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10/04/2006 | Central Asia: What Role for the European Union?

International Crisis Group Staff

The European Union is missing its opportunity to make a positive impact on Central Asia, where despite a surface calm, the potential for instability and conflict is high. EU assistance to the region has largely taken the form of technical assistance, which shows few results for the time and money invested. The EU has to rethink its approach: there should be a move away from failed regional projects and recognition that the five Central Asian states face very different domestic political and economic situations. Technical aid may be appropriate for Kazakhstan, but Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan need more classic development help, particularly in infrastructure and public health. Engagement with the repressive regimes in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is unlikely to yield results, and EU policies should instead focus on facilitating their transition from dictatorship.

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The European Union is not living up to its potential as a geopolitical actor in Central Asia. The level of EU interest has been low, and Brussels is doing little to shape developments in a region that has mostly seen marked declines in its economic fortunes, political freedoms and social development in recent years but remains of considerable strategic significance. If this is to change, Europe must move away from largely unsuccessful policies, particularly the promotion of region-wide projects, and take on a more focused and active role geared to the distinct characteristics of each of the region’s five states. It needs also to raise the level of its representation, spend more money and stick to its political ideals if it is to have a positive impact.

The EU cannot afford to ignore Central Asia, where despite a surface calm, the potential for instability and conflict is high. Central Asia is important for the EU’s future energy security. Public health systems there are in a critical state, creating ideal conditions for epidemics. Islamic radicalism, though not a current danger, is another potential challenge. Progress on human rights and good governance has been slow. The region is a major route for drug trafficking, and instability, if it develops, would seriously hinder efforts at nation-building in neighbouring Afghanistan.

EU assistance to the region has largely taken the form of technical assistance implemented through the program (TACIS) that was designed in 1991 to support transition to market economies and reinforce democracy and the rule of law in the post-Soviet space. That program has included a number of large trans-national projects in transport, drugs, border controls and energy which show few results for the time and money invested. Despite some assistance given to combating drug trafficking, the potential for ill-gotten gains from the drug trade continues to undermine efforts.

The approach to development has been fragmented and project-driven, rather than strategic, and has clung to a model of regional cooperation that has proven to be a non-starter due to the reluctance of Central Asian states to work together. The EU has attempted to promote food security through budget support in return for reforms but progress is difficult to measure. While existing development and aid mechanisms are to be combined into a new single instrument in 2007, the nature of this new instrument remains to be determined; there are concerns that it, too, will be informed by an unrealistic attempt to foster regional cooperation.

Political involvement has likewise been limited, with only a handful of European diplomatic missions in the region. Although the EU has taken the lead in responding to the May 2005 Andijon massacre in Uzbekistan, it has generally been uneasy about addressing such difficult issues. There is some basis for concern that efforts to “engage” even the region’s worst offenders – Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – may be undermining the EU’s stand on human rights and democratisation. The appointment of a European Union Special Representative is a welcome sign of interest, but it is not yet clear exactly how his role can be integrated with existing political mechanisms. Member-state activity has likewise been somewhat limited, although it has served to address areas overlooked by TACIS, notably public health.

If the EU is to be a force for stability and development in the region, it must take steps to increase its visibility and raise public awareness of its institutions, aims and activities. There must also be a move away from failed regional projects and recognition that the five Central Asian states face very different domestic political and economic situations. Regional cooperation should remain a goal but local needs should take priority until the Central Asian states are more willing to work together.

The EU should also balance technical assistance with long-term strategies designed to prevent conflict or, in the worst case, mitigate its effects. These should include planning for large humanitarian crises, including refugee flows, and finding ways to prevent instability in one state from infecting the region as a whole. Recognition is needed that engagement with regimes such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is unlikely to yield results, and that policies should focus on how to ease their eventual transition from dictatorship. Engagement with moderate religious groups, not limited solely to official organisations and institutions, should be pursued more vigorously, and the EU should be unequivocal in its commitment to human rights and democratisation. This will be especially important if the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) becomes increasingly straitjacketed and U.S. credibility on these issues continues to decline. The admittedly modest leverage the EU can exert means that common ground should be sought with Russia. But again this must be done realistically, with realisation that at present not much is likely to be found.

The EU has several advantages. It generally does not evoke in the region the same concerns as encroaching U.S., Russian or Chinese influence does. It has relevant experience in helping some former Soviet bloc countries make successful transitions to democracy and prosperity. It should not allow apathy and indecisiveness to squander its opportunity to have a similar impact in Central Asia.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the European Union and its Member States

1. Increase the EU’s visibility and effectiveness by:

(a) increasing the staffing of European Commission delegations in Bishkek and Dushanbe and appointing an ambassador-level delegation chief in both capitals;

(b) promoting closer cooperation between the Commission delegations and the EU Special Representative (EUSR);

(c) supporting the study of Central Asian languages, history, and culture in Europe to develop more regional experts;

(d) providing educational materials in Russian and local languages to Central Asian universities, particularly those which train future diplomats and officials, and providing greater opportunities for Central Asian students to study in Europe;

(e) increasing consultation between Brussels and EU offices in the field; and

(f) giving more attention to public outreach and information campaigns about the EU, its values, institutions, and programs.

2. Move away from treating Central Asia as a unified region and focus more on country-specific issues, keeping ideas of regional cooperation and integration as longer-term goals.

3. Maintain a consistent and united front on human rights abuses, notably in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, without allowing a desire for engagement to eclipse these efforts, and specifically:

(a) take a more robust public stance on democracy and human rights issues throughout the region, keeping these issues in the foreground of relations, particularly in discussions held by the EUSR;

(b) reject any attempt by EU institutions to revive closer trade links with Turkmenistan until there has been meaningful human rights and economic liberalisation progress that would justify such a step;

(c) continue to support human rights and democracy projects, particularly as they relate to women; and

(d) end the institutional belief that the OSCE handles Central Asia, and issues like human rights can be left to that forum.

4. Insist on concerted efforts by the states in the region to combat corruption and provide incentives for progress against clearly-defined benchmarks.

5. Launch a review to develop ways to improve the EU’s institutional knowledge and analysis of energy issues in the region.

6. Explore areas of possible cooperation with Russia and China, identifying those where interests coincide without conflicting with concerns over human rights.

7. Work to counter terrorist recruitment and radicalisation by promoting human rights and good governance, and by engaging with local religious authorities, including those outside official structures.

8. Work to improve north-south road connections between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as those countries’ road connections with China.

9. Make support for the public health sector a major part of assistance to countries in the region.

International Crisis Group (Organismo Internacional)

 



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