappointed, but we have a lot of question marks about the process, we have expressed our concerns in a number of statements. We will continue to work with the Kyrgyz Republic, but we have to see the developments about democracy, the human rights, to be sure that there is no regress compared to the situation that was before the elections. We will see about the wish of Mr. Japarov to fight against corruption, which is a positive point. There are a lot of challenges that severely affect the country, like COVID-19, economic crisis, foreign debt. They are huge and we are ready to work together, but we want respect of the international commitments taken by the country.

During three years that I have been conducting the research on the EU policy in Central Asia, I have concluded that the EU is not the most active player in Central Asia and the European policy of soft power, designed for the long term, is not producing the desired results. I would like to hear your opinion on this matter.

I do not know how you have assessed the activity. Of course we cannot be as active as big neighbors who are next to the country, I mean China or Russia. We are present at different levels with the different countries. We are the biggest partner of Kazakhstan in terms of trade and investment. The EU overall is more important to Kazakhstan than Russia or China. Economically, China is quite present in Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, so it varies from one country to another. I think we are also quite present, we provide significant financial support especially to Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, to some extend to Uzbekistan, not only in terms of cooperation programmes, but also in terms of EU financial institutions, and we are financing extremely important projects in terms of education, rule of law, renewable energy, power plants. Our visibility varies from one country to another, but we are active in the region, considering that we are still far away geographically. We are talking about soft power, standards, rules, norms, access to European markets. We have a long-term policy in Central Asia, and also I see the willingness of all the 5 countries to be closer to the EU, and to balance it to Russia and China. We have a role to play and are present in the region.

Please, tell us about any event that was most memorable or shocked you during your entire service in this post?

It is a difficult question. My best memories are basically the contacts with the people, not only with authorities, but also with civil society, when visiting companies, the countryside. I was shocked when I heard about torture, it is unacceptable, even if you have an authoritarian regime and you want to fight your opponents. Having cruel treatments in prisons is inhuman, especially if the country has signed international UN conventions against torture.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.

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