A new EU Central Asia Strategy was adopted by the European Council on 17 June. Thomas Kruessmann assesses the content of the new strategy, writing that the EU’s efforts to pursue ‘non-exclusive partnerships’ with Central Asian countries are likely to be heavily restricted by China and Russia’s influence in the region.

The new EU Central Asia Strategy (The EU and Central Asia: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership) is an intellectually pleasing document, well written and aiming to create overall coherence in the conceptual approaches of the EU. As a second-generation document, it replaces the 2007 Strategy, albeit without questioning the choice of regional focus. Other regional initiatives, e.g. CAMCA, are grouping the South Caucasus together with Central Asia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. Getting out of the regional straitjacket thinking would indeed be refreshing, especially since developments in Russia’s Southern Siberia, in Western China (Xinjiang) and in Afghanistan are important to take into account as well. But the EU is not yet ready to think “out of the box”.

While in fact long overdue, the Strategy purports to respond to a specific timeliness by citing new opportunities (especially with regard to political transformations in Uzbekistan and recently Kazakhstan) and a new momentum in regional co-operation. The EU’s desire to jump in on what it sees as a renewed drive towards regional integration (conceptually elevated to a “cross-cutting priority”) betrays this wishful thinking behind the Strategy. In reality, the room for any autonomous development on a regional level is determined by Russia and China as the main actors in the wider region. Calling for a “non-exclusive partnership” is thus reminiscent of an attempt to tip-toe around the two elephants in the room.

China and Russia as the two dominant regional powers

China is interested in the Central Asian countries not for the size of their potential markets (populations are too thinly spread and have low purchasing power), but for resources and especially as transit countries for bringing goods to European markets. “Unlocking the growth potential”, as the EU claims, is far from China’s mind. Instead, China is concerned first and foremost about its own growth potential and boosting domestic consumption to assure the enduring legitimacy of the Communist Party.

At the same time, China is positively interested in maintaining stable autocratic regimes with a common passion for non-interference and respect for sovereignty. Therefore, it is fair to say that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has a hidden agenda in Central Asia: stabilising the ruling elites in neighbouring countries and providing them with an abundance of cash from loosely controlled projects to become leaders in the “modernisation” of their economies. In a way, this can be considered a “Chinese Neighbourhood Policy”, just like the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy, but with a goal that is 100% diametrically opposed.

The economic power that China is wielding in Central Asia can be gauged by looking at the two weakest Central Asian countries. In Tajikistan, Chinese foreign direct investment constituted 44.5% out of the total FDI in 2017; for the Kyrgyz Republic this number stood at 26.2%. During the same year, imports from China constituted 74.6% of GDP for the Kyrgyz Republic and 18.5% of GDP for Tajikistan. And finally, overall indebtedness to China in 2017 stood at 24% of GDP for Tajikistan and 43.3% of GDP for the Kyrgyz Republic.

For Russia, a desire to “unlock the growth potential” of Central Asia could not be farther from the truth. Russia is struggling with its own stagnant economy and despite some modest successes it is not interested in supporting Central Asia with any economic masterplan. On the contrary, an economically weak and fragmented Central Asia serves Russia’s interests. It was Kazakhstan that first promoted the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as a way of pleasing Russia and perhaps also to mitigate fears following Putin’s thinly veiled threats regarding the land border with the country. In the spirit of its pivot to the East, Russia is now allowing China to expand its economic interests while pushing forward with the Eurasian Union project and wielding the stick of military power. Additional sources of leverage are the sizable Russian minorities in all Central Asian countries and the dependence on remittances from Russia. Labour migration to Russia is still so strong that ordinary people in Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic are hardly able to survive without it.

What does this leave the EU’s role in Central Asia with? It is clear that from all external actors the EU is the only one with a sincere desire to engage in development co-operation and to contribute to societal and economic progress. Will this make a difference in the eyes of Central Asian governments? It seems that the honourable ambitions of the EU are widely recognised and appreciated. But in the harsh realities of Central Asia they are doomed to fail unless the EU develops a more resolute approach.

Areas of co-operation

In line with this analysis, there is one area in which the EU’s help will be unproblematic and most widely appreciated: fostering a regional approach to co-operation in the fields of the environment, water and climate change. A large share of the ecological problems of Central Asia can indeed only be solved by regional co-operation, and it is here that neither China nor Russia is taking an active interest. But the problem is that these policy fields are also fairly distant from ordinary people’s lives and they will hardly help “to cut the ice” in creating a pro-European constituency.

While the Strategy speaks of three “interconnected and mutually reinforcing priorities”, there are actually only two which stand at the centre: “partnering for resilience” and “partnering for prosperity”. The third one, called “working better together”, describes the level of delivery of policies.

“Working better together”

It is obvious that any result from the aforementioned partnering needs to have a policy impact. The authors of the Strategy express their wish “to take the EU-Central Asia partnership to the next level”, but beyond jargon what does this mean? Envisaging a “new generation” of bilateral Enhanced Partnership and Co-operation Agreements” (EPCAs) with most Central Asian countries (sadly, without Turkmenistan) is perhaps the most central point for the time being. The fact that the EU managed to conclude an EPCA with Kazakhstan in 2015 undisturbed by the heated discussions around the annexation of Crimea was a major diplomatic feat.

