More than a decade after its first Central Asia strategy was unveiled, the European Union has released an update, moving from a “strategy for a new partnership” to “new opportunities for a stronger partnership.” While the strategy is a handy outline of European interests with regard to Central Asia, it’s couched in broad generalities, which serve as a glaring reminder that policies on paper can be far removed from the immediate realities in the region. Ultimately, the new strategy isn’t so new.
Central Asia’s importance to the EU is rooted, per the strategy, in its strategic location, its energy resources, its market and, of course, the EU’s interests in regional security. The strategy focuses on three priority areas: “Partnering for Resilience,” “Partnering for Prosperity,” and “Working Better Together.” Under these broad arches are crowded a bevy of interrelated matters.
Under the resilience priority area, for example, promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law is clumped with cooperation in addressing security challenges, especially border management and migration, as well as enhancing resilience in regard to environmental issues, climate change, and water, especially. This wide variety of areas is grouped together as “anticipating and addressing the challenges affecting their socio-economic goals and security and enhancing their ability to embrace reform and modernisation.” This isn’t an illogical grouping of issue areas. But at the same time, there doesn’t seem to be a recognition in the strategy that although these areas also appeared in the 2007 version, there hasn’t been significant progress in many of them.
The strategy was clearly written under the heavy influence of Uzbekistan-induced optimism. From the introduction (emphasis in original):
Some of today’s developments in Central Asia have further opened up new opportunities for taking the EU-Central Asia partnership forward. Reform processes in the region have triggered calls for political recognition and support for modernisation from the EU. The new momentum in regional cooperation, illustrated by the first informal Summit of Central Asian leaders of March 2018 in Astana, has enhanced the relevance of the EU’s experience in crafting cooperative solutions to common challenges.
The keywords are all there in bold. Renewed interest in regional cooperation is one of the most promising developments in Central Asia in the past few years and it has happened, largely, at Uzbekistan’s initiative (arguably it was Uzbekistan’s previous obstinance that made such an effort a non-starter.) But while the first summit of Central Asian leaders in March 2018 was momentous occasion, it has to be pointed out that the second such summit was postponed indefinitely last month because of Kazakhstan’s attempt at a managed transition.
A managed transition that is being actively mismanaged as Kazakh authorities jail protestors for holding signs with quotes from the country’s constitution (or nothing at all). With less than a month to go before election day, the Kazakh state-PR machines are advertising the polls as the freest and most competitive yet (read those links with grains of salt, please), citing the seven candidates and even an opposition candidate. But Kazakhstan’s largest opposition parties and figures are sitting the election out and the snap election precluded any kind of deliberate efforts to debate and deeply consider the country’s future leadership and direction. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is poised for victory.
Turning back to the EU’s new Central Asia strategy: Its idealism is perhaps a feature, not a bug, as the saying goes. But critics will ask: What does Europe’s plan to actually do to make progress on these priority areas? While the strategy lists “specific initiatives” these are, at times, still vague. For example, following the section on “Promoting Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law” one of the “specific initiatives” listed is: “Developing training opportunities on human rights and advocacy skills for civil society activists and human rights defenders and promoting cross-border contacts among them in the region, as well with their counterparts in the EU and Eastern Partnership countries.”
What good will training Kazakhstan’s civil society activists do if they are denied permits to demonstrate by the state and then jailed for going ahead with their protests? European leaders were silent in the face of the recent arrests.
Ultimately, the new EU Central Asia strategy is the old EU Central Asia strategy in a fresh PDF. Europe’s priorities have not changed when it comes to the region and the specific instrument of the strategy is not, itself, suited to the sometimes unexpected currents of Central Asian political tides. Built on Uzbekistan-inspired optimism, at the moment the document is undercut by Kazakhstan-inspired pessimism. This is not to say Europe, and European diplomats, have not or cannot have important influences on the region. They have, they can, they will. But the new strategy doesn’t put forward any new ideas on how they plan to do so.