Despite an ambitious set of policy initiatives for Central Asia, the EU is punching below its weight in a region where Russia and China are far more influential. Ten years after the EU launched a strategy for Central Asia, the EU is still facing substantial challenges in implementing its strategy successfully. In the meantime, the dynamics in and around the region have changed and these new realities are not reflected in the 2007 strategy. After providing a brief overview of EU-Central Asia relations, this article identifies a set of nine policy recommendations with respect to what should be the main elements, tools and approaches of a revised EU strategy for Central Asia.
EU-Central Asia Relations: A Brief Overview
Central Asia has long been outside of the European Union’s (EU) main sphere of interest, tucked away in the outskirts of Europe’s eastern periphery. This lack of interest was reflected in the relatively low level of EU engagement with post-Soviet Central Asia in the 1990s. It took until the mid-2000s before the EU gained a significant political interest in the region. The EU’s interest was fueled mainly by the instability and the NATO operation in neighboring Afghanistan as well as the eastward enlargement of the EU and the growing need to diversify its energy resources. The EU’s desire to enhance its presence in Central Asia and to become a more visible actor resulted in the appointment of an EU Special Representative for Central Asia in 2005 and the launch of an EU Strategy for Central Asia in 2007.
The EU’s strategy for Central Asia provides a framework for enhanced cooperation, building, inter alia, on the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreements and outlining joint goals to foster closer relations in the political, economic and trade, as well as cultural and educational spheres. The strategy presents both a bilateral and a regional dimension of cooperation. The regional pillar aims specifically at cooperation on transnational issues, including countering drug trafficking, water management, energy and transport. The bilateral dimension, in turn, allows for a more “tailor-made” cooperation with the five republics, which specifically considers the countries’ individual needs. In order to implement the strategy, the EU more than doubled its budget for the region, earmarking an indicative budget of €719 million for the period 2007-2013, and decided to establish fully accredited delegations in all five countries. Today, Turkmenistan is the only country in Central Asia where the EU does not yet have a delegation. Meanwhile, the EU has further increased its assistance for the Central Asian states, having committed an indicative budget of €1 billion for its foreign aid to the region for the period 2014-2020. Additional funding comes from a number of EU member states, which are coordinating specific initiatives under the framework of the strategy. France and Germany, for instance, are the lead coordinators of the EU Rule of Law Initiative for Central Asia, which aims at supporting reforms and sharing experiences between the EU and the Central Asian republics in the area of legal and judicial reforms. Progress in the implementation of the strategy is discussed annually with the Central Asian foreign ministers at the EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting. The implementation of the strategy has already been subject to several internal reviews, the latest one dating back to 2015 and the next one coming up later in 2017.
At a lower political level, the EU has established bilateral human rights dialogues with the five Central Asian republics. Yet, it is debatable how constructive these human rights dialogues have been in practice. In addition, the EU has set up a series of other formal as well as informal dialogues and meetings, including the EU-Central Asia High Level Security Dialogue, the EU-Central Asia Environmental Dialogue, dialogue with regional organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and education policy dialogues.
However, despite an ambitious set of policy initiatives in the region, the EU is punching below its weight in a region where Russia and China are far more influential. Ten years after the strategy was launched, the EU is still facing substantial challenges in implementing its strategy successfully in a region considered as one of the most authoritarian in the world. In the meantime, the dynamics in and around the region have changed and these new realities are not reflected in the 2007 strategy. Now that the implementation of the strategy is again up for review, and with some even arguing for a complete overhaul of the strategy by the time of the next review in 2019, it is important for the EU to reflect on what is the best way forward. A set of nine policy recommendations can be identified with respect to what should be the main elements, tools and approaches of a revised EU strategy for Central Asia.
First, the EU needs to redefine its interests in Central Asia. The EU needs to do so taking into account four factors. To begin with, the EU’s redefinition of its interests should take into account the new context in Central Asia, as well as in the countries neighboring the region. Since the launch of the EU’s strategy for Central Asia in 2007, these contexts have evolved. Domestically, the countries face resilient authoritarian regimes and economic downturn, which risk fueling social unrest and radicalization. Despite remaining relatively stable (with the exception of the regime change and ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan), the countries are increasingly fragile, spurred by deteriorating educational, healthcare and other services, and widespread poverty, corruption and human rights violations. The interests of neighboring countries and other regional powers also need to be taken into account. The region attracts growing attention from its neighbors, particularly Russia and China and to a lesser extent Iran, as well as from other regional powers, particularly India. Both China’s and Russia’s foothold in the region has further expanded, respectively through the Belt and Road initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union, and spillover effects from China’s and Russia’s domestic contexts will likely intensify in the Central Asian countries (for example through a return of labor migrants due to the economic crisis in Russia).