EU – Central Asia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Tashkent, March 2018, Credit: European Union Delegation to Uzbekistan

When now this Agreement serves as a blueprint for similar agreements with other Central Asian republics, it can only be commended. To this author’s knowledge, the EPCA with Kazakhstan is still widely under-researched: this is true both for a comparative perspective with the DCFTAs concluded with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, and also for a comparative analysis with the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement between the EU and Armenia (CEPA) signed in 2017.

Compatibility with obligations under the EEU is a central point, but beyond technicalities, there is one perspective that emerges from the EU-Central Asia Strategy quite clearly: the new agreements should afford the EU leverage and legitimacy to address issues that are now being critically promoted, primarily under the new “resilience” approach. If the EU is willing to go beyond ritualised forms of communication and engage with the countries of Central Asia in a more robust and energetic manner, it will be in for a rough ride, but it may have a fair chance of success.

“Partnering for resilience”

Since the 2016 EU Global Strategy was enacted, “resilience” has become a key term in the EU’s world view. If taken seriously, it is a bottom-up concept of empowerment, of intervention and of addressing people on the ground. Therefore, the notion of resilience has the potential to fly in the face of autocratic governments used to cosy relationships built around the notions of “security” and “stability”.

For the unsuspecting reader, the chapter on resilience starts with a sub-chapter entitled “Promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law”. Nothing could be farther from the realities of Central Asia. One might even think that this overture has been chosen on purpose to mask the radical nature of the resilience concept. After more than a decade of futile democracy promotion, circular rule of law dialogue and empty human rights admonitions, Central Asian governments will surely think that with topics as traditional as the aforementioned ones, they can rest assured.

The true explosivity of the concept of resilience becomes clear only a few paragraphs later when the EU offers to partner up on the topic of decent work and labour standards. Not exactly a typical topic for rule of law and not necessarily in the realm of human rights, addressing the labour situation of the many forced to work in precarious and dangerous jobs with no decent pay is a courageous move indeed. Recent discussions in Georgia have shown how the EU is able to win the peoples’ hearts and minds with this topic. And for Kazakhstan, thinking back to the oil worker strikes of Zhanaozen (with many presumably killed), one may even wonder how the EU dared to raise this topic.

This almost subversive desire to touch the root causes of what is going wrong in Central Asia is displayed in the chapter “Strengthening co-operation on border management, migration and mobility and in addressing common security challenges”. Traditionally at the core of cosy relationships, the EU suddenly dares to “address the main root causes of insecurity such as poverty, social exclusion and marginalisation, limited political participation, institutional weaknesses, corruption and mismanagement of natural resources”. In fact, these are the very problems that governments chose to nurture as part of their strategy of preserving power. It would be naïve to imagine that an enlightened Central Asian government would sit down to discuss these topics with the EU seriously. But putting them on the agenda would be a real break from the past.

“Partnering for prosperity”

Obviously, nobody is going to quarrel with the EU when pursuing the goal of prosperity. But there are a few nuances that are worth mentioning. Firstly, the EU constantly uses the term “sustainable connectivity” which refers back to its concept of EU-Asia connectivity. In reality, this is a swipe against the BRI which is perceived as non-sustainable and not trustworthy because it is not open, not inclusive and not rule-based. What has emerged as a point of contention in EU-China relations is now taken to the scene of Central Asia. Secondly, an important difference is the degree to which the EU offers to use connectivity as a way of elevating Central Asian economies to participate in international value chains. China, by contrast, is interested in developing Central Asian countries only as transit countries.

True to its broad understanding of connectivity, the EU proposes to go beyond transport connectivity to also develop digital connectivity and people-to-people contacts. Promising to “pay due attention to the development of air transport and civil aviation”, the EU misses a very important point. It could easily win the hearts and minds of people if Central Asian regulators would admit low-cost carriers to allow inexpensive flights between Central Asia and Tbilisi and Kyiv as the easternmost parts of Europe. The current situation in which monopolistic carriers and over-prized airports stifle competition is a major weakness and will reinforce the feeling of isolation among people in Central Asia.

Finally, one important weakness of the EU Central Asia strategy lies in the ambiguity that it creates between fostering a competitive private sector and opening the door to European businesses. When it comes to developing the private sector, the EU now clearly goes beyond the standard approach of supporting small and medium enterprises with access to credit by urging “sound regulatory frameworks and fiscal policies as well as effective anti-corruption policies.” It is absolutely correct to shift the focus on such structural issues because it is Central Asian regulators themselves who are most eager to extort those very businesses that have been carefully nurtured.

However, the EU should throw its weight behind the private sector by also demanding that European businesses are able to operate on the very same playing field. Strangely, in the Strategy there is a separate set of demands “to promote sound, transparent, open-non-discriminatory and predictable regulatory and policy environment(s)” for European economic operators. Setting aside European companies from the private sector in Central Asia is a dangerous signal. Already at this stage, there is a desire by autocratic governments to offer supposedly advantageous conditions for doing business in special economic zones while leaving the ordinary private sector outside of them. The result is a dual economy in which the private sector languishes while foreign investment is concentrated in shiny special economic zones where special deals can be sweetened with special favours. This should not be the EU’s approach.

Conclusion

Overall, the EU Central Asia Strategy is an important step forward. No strategy can be perfect, and the many points of criticism raised in this analysis are only meant to make it even better. Hopefully, the EU will have the stamina to bring its ambitions to the negotiation table.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Thomas Kruessmann – University of Kent
Thomas Kruessmann is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent’s Global Europe Centre, a GCRF COMPASS affiliate, and President of the Association of European Studies for the Caucasus.

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