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European Union’s Policy in Central Asia: Does Brussels Want to Increase its Presence in the Region?

«The Strategy revision is explained rather by the adoption of 2016 EU Global Strategy and, consequently, the need to adapt all foreign policy activities to the new realities. The EU seeks to strengthen its positions in the international relations system and therefore updates the mechanisms of interaction with the outside world», – notes Yuriy Sarukhanyan, the specialist in international relations and participant of CABAR.asia Analytics School, in a special article for CABAR.asia.

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Summary of the article:

  • The EU Strategy for Central Asia was adopted only in 2007, after the Eastern enlargement, when the post-Soviet space turned out to be at the borders of the EU;
  • The update of the Strategy started only 12 years after the adoption, that is a very long period for modern international relations with a rapidly changing agenda;
  • Trying to focus on regionalism, Brussels was unable to find a pillar to enhance efficient cooperation;
  • The Strategy revision may be explained not only by the EU’s need to update its own foreign policy base, but also by the interest to participate in the political processes in the region that have been activated in recent years.

The meeting of foreign ministers, that was in “European Union-Central Asia” format in November 2018. These meetings are annually held to assess the implementation of the European Union Strategy for Central Asia. Photo: mfa.gov.kg
The European Union announced plans to adopt a new Strategy for Central Asia in 2019. This will be the first revision of the document adopted in 2007. It demonstrates the interest to update the interaction base and re-build relations with the region.

The EU has never been a major foreign actor in Central Asia. Brussels is clearly inferior to traditional actors, like Moscow, Beijing and Washington. European positions are also challenged by Turkey, Japan, South Korea and Gulf states. Moreover, Central Asia is not the zone of EU vital interests.

Does Brussels want to strengthen its impact on regional affairs by updating the Strategy? In which cooperation sectors does the EU have advantages? In this article we will analyze the status quo, try to understand the reason for updating the Strategy and indicate sectors on which EU should focus on to ensure the effectiveness of its presence in the region.

The 2007 Strategy 2007: Diplomatic catenaccio[1]

Central Asia has never been at the center of the European foreign policy agenda. In early 90s, after proclaiming their independence, Central Asian states focused their attention on the European integration model, trying to launch a similar process in the region. The EU, in its turn, was more concerned about internal issues and the necessity to restore relations with the countries of the former socialist camp. It can be assumed that the Afghan crisis might have increased interest towards Central Asia, but at that time it was not a priority for European countries, especially considering the escalation of war in ex-Yugoslavia.

The EU Strategy for Central Asia was adopted only in 2007, after the Eastern enlargement, when the post-Soviet space turned out to be at the borders of the EU. Central Asian focus is also a consequence of the protracted antiterrorist operation of the international coalition in Afghanistan. French and German military missions were stationed on the territory of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, respectively. Central Asia was considered as a transit zone for the supply of troops in Afghanistan. Finally, the Russian-Ukrainian gas wars made EU consider diversifying energy imports, with Central Asia as a potential source.

A special feature of the Strategy is that it is not based on macro-regional concepts (Greater Central Asia, Central and South Asia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, the post-Soviet area and etc.) and covers only five post-soviet Republics of the region. The document identified the priority sectors of EU-Central Asia cooperation –security, rule of law, human rights and good governance, education, investments and trade, energy and transport, environmental protection and water management and intercultural dialogue.

Although the Strategy’s implementation cannot be considered as successful, it would be wrong to declare its failure. EU provided for political consultations and financing of development projects. Brussels is the main development assistance donor, allocating about 2 billion euros to the region in 2007-2020. BOMCA and CADAP are EU flagship projects in the region with more than 70 million euros allocated since the launch. Another key cooperation sector is education. The EU allocated 115 million euros for programs within ERASMUS+ for 2014–2020.

Bilateral relations with the Central Asian states were based on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCA) signed in the 1990s. This fact, together with rather limited trade turnover (about 26.5 billion euros), indicates a sluggish cooperation between the sides.

Kazakhstan was the first country in the region to sign the Extended Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. Photo: mfa.gov.kz
EU-Kazakhstan partnership may be considered as the most successful comparing to the other states of the region. Kazakhstan is EU’s the main trade partner in Central Asia. Also, more than 50% of foreign direct investment in the Kazakh economy comes from EU member-states. In 2015, Kazakhstan was the first country in the region to sign an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. Uzbekistan suffered from sanctions in 2005-2009. This fact negatively affected its relations with the EU, which for a long time developed in a rather complicated manner [p.8]. Certain intensification was outlined after reforms launched by President Mirziyoyev, but it is still too early to call this success sustainable. Tajikistan, negatively affected by civil war, ratified PCA only in 2010. Brussels consider Tajikistan as rather unstable country and a subjected to a strong influence of external actors. Kyrgyzstan has a relatively positive image, as Bishkek was the leader of democratization and market reforms processes in the 90s. At the same time, the country is also a subject to serious external influence and the level of economic cooperation remains rather low. Turkmenistan, as usual, was on the margins of both regional processes and cooperation with the outside world. By the way, it was the only state in the region where the EU did not open its Delegation.

