The EU in Central Asia



John Harrison


Central Asia watchers talk about the ‘New Great Game’, referring to a new version of the ‘Great Game’ when Russia and Great Britain fought each other for influence in Central Asia. Now the ‘New Great Game’ is between China, Russia and the US. However this time round, the leaders of Central Asian states are no longer passive pawns but energy-rich sovereign states able to play one great power off against another. The EU is strangely absent from such discussions, so one presumes that the EU is not a global power. In economic terms the EU most definitely is, but its influence is comparatively small. What is the EU doing wrong?

Largely absent from Central Asia in the 1990s, the EU as an institution started to gain visibility in the region in 2002. The EU employs a normative approach in Central Asia, implemented through ‘Partnership and Cooperation Agreements’ (PCAs). Policies are built upon the pillars of political dialogue, trade and economic relations. These are enshrined in noble causes: common values of respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, eradicating poverty. The EU’s strategy also aims to seek closer regional cooperation both within Central Asia and integration of Central Asia with the EU, particularly in energy, transport, higher education and environmental sectors. This is a grand plan, however we are now into the second decade of the EU’s presence in Central Asia and we have yet to see tangible positive results.

The EU has applied, with a few minor adaptations, the same normative approach as it applied successfully in Eastern Europe; a process which culminated in 8 Eastern European countries joining the EU by 2007. However on cultural and political levels, Central Asia is not Europe, and wishful thinking aside, it is extremely unlikely that any of the Central Asian states will enter the EU in the foreseeable future.

History 101 of Central Asia

Even a cursory look at Central Asia’s history tells us that for the past 150 years the region was dominated by Russia; by the Tsars and then by the commissars. By the end of the 19th century, independent tribal confederacies and emirates had become absorbed into the tsarist empire. Waves of forced and voluntary immigration have given the region a Russian diaspora of over 10 million, out of a population of 61 million in 2010. When the five Central Asian Soviet Republics gained independence in 1991, none inherited the social and political institutions necessary to create western style democracies, nor even the desire to establish them, in fact they were the most conservative of the Soviet Republics and only reluctantly accepted the Soviet Union’s demise.

The Soviets appear to have done a good job in preventing unification of the peoples in all of the then five ‘Soviet Socialist Republics’, by creating borders between the Republics that did not always tally with ethnic differences. For example, 13% of the population of Kyrgyzstan is Uzbek, which is serious in that most local allegiances are in fact based on clans, which have their own politics and respect their own borders. The new ‘born sovereign’ states viewed power-sharing arrangements as potential threats to their leadership structures, which are all authoritarian by western European standards. Western leaders mistakenly presumed that Central Asian leaders, would voluntarily canter into the coral of western democratic states, elect the next generations of leaders and happily face the political hazards of economic transformation.

A common inherited military and hydrocarbon energy infrastructure has made it difficult, if not impossible for states to break away from strategic dependence on Russia. The only real question is what form such dependency should take: multilateral through the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Agreement) and EEU (Eurasian Economic Union) or bilateral on a state-by-state basis. Despite all of its anti-terrorist policies, it is unlikely that the US and/or NATO could or would want to take on the security of the whole of the region, and this task appears to have assumed by the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation), which was created out of a previous Russian-dominated ‘CIS’ arrangement, and three of the five states have joined (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan).

Russia and China are the largest investors in the region, with China taking the lead in recent years. A 1,833 kilometre pipeline from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Xinjiang Province in China took only two years to build and became operational in 2009 at an initial cost of $7.3 billion. China has arrived in a big way. Nevertheless, Russian influence is still vast, the other 97% of oil and gas pipelines still head from south to north – into Russia. Most of the needed new east-west pipelines such as the Nabucco pipeline from Baku through the South Caucuses all the way to Austria, and the Turkmenistan to India (TAPI) pipeline have stalled because of lack of finance and political instability of the countries which the pipelines are supposed to run through. The US is contemplating increasing its presence to compensate for a drawdown of ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) forces in Afghanistan. Sorting out allegiances and strategies is very complex. The two countries with the most Russophile elite; Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are also the most European orientated, whilst the three countries that have fewer cultural linkages with Russia – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – seem to be more distant from Europe. This all bodes badly for the EU’s regional approach to the resolution of urgent cross-border problems, including terrorism, international crime and resolving environmental disasters. Central Asian leaders have been frequently criticised of exaggerating religious and ethnic tensions to secure foreign aid and military support, whilst shoring up their own regimes. Furthermore, they have been accused of playing off one foreign ‘partner’ against another to secure financial aid and infrastructure investment. Be that as it may, the EU in particular is keen to resolve security issues in Central Asia, especially the narcotics trafficking business. It has every reason to do so, as according to UN’ drug control experts, about half of the heroin consumed in Western Europe (about 60 tons) is smuggled through Central Asia from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and on to Western Europe.

Trade figures

China-Central Asian trade topped $46 billion in 2010

Russian-Central Asian trade reached almost $40 billion in 2013

EU-Central Asian trade reached €27.3 billion in 2008


1. Is the EU’s normative approach effective? From a local point of view, the EU spending an estimated €750m on good governance reform programmes is seen by many as peripheral and even hypocritical, because the EU simultaneously engages in major energy projects with states that are viewed both by human rights activists and NGOs in the region as being corrupt and repressive.

2. Should the EU cooperate with existing security and economic alliances in the region, even though they may be driven by different ideological goals?

