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European Union’s Policy in Central Asia: Does Brussels Want to Become a Stable Player of the First-Team Squad?

«The Strategy revision is rather due to the adoption of the EU Global Strategy in 2016 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 Yuri 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 expansion to the Еast, 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 time for modern international relations with their rapidly changing agenda;
  • By focusing on regionalism in 2007, Brussels could not actually find a base that would enhance the cooperation effectiveness;
  • The Strategy revision for Central Asia is explained not only by the EU 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

In 2019, the European Union plans to adopt a new Strategy for Central Asia. This will be the first serious revision of the document adopted in 2007, and indicates the desire to update the interaction base and re-build relations with the region.

The EU has never been a major foreign player in Central Asia. Brussels is clearly inferior in influence to such traditional actors as Moscow, Beijing and Washington. Serious competition for the EU is represented by such secondary players as Turkey, Japan, South Korea and a number of Arab countries. However, the region itself also cannot be attributed to the zone of EU vital interests.

Is the update of the Strategy an indication that Brussels wants to strengthen its role in the region? In which areas of cooperation does the EU have advantages? In this article we will analyze the status quo, try to understand what the reason for Strategy revision is and what sectors the EU can focus on to ensure the effectiveness of its presence in the region.

Strategy 2007: Diplomatic catenaccio[1]

Central Asia has never been at the center of the European foreign policy agenda. At the beginning of 1990s, when the countries of the Central Asian region gained independence, they had observed the European integration model with interest and tried to launch their counterpart. At that time the EU was more concerned with internal problems and with the need to build relations with the countries of the former socialist camp. It can be assumed that the Afghan crisis should have increased interest in Central Asia, but at that time it was not a priority topic for European countries, especially considering the outbreak of the war in Yugoslavia.

The Central Asian Strategy was adopted only in 2007, after the expansion to the east, when the post-Soviet space turned out to be at the borders of the EU. Increased attention to the region can also be explained by the protracted antiterrorist operation of the international coalition in Afghanistan. The military missions of France and Germany were located on the territory of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, respectively, and the region was considered as a transit zone for the supply of troops in Afghanistan. Finally, the Russian-Ukrainian gas wars prompted the EU to think about the problem of diversifying energy imports, Central Asia was a potential source.

A special feature of the Strategy is that it is not based on macro-regional concepts (Great Central Asia, Central and South Asia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, the post-Soviet space and etc.), but covers only five republics of the region. The document identified the priority areas of cooperation between the EU and Central Asia to ensure security, rule of law, human rights and good governance, implementation of projects in education, intensification of investments and trade, energy and transport, environmental protection and water use and formation of a sustainable intercultural dialogue.

Although the Strategy’s implementation cannot be called successful, it would be wrong to declare its failure. It is characterized by political and interdepartmental consultations and financing of EU projects. Brussels is the main donor of development assistance, allocating about 2 billion euros to the region from 2007 to 2020. BOMCA and CADAP projects are the flagship of the EU’s activities in the region; more than 70 million euros have been spent to finance them since the launch. Another key area is cooperation in education. The EU allocated 115 million euros for programs within ERASMUS+ in the period of 2014–2020.

Until recently, bilateral relations with the Central Asian republics were based on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCA) signed in the 1990s. This fact, together with rather limited turnover indicators, about 26.5 billion euros, indicates a sluggish cooperation between the parties.