Political cooperation has developed ambiguously, especially in democratization, human rights and good governance sectors. It is no secret that the political elite of Central Asian countries is sensitive to any criticism. Therefore, the EU is trying to act carefully, limiting itself to holding consultations with local human rights defenders and authorities, organizing seminars, trainings and conferences, not forcing the outcome and not putting serious pressure on political elites.

In recent years, the Strategy was implemented rather, by inertia. Its update started only 12 years after the adoption, that is a very long period for modern international relations with a rapidly changing agenda. During this period, the cooperation continued in sectors that were not sensitive for local governments. The EU succeeded to launch several interesting regional projects and programs that are still functioning and have become brands of the European presence. Also, regular bilateral and multilateral consultations ensure that the parties are in constant dialogue, even though their efficiency raises doubts.

However, some goals declared in 2007 were not achieved. Thus, the project of energy corridor linking the EU and Central Asia was not implemented and the situation with human rights and democratization remains complicated.

The EU-funded projects face serious sustainability issues. Local officials are rather interested in providing implementation reports to their supervisors, that ensuring goal-oriented project implementation. Therefore, the projects do not contribute to the public administration system and public life reforms.
Why it is difficult for Central Asia and the EU to achieve a good team-work?

Several factors hampered a more efficient partnership between the EU and Central Asia. The adoption of the Strategy in 2007 coincided with the period when the region, in fact, was no more a single geopolitical entity. The collapse of Central Asian integration triggered a regional fragmentation. The relations between republics rapidly deteriorated, regional projects were all abolished, and replaced by integration mechanisms imposed by foreign actors. Thus, trying to focus on regionalism, Brussels was unable to find a pillar to enhance efficient cooperation.

Therefore, the European Parliament’s Review on the Strategy implementation recommends reconsidering the regional approach of cooperation with Central Asia in favor of bilateral relations. The later develop in a very complicated manner, as noted.
One of the major obstacles to building relations between the EU and Central Asia is the contradictory image of the EU as of modern international relations system actor. Rather dismissive attitude towards the EU as a supranational structure that does not possess a so-called hard power is very characteristic for Central Asian political elites, for whom the cult of power is still highly appreciated. Moscow also has a certain influence on skepticism towards Brussels, actively trying to revive the collective West concept in its information policy. This concept is to form an image of a single Western coalition led by the United States, in which the EU and European countries are low profile satellites. As a result, an actor lacking real power, facing serious internal problems and unable to play an independent role in the international arena, is assessed by local political elites as a temporary phenomenon which does not need to be taken into consideration seriously.

The EU is trying to compensate the lack of hard power with its soft power. Europe, of course, has a well-established image of the prosperity continent with rich cultural heritage, an attractive lifestyle and education destination. However, the problems of the integration process, the rise of populists, as well as local propaganda have turned the European values concept into synonymous of pride parades, same-sex marriage, lack of morality and ethics and etc. Local political elites like to cover up the failures in the implementation of reforms or formation of effectively functioning political institutions with the phrase “Do you want it to be like in Europe?” precisely focusing on the controversial aspects of modern European society. The non-stop battle with so-called Western agents and fifth columns allegedly benefiting from European grants and seeking to undermine national identity, is a brightest example.

Central Asian states’ image in Europe is not very positive too. All five republics suffer from the same diseases, for example, lack of democratic reforms, economic development issues, poor freedom of speech and conscience, repressive policy against opposition and human rights activists. The EU is constantly facing pressure from human rights organizations while contacting Central Asian states, which significantly complicates the dialogue process. One of the vivid examples is harsh criticism towards Brussels in 2011 during the visit of Uzbekistan’s late president Islam Karimov. Such situation forced EU officials to make excuses. In addition, the EU in its foreign policy actions adheres to the rule that development assistance and investment volumes depend on the level of democratic reforms. In the case of the Central Asian region countries, where the democratization process is not so fast, this practice seriously limits the policy space.

Besides the above factors, we should highlight that Brussels has other foreign policy priority on the agenda. Central Asia can not be juxtaposed with the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus in terms of importance for the EU. Taking to account the image and political risks that represent the states of the region, Brussels does not see much sense in expanding its presence in the region.

Updated Strategy: a game change tactics?

Despite the lack of vital interests, the EU is updating its Strategy for Central Asia and is re-shaping its regional policy. Brussels has already announced the opening of EU Delegation in Turkmenistan, the launch of negotiations on new cooperation agreements with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the allocation of more than 120 million euros for regional projects.

However, these actions do not necessarily mean that Brussels is eager to expand its influence in Central Asia. It seems that the Europe is quite satisfied with the current status quo and its role in regional affairs. The Strategy revision may be rather justified by adoption of the EU Global Strategy in 2016 and the need to reconsider all foreign policy activities according to new realities. The EU seeks to strengthen its position in the international relations system. Therefore, Brussels updates the mechanisms of foreign actions. Remaining at the periphery of EU’s interest, Central Asia, nevertheless, becomes one of the instruments to put the Europe on contemporary international relation system’s map.

