Crossroads Asia

The EU in Central Asia: Nothing to Lose by Pushing Human Rights Issues

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Crossroads Asia

The EU in Central Asia: Nothing to Lose by Pushing Human Rights Issues

“For the EU, democracy should be a sine qua non,” a recent policy analysis stressed.

The EU in Central Asia: Nothing to Lose by Pushing Human Rights Issues
Credit: Flickr/Bob

The European Union’s Central Asia strategy has been on the books since 2007. Last year, the strategy was reviewed for the fourth time and in June 2015 RFE/RL reported that the EU planned on increasing its efforts to address “serious challenges to human rights” in Central Asia, according to a strategy document they had seen. A policy analysis requested by the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and published earlier this year notes that despite active efforts on the part of Latvia (which held the EU presidency in the first half of 2015), the strategy was not, ultimately, amended.

The EU, like the U.S., has to contend with the fact that it has few interests and only modest leverage on Central Asian states. That said, the analysis, written by Jos Boonstra, of the recently-closed European think tank FRIDE, and Tika Tsertsvadze, of the International Partnership for Human Rights, arrives at a different set of conclusions than similar assessments of U.S. policies toward the region.

The introduction gets right to the point on Europe’s lack of policy success and Central Asia’s dim prospects:

Over the last eight years, the EU has successfully established several institutionalised mechanisms for strengthening relations and working with Central Asian governments, including an increased presence on the ground. Despite this, the EU’s engagement in Central Asia is one of limited to no impact. The region has become more unstable; forecast gas deliveries from the region to Europe have so far not materialised; trade is minimal with the exception of EU-Kazakhstan links, democracy is seen by the Central Asian regimes as a threat to their survival; corruption severely undermines economic development and siphons off much of the development aid; and the human rights situation has been backsliding.

“The EU’s Central Asia Strategy is ambitious,” the authors write, given that “It is an area that is not a geopolitical priority for Europe.”

One of the more interesting conclusions the authors draw regards what Europe ought to do in light of its limited interests:

As the region is not of great interest to Europe (with the exception of modest trade and investment relations with Kazakhstan) the EU should seek to have an impact in a few specific areas, notably in (economic) development and in promoting democracy and human rights; and less so in the fields of energy and hard security.

This conclusion is in stark contrast to those drawn by a recent review of U.S. policy in Central Asia by the Carnegie Endowment’s Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky, and Paul Stronski.

The Carnegie report makes the case for “rebooting U.S. policy,” but has been criticized as offering merely a codification of existing U.S. policy which avoids tensions over human rights and prioritizes security relationships. Among the report’s recommendations are that the U.S. “not condition security cooperation on human rights performance” and “focus the U.S. reform agenda on improving social and economic conditions rather than on democracy promotion.”

Boonstra and Tsertsvadze, addressing the EU in Central Asia, note the same set of limited interests that the Carnegie report identifies for the U.S., but arrive at a radically different conclusion; rather than abandon democracy promotion and avoid conditioning security cooperation on human rights, they suggest the opposite.

“For the EU, democracy should be a sine qua non,” they write, going on to note that while Central Asian regimes view democracy as a threat and find more comfort in the Russian authoritarian model, they will only become “more reliable partners when they develop and respect the rule of law and democratic governance.” To achieve this, they suggest various levels of conditionality:

The EU should use a pragmatic combination of aid, conditionality and political engagement in seeking change in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) with Kazakhstan and the latter’s wish to play a leading international role should also be conditioned to encourage Astana to reverse recent democratic backsliding. In the closed dictatorships of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan the EU lacks leverage, but Brussels should condition engagement with these regimes on concrete deliverables on their part.

The core of this argument is based on two observations: first, the EU has little to lose in irking Central Asian governments and second, that regional leaders place some degree of importance on relations with Europe. Regional leaders “boast close relations with Brussels and European power centers as counterweights to Beijing and Moscow.” These relations are instrumentalized by Central Asian governments, to tout their sovereignty and independence on an international stage and “present themselves as equal and respected democratic partners internally to their own populations.”

Because the EU has so few interests, the authors seem to argue, what’s it have to lose by pushing?

The EU hasn’t noticeably acted on this advice. When Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Brussels this week President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker seemed to praise Kazakhstan, saying reforms were “promising.” Juncker called Nazarbayev his “dear friend” and said he was “sensitive to these [reform] issues.” According to the EU Observer, Juncker “said international monitors adjudged recent parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan as having respected democratic standards”–an assessment countered by the OSCE’s assessment.