Second, in redefining its interests in Central Asia, the EU needs to be realistic in terms of what it can achieve. Despite a steady increase in the budget allocations for the EU’s involvement in the region since 2007, the financial resources the EU has at its disposal to implement the strategy remain fairly limited, and this is unlikely to change. Moreover, the EU’s leverage in the region remains quite low. Therefore, the EU needs to redefine its interests in Central Asia based on a calculation of the leverage it has there. The EU has to identify the areas where it has a unique “selling point” in the eyes of the Central Asian states and where they are keen to cooperate. Finally, the EU’s redefinition of its interests should also take into account the interests of the Central Asian states. However, in doing so, it is important to distinguish between the interests of the countries at large and the interests of the elites, as these do not necessarily coincide. The EU’s strategy for Central Asia should also focus on fewer areas in order to increase its effectiveness. The EU needs to avoid turning the new strategy into a “Christmas tree” like the current one. Given the relatively limited budget, doing a bit of everything is not effective. Therefore, the new strategy needs to be more focused. This will be difficult to achieve, not least considering the different priorities of the EU member states and of all the institutional actors involved in drafting and adopting the strategy.
Providing Real Added Value.
Third, flowing from the previous point, the main areas to be covered in future EU-Central Asia cooperation should be decided based on where the EU can provide real added value and achieve concrete results, as well as on where the Central Asian states face real needs. In order words, the focal areas should reflect a match between the EU’s comparative advantages and the vital needs of the Central Asian countries. Moreover, in line with the first point made above, the EU should prioritize areas where there is a genuine commitment to reform, and where reforms can benefit the population (rather than just the elites). In particular, the EU should pursue a soft policy agenda. In this light, three areas stand out as possible focal areas: education, health and borders. In each of these areas, the EU has a competitive edge compared to other external actors and the Central Asian countries face real needs. Education and healthcare are on the verge of collapse in most Central Asian states, and border management in the region is still underdeveloped, thereby negatively impacting trade flows and amplifying security threats. In addition, in pursuing this soft policy agenda, the EU should follow the principle of flexibility: it should pursue a right mix of regional and highly targeted national programs, which are tailored to the precise needs and contexts. Finally, the overarching goal of the EU’s actions should be sustainable development: development that is sustainable in the long run, in the sense that the governments can pursue it on their own.
Enhance Knowledge of Central Asia
Fourth, there is a need for more evidence-based knowledge on Central Asia. Moreover, research on Central Asia needs to feed more into policy-making. In order to redefine its interests in Central Asia and offer viable solutions for the problems it seeks to address in the region, the EU needs to foster an “epistemic community” (i.e. a transnational network of knowledge-based experts) on Central Asia, which can help EU decision-makers and policy-makers understand the specificities of the issues at hand. One such issue is radicalization in Central Asia, on which the EU faces a pressing lack of knowledge. Moreover, as it remains difficult for European researchers to conduct research in Central Asia on sensitive issues like civil society and radicalization, there should be more cooperation between European and Central Asian researchers. At the same time, more knowledge about the EU is needed in Central Asia. Among other things, this can be achieved by stimulating European studies in higher education institutions throughout the five countries. This can also be linked to efforts to raise the EU’s profile in the public sphere, for example by creating an EU university in the region.
Top-Down and Bottom-Up
Fifth, the EU should continue to work both top-down and bottom up in Central Asia. Apart from engaging with the Central Asian countries at the governmental level, the EU should continue to support civil society. The EU should also design ways to link both levels of engagement to each other, so that they do not remain detached. With civic space in Central Asia being under threat and conditions for civil society organizations deteriorating, civil society in Central Asia remains in need of the EU’s support. Therefore, assistance through the European Instrument for Human Rights and Democracy (EIDHR) and the Civil Society Organizations and Local Authorities (CSO-LA) Programme should continue. New initiatives could be considered, such as involving civil society in the human rights dialogues. NGOs could be invited as observers, as in the case of the EU’s human rights dialogue with Moldova. Given the countries’ varying levels of openness – with Kyrgyzstan being most open and Turkmenistan least open, a tailored approach to civil society support seems necessary.