Kazakhstan was the first country in the region to sign the Extended Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. Photo: mfa.gov.kz

The partnership with Kazakhstan, which accounts for the lion’s share of trade, was developing most intensively in comparison to other countries in the region. In addition, more than 50% of foreign direct investment in the Kazakh economy is made by EU countries. In 2015, Kazakhstan was the first country in the region to sign an expanded partnership and cooperation agreement. From 2005 to 2009, Uzbekistan was under sanctions, which negatively affected its relations with the EU, which for a long time developed in a rather complicated manner [p.8]. Certain intensification was outlined against the background of reforms launched by President Mirziyoyev, but it is too early to talk about its sustainability. Tajikistan, recovering from the civil war, ratified PCA only in 2010. In Brussels’ view Tajikistan is rather unstable country, subject to a strong influence of external actors. Kyrgyzstan has a relatively positive image; in the 90s it was a leader in the field of democratization and market reforms. At the same time, the country is also subject to serious outside influence and the level of economic relations remains rather low. Turkmenistan, as usually, was on the margins of both regional processes and cooperation with the outside world. It is no mere chance that it was the only state in the region where the EU did not open its representative office.

Political cooperation has developed ambiguously, especially in the areas of democratic reform, dialogue on human rights and ensuring good governance. It is no secret that the leaders of the Central Asian countries are 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 time for modern international relations with their rapidly changing agenda. During this period, cooperation was developed in areas without sensitive issues. The EU has managed to launch a number of interesting regional projects and programs that are still functioning and have become brands of the European presence in the region. Even if the effectiveness of regular bilateral and multilateral consultations raises questions, they ensure that the parties are in constant dialogue.

However, a number of 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 difficult.

The EU projects face the problem of ensuring the sustainability of results and do not contribute to the public administration system and public life reforms because local officials are often interested in their implementation to solely ensure reports.

Why it is difficult for Central Asia and the EU to achieve a good team-work?

Several factors hampered a more effective 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 have died out, and replaced by integration mechanisms imposed from outside. Thus, focusing on regionalism, Brussels could not actually find a base that would enhance the cooperation effectiveness.

It is no mere chance that in the EU Parliament Review on the Strategy implementation, it is recommended to rethink the regional approach in favor of bilateral relations with the countries of the region. They develop difficult, as noted.

One of the major obstacles to building relations between the EU and Central Asia is the contradictory image of the EU as a participant of the modern international relations system. Rather dismissive attitude towards the EU as a supranational structure that does not possess a so-called hard power is very characteristic for Central Asia. The cult of power is still high among the Central Asian political elites. Moscow also has a certain influence on skepticism towards Brussels, which is actively trying to revive the concept of the collective West 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. Consequently, a structure lacking real power, which faces serious problems within the integration space and unable to play an independent role in the international arena, seems to be a temporary and unclear phenomenon for the political elites of the region, which does not need to be seriously considered.

The EU is trying to replace the lack of hard power with its soft power. Europe, of course, has a well-established image of the development and well-being continent, rich cultural heritage, an attractive lifestyle and education direction for young people. However, the problems of the integration process, the activities of populists, as well as local propaganda have turned the concept of “European values” into synonymous with gay 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 the 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 European society. The constant “war” with so-called Western agents and fifth columns allegedly living on European grants and seeking to undermine national identity, is not without reasons.

The image of the Central Asian republics in the view of European countries is also not the most positive too. For the EU, Central Asian countries have the same set of vices: lack of democratic reforms, economic development problems, suppression of freedom of speech and conscience, oppression of the opposition and human rights defenders. Building relations with Central Asia, the EU is constantly under pressure from human rights organizations, which significantly complicates the dialogue process. One of the demonstrative examples is harsh criticism towards Brussels in 2011 during the first president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, and the attempts of European officials to justify themselves. 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 implementation. In the case of the Central Asian region countries, where the democratization process is not so fast, this practice seriously limits the room for maneuver.

It should be added to the above factors, that Brussels has much more priority directions of foreign policy actions on the agenda. In terms of importance for the EU, Central Asia cannot be brought into line with Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Taking to account the image and political risks that represent the states of the region, Brussels does not see much point in expanding its presence in the region.

Updated Strategy: is it a game tactics change?

Despite the lack of vital interests, the EU is updating its Strategy for Central Asia and is rethinking its policy in the region. The opening of a representative office 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 have been announced.