At the same time, there are several factors that prompted the EU to undertake a kind of revision of its presence in the region. First, the restart of regional cooperation in Central Asia. The fact that the countries of the region have finally launched a dialogue platform where they can exchange on current issues are trying to find regional cooperation models drew attention of international community. EU may benefit from this process, as regionalism has come back to Central Asian agenda.

EU is still interested in cooperation in energy sector. Brussels never dropped interest in importing gas from Central Asia (in particular, from Turkmenistan). The signing of the 2018 Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea intensified talks about the possibility of construction a gas pipeline, linking Turkmen’s gas to the Southern Gas Corridor. The decision to open a Delegation in Ashgabat shows the importance of this issue for Brussels. However, the implementation of this project will require not only serious financial resources, but also complex diplomatic moves that will make it possible to develop the rules of game, acceptable for all stakeholders and preventing the possible destabilization of the region.

The interest in Central Asia is fueled by transport and logistics projects actively promoted by China as part of the Belt and Road initiative. Beijing’s growing influence (especially in Central and Eastern Europe) is annoying Brussels. Therefore, active participation in transport projects that will eventually reach the European continent should interest EU. Brussels understands that Central Asia is a potentially important transit region for establishing trade relations with China. The EU and China could cooperate in the region, combining the European capacity in regional cooperation and Chinese financial resources [p.11].

The Afghan factor also has a certain influence on the EU interest in Central Asia. Although Brussels does not consider Afghanistan as part of the region, the issue of resolving the situation in this country is on the cooperation agenda with Central Asia. The states of the region are themselves beginning to pay more attention to the processes taking place in Afghanistan. Due the inflow of Afghan refugees in Europe, this topic is important for the EU. In this regard, Brussels is trying to fully support the infrastructure and development projects in the Afghanistan, launched by the Central Asian republics. In particular, during the recent visit to Kazakhstan EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Peter Burian announced EU’s interest in a project to provide training opportunities for Afghan women in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Thus, the Strategy for Central Asia revision is explained not only by the need to update European foreign policy, but also by the interest to participate in the recently activated political processes in the region. The updated Strategy, most likely, will not contain fundamentally new cooperation sectors. The parties would agree on cooperation in security, democratic reforms, rule of law, human rights protection etc. At the same time, it is worth expecting special emphasis to be made on the sectors that have become relevant due to changes taking place in the region.

Where is the EU’s ideal position in the Central Asian arena?

Agreeing with its minor role, the EU will most likely try to rely on the areas in which it has real chances to form an efficient cooperation platform. This may provide certain advantages, eliminating any illusions and overestimated expectations in building up relations with the Central Asian states. Such approach may improve the efficiency of Brussels’ activities and reduce possibility of escalation.

In fact, the EU interests in Central Asia do not directly collide with the those of the main actors: Moscow or Beijing. The EU does not have active politico-military interests in the region. The economic and investment cooperation is clearly inferior to other centers of power. The only issue that could provoke a serious clash is the export of energy resources. However, as it was noted, the cooperation in this area is not progressing further than declarations of intent.

The EU is a good model on a number of issues relevant for Central Asia.
The EU may focus on the new momentum of regional cooperation in Central Asian. Despite current issues, the EU is a good model on several relevant for Central Asia. Due to the fact that the concepts of regionalism and even integration (although too early) are again becoming popular among the political elites of the region, Brussels can share its experience in implementation of regional projects, cross-border cooperation, water management.

Central Asian states also express interest to some cooperation models on the European continent. Last year, a Central Asia-Visegrad Group dialogue platform was launched.[2] Brussels can use the Visegrad format as a flagship of its assistance to Central Asian regional cooperation. The desire of countries of the region to create an analogue of Schengen visa is also an opportunity for the EU to strengthen its positions by providing legal and political consultations.

Education is another area in which the EU has significant advantages. Europe remains one of the main directions for the majority of young people in the region. At the same time, the EU should take into account the demands of the region.

Today, Central Asian states need experts not much from human sciences as from practical sectors – transport, logistics, information technology, urbanization, banking, and etc.
The demand for training along with the prospect for regional cooperation is an opportunity for the EU to expand the program activities in education sector and intensify regional cooperation in this area.

In general, the EU does not strike for (or, at least, does not openly demonstrate it) expanding its presence in the region. Central Asia is perceived as one of the regions where Brussels needs to provide a certain level of presence in order to maintain its status in international relations. The region is also a potential source of energy resources imports and a recipient of development assistance projects that play an important role in shaping the European image. Therefore, EU participation in regional processes is likely to be limited to focusing on those areas in which Brussels is already entrenched, where it has advantages over other actors, as well as on attempts to provide Central Asian states with capacity building in the field of regional cooperation.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.


[1] Football tactics based on defensive play.

[2] Association of four central European countries: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary

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