3. Does the EU’s continuing strategic drive towards exploitation of fossil fuels in the area makes economic, and political sense? Does it in fact undermine efforts to encourage good governance?

Why do the EU’s current policies need to be adjusted?

Normative Policies – not relevant.

The EU has adopted a normative regional policy, even as China and Russia are investing relatively vast sums of money without attaching any strings to their investments. From a local point of view, It is not clear what the EU as an institution wants, in contrast to Russia, China and to a certain extent the US, which are seen as having clear energy and security interests backed up by cash.

The EU wishes to help Central Asian states tackle human security problems, however this necessitates placing the rights of individual citizens above those of governments. Problems can only be solved at a regional level yet there is as yet little regional consciousness in Central Asia. Western observers witness with horror how human rights’ NGOs are being closed down, and European agencies set up to alleviate such problems are being tolerated rather than accepted. Central Asian states prioritise threats to their own existence such as terrorism (in the early 1990s) – rather then human security problems such as the environment, which is not seen as a threat to the continuation of regimes, even though ordinary people suffer through a serious lack of water, food, electricity, winter heating and pollution. The desiccation of the Aral Sea for example is one of the 20th century’s major ecological disasters, and has led to some of the highest cancer rates in the world amongst the 3-4 million people living on its previous shores.

We know that drug money is used to support separatist and radical religious terrorist movements, and there are unconfirmed reports of such resources finding their way into officials’ pockets. Drug cartels have no wish to see Central Asian states stabilise and become transparent for the simple but devastating reason that transparency equals less opportunity to bribe government officials.

The question is, should the EU be engaging in Central Asia at all on a normative basis if their policies are having no effect, or even making the situation worse by affording credibility to certain authoritarian regimes?

Cooperation with other trade and military blocks

As an arbiter of western aid and considerable economic opportunity, the EU would be in a much stronger position to influence the internal politics of Central Asian states as an inside player. The Chinese also need regional cooperation to ward off religious extremism spreading into their Xinjiang province, and to prevent drug trafficking which also affects China. The Chinese also wish to stabilise a region that is now a new major market and vast source of hydrocarbons.

No diversification from Fossil Fuels

No one can see a fossil fuel free Europe within his or her lifetime, but a reduced dependence on hydrocarbons is now very likely. In Central Asia, the EU has not made encouraging the development of alternative energy sources a priority, although the region is richly endowed with such resources. This policy is out of date.

Building and securing pipelines across unstable states, entails high transit risks, and long pay back times. Alternatives such as gas swaps are now available. For example, if Turkmen gas is to reach European markets, it is more likely to do so through swap arrangements via Iran and Turkey than through cross-Caspian and Nabucco pipelines. Consumers in the EU also face being penalised as there are very high ‘switching costs’ if supplies are disrupted. In Central Asia, playing the energy game means confronting Gazprom’s monopsonist pricing system. Many see western fascination with fossil fuels as holding back the diversification of Central Asian economies, because payment of ‘rents’ strengthen current practice and provides international credibility to authoritarian governments. Energy is about security, but whose security?, clearly not the people’s! Tajikistan, for example, is only able to cover 31% of its food consumption needs, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan around 50%. Central Asia is one of the only regions of world where water shortages have led to conflict. Meanwhile, the population of Central Asia has increased from 61.5 million in 2010 to 66 million in 2014, and continues to grow fast. These problems will clearly not be solved by oil and gas production and distribution. The EU’s energy policy in Central Asia has to change.

The areas, in which the EU is seen as being able to make a difference – because they are not within the interest spheres of Russia and China, are water management, rural development and migration management, as well as development of renewable energy. Concentrating on these areas may, perhaps controversially, do more to encourage good governance than current EU policies and may enable the Central Asian states to edge away from political and economic dependency of regional powers, if they so wish.

What should the EU Do?

Stop telling people what to do.

Normative good governance policies should remain in place, but only be implemented selectively, with projects that the EU is actually involved with, not as a blanket policy. The EU should do more to promote bilateral trade. In all dealings within Central Asia, the EU should work with the smallest units of government, or directly with local communities, to mitigate corruption.

The EU should keep a central office in Central Asia, and its ‘Special Representative (EUSR)’, to continue to enhance its lack of visibility in the region. The EU Central office in Central Asia should continue to encourage the highly successful overseas education programmes, and should finance more cultural exchanges. I believe intercultural understanding and respect to be the key for progress in Central Asia as elsewhere in the world.

Cooperate with regional powers

Wherever possible, the EU (and the European American Enterprise Council) should start to cooperate with existing regional structures, in particular with the EEU and SCO on a wide range of issues including drug trafficking, international crime and solving regional environmental problems. NATO should keep a more open mind about working with CSTO and the SCO on counter-terrorism. Any cooperation should be clearly carried put on a cautious, reciprocal basis, and the focus should be on ‘human security’ issues. Central Asia could be transformed into an example of regional cooperation, for the benefit of the people of Central Asian states themselves. The real danger is that the opposite may happen (some say it already is); where the region is transformed into another arena where global powers resolve their differences.

Stop backing fossil fuels

The EU should disassociate itself from sponsorship of new pipeline construction from CA to Europe, and should encourage states to develop realistic alternatives to fossil fuel. Private companies should continue fossil fuel programmes, indeed they cannot be stopped, but the EU should stop Central Asian operations of oil and gas companies with their headquarters in the EU benefiting from governmental tax benefits, or any other of Fossil Fuel Subsidies.