However, one should not hurry with the statement that Strategy updating means the decision of Brussels to expand its influence in the region. It seems that the European side is quite satisfied with the niche that it occupies at the moment. The Strategy revision is rather due to the adoption of the EU Global Strategy in 2016 and the need to adapt all foreign policy activities to new realities. The EU seeks to strengthen its position in the international relations system; therefore it updates the mechanisms of interaction with the outside world. In this regard, not being the key one, the Central Asian direction can still be used for this purpose.

At the same time, there are several factors that prompted the EU to undertake a kind of revision of its presence in the region. One of those was the restart of regional cooperation among the Central Asian republics. The fact that the countries of the region have finally started talking to each other and are trying to find formats for regional cooperation cannot but draw attention to the processes taking place there. Moreover, it contributes to the formation of cooperation mechanisms on the basis of EU’s favorite regionalism.

Potential energy sector cooperation also remains on the agenda. They never stopped talking in Brussels about their interest in importing gas from Central Asia (in particular, from Turkmenistan). The signing of the Caspian Sea status Convention in 2018 intensified talks about the possibility of construction a gas pipeline under the Caspian Sea, which will allow exporting Turkmen gas through the Southern Gas Corridor. The EU’s decision to open a full-fledged representation office in Ashkhabad demonstrates how important this topic for Brussels is. 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 that will be acceptable for all interested parties and will prevent the possibility of the region destabilization.

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 alarming for Brussels. Therefore, active participation in transport projects that will eventually reach the European continent is in the EU interests. Brussels understands that Central Asia is a potentially important transit region in building trade cooperation with China. The EU and China could cooperate in the region, combining [p.11] the European experience of creating an interconnection system and Chinese financial resources.

The Afghan factor also has a certain influence on the EU’s 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 one way or another on the agenda of cooperation with Central Asia. In addition, the states of the region are beginning to pay closer attention to the processes in Afghanistan. Due the flow of Afghan refugees into Europe, this topic is important for the EU. In this regard, Brussels is trying to fully support the infrastructure and humanitarian projects in the Afghan direction that are being launched by the Central Asian republics. In particular, EU’s interest in a project to provide training opportunities for Afghan women in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was announced by the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Peter Burian during his recent visit to Kazakhstan.

Thus, the Strategy revision for Central Asia is explained not only by the EU 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 updated Strategy, most likely, will not contain fundamentally new items. The parties normally will agree on cooperation in the field of security, strengthening democratic institutions, rule of law, human rights protection and etc. At the same time, it is worth expecting that special emphasis will be put on areas that have become relevant in light of the changes taking place in the region.

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

At the new cooperation step, the EU agreeing with the supporting role, will most likely try to rely on the areas in which it has real chances to form an effective cooperation platform. This may provide certain advantages, because it will eliminate any illusions and overestimated expectations in building up relations with the Central Asian states. Such an approach can improve the efficiency of Brussels’ activities, which will form the agenda as pragmatically as possible, without whipping up tension.

In fact, the EU’ interests in Central Asia do not directly collide with the interests of the main players represented by Moscow and 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 so far. The only issue that could provoke a serious opposition of interests 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 in the development of regional cooperation in its Central Asian policy. It should be recognized that despite the current problems, the EU is a good model on a number of issues relevant for Central Asia. Due to the fact that the concepts of regionalism and even integration (although it’s too early to talk about it) are again becoming popular among the political elites of the region’s states, Brussels can provide its experience in the areas of regional projects, cross-border cooperation, water dispute resolution and etc.

It should be noted that the interest in some forms of cooperation on the European continent is arising in the region. Last year, a dialogue platform was launched between the states of Central Asia and the Visegrad 4.[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 indicate its presence by providing legal and political advice.

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

Today, humanities experts are not so much needed in countries of the region as experts from more practical sectors — transport, logistics, information technology, urbanization, banking, and etc.

The demand for training, together with prospect regional cooperation represents for the EU an opportunity 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 sites 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