Involving EU Member States.
Sixth, the EU member states need to be involved more in the implementation of the strategy. This should be the case especially in areas where the member states have comparative advantages and where they are perceived as role models by the Central Asian states. There are already a number of member states, which actively contribute to the implementation of the strategy, such as France and Germany in the case of Rule of Law initiative, Romania in the case of the EU Water Initiative, and Latvia in the case of the Border Management Programme (BOMCA). Overall, however, the involvement of the member states remains too limited. The EU needs to capitalize more on the strengths of its member states, and encourage them to take an active role in the implementation of the strategy. Given that the Central Asian states often perceive European countries as role models (e.g. Finland in the area of education; Sweden in the area of social security), the EU should use this as an opportunity and involve the member states more often both in the design and the implementation of specific programs. In this regard, new initiatives could be considered, which include Twinning, as is used in the countries covered by the European Neighbourhood Policy.
A Results-Oriented Approach.
Seventh, given the lack of concrete results in many areas, the EU needs to pursue a more results-oriented approach. This means that the EU needs to reflect upon how to measure the results of its cooperation. However, this does not mean that the EU should end all the programs that have so far witnessed limited progress. Considering the slow pace at which change takes place in Central Asia, it is advisable to keep these programs, albeit in a revised manner. This is further backed by a recent evaluation study of the EU’s regional-level support to Central Asia, which found that continuity of the programs is crucial for achieving real impact on the ground.
Supporting Regional Cooperation.
Eight, the EU should continue to pursue regional cooperation with Central Asia. Although this has proven very difficult, the EU should not abandon regional cooperation. A window of opportunity may have opened with the new Uzbek leadership. Nevertheless, it is likely that regional cooperation will remain difficult and new formats may therefore need to be designed that are more flexible. These can include multi-country programs, which the German Development Cooperation Agency (GIZ) already uses successfully in Central Asia. Moreover, where relevant, these programs or platforms should also include neighboring countries of the Central Asian states, for instance, in programs or platforms addressing borders and connectivity.
Continue Focusing on Borders.
Ninth, the EU should continue to focus on borders. Given the EU’s unique expertise in dealing with border issues and the region’s vital need for better border management, the EU should remain active in the area of border management. However, BOMCA is in need of an overhaul, and the EU needs to be realistic about what it can achieve with a limited budget (i.e. €5 million for BOMCA in 2015-2018). Moreover, it needs to reflect about what its priorities are with respect to border management. Given the limited funding, the EU needs to decide to focus either on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan or the borders between the Central Asian states. In addition, the EU needs to decide whether it wants its border management efforts to focus on security goals or on economic integration and cross-border trade.
While the EU’s overall engagement with post-Soviet Central Asia has long remained limited, the past fifteen years have seen the EU’s role in the region gradually evolve from that of little more than an invisible – and arguably ineffective – donor to that of a full-fledged external actor. Nevertheless, the EU still punches below its weight in the region, where it plays second fiddle to Russia and China. In light of the upcoming review of the EU’s strategy for Central Asia, the EU needs to redefine its interests in the region, thereby taking into account the new dynamics in and around it, while being realistic in terms of what can be achieved and what leverage the EU has in Central Asia. Moreover, the EU needs to limit the areas of cooperation. In particular, the main areas to be covered in future EU-Central Asia cooperation should reflect a match between the EU’s comparative advantages (namely areas where the EU can provide real added value and achieve concrete results) and the vital needs of the Central Asian countries. Possible focal areas include education, health and borders. In implementing a more focused strategy, the EU should pursue a right mix of regional and highly targeted national programs.
Fabienne Bossuyt is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Ghent University. This article is based in part on the author’s report from a panel at a Conference entitled “EU-Central Asia Relations”, organized by the EU Special Representative for Central Asia in Brussels, February 2017. The views expressed in this article are those of the author only, and do not represent those of the European Union.