Interviews

Sebastien Peyrouse on the EU’s New Central Asia Strategy

What are Europe’s main interests in Central Asia and how does the EU plan to pursue them?

Catherine Putz
Sebastien Peyrouse on the EU’s New Central Asia Strategy
Credit: Akorda Press Facebook

After more than a decade, the European Union recently released an updated strategy for Central Asia. When comes to Central Asia’s partners, Europe certainly sits below Russia and China. But European states nevertheless have long histories of involvement across the region. In a number of sectors, such as education, Europe has much expertise to offer Central Asia. As Sebastien Peyrouse, a research professor at George Washington University’s Central Asia Program, notes in the following interview, the previous EU strategy — unveiled in 2007 — had been criticized by some as serving merely as a declaration of intent. Can the new strategy achieve more than its predecessor? What does Europe have to offer Central Asia?

After more than a decade, the EU recently released an updated strategy for Central Asia. What are the core features of the strategy? What are Europe’s main interests in Central Asia?

Since the 1990s, Europe has structured its own pragmatic interests in the region in economic and security terms: EU relations with Russia and its near abroad, the situation in Afghanistan, drug trafficking, flows of migrants and refugees, local economic development, and subsoil riches it would benefit from accessing. Moreover, the EU has striven to promote a values-based agenda and soft power strategy in Central Asia, as well as the rest of the former Soviet space. 

The new strategy reaffirms the EU’s multiple dimensions of engagement in Central Asia. Firstly in the economic dimension, by fostering cooperation in improving the investment environment; development of the private sector; promotion of regional trade, cooperation, and connectivity; and enhancement of Central Asia as an energy supplier to the EU. Secondly in the political dimension, by reasserting its engagement in promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, as well as the importance of civil society participation. Related to this is the promotion of human development, such as investing in youth and education. Finally, the security dimension plays an important part in the EU strategy with goals such as strengthening cooperation on border management, migration, and mobility, and in addressing some common security challenges, such as countering terrorism and violent extremism, climate change, and environmental degradation. 

How has European strategy evolved in Central Asia? What are the EU’s challenges in implementing its strategy and materializing its goals in the region?

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This new strategy contains several positive points. While the EU has often been criticized for taking too general an approach to the region, the new strategy asserts the need to “differentiate between specific country situations.” It also suggests new areas of cooperation such as on the digital economy, a sector in which companies in EU countries, thanks to their know-how and experience, could contribute significantly. Moreover, by having as key priorities the promotion of resilience and prosperity in the states of Central Asia, the new strategy emphasizes the importance of human development and of improving both regional and domestic contexts.  

However, other points on which the strategy focuses, such as cooperation in education and vocational training, or assisting Central Asian countries in building mutual trust and confidence, were already included in the previous 2007 strategy. Therefore, an essential challenge will be making sure this new strategy can go beyond being a mere declaration of intent, a criticism that was been made about the previous strategy, and instead be implemented concretely in the uneasy regional geopolitical and geoeconomic context of the region. Firstly, despite its interest in Central Asia, the EU has not made the region a top priority and, consequently, it allocates only limited human, material and financial resources to its programs there. Secondly, Russia, with its strategic influence and its social impact through, among others, the several million Central Asian labor migrants it hosts every year, and China, by massive economic investment, today play leading roles and have a much stronger influence in the region than other actors. Russia, in particular, enjoys a far better reputation than the EU, which, despite its importance as a trading partner, has been significantly denigrated due to local perception that the EU lacks concrete commitment, as well as local rejection of EU insistence on promoting human rights and democratization, which Russia ignores.

This has led some European politicians to consider that the EU should move away from its human rights programs and increase the focus on economic relations. Yet, the two are not contradictory, and it seems to me extremely important to counter authoritarianism and human rights violations in the region, issues which Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China at best do not criticize, and at worse appear to encourage. To be most effective in addressing these concerns, the EU should consider increasing its investment in development projects, which so far have remained underfunded and in the shadow of EU assistance to the region’s military and border security. With less financial, material, and human investment than has hitherto been expended in the hard security sector, the EU could play a much greater role in preserving the region’s stability by engaging more in several key sectors of human development: education, health, food security, energy security, sustainable mobility and transport, and assistance in preventing and mitigating natural disasters. It is precisely the decline in these sectors, individually or together, which are at the root of Central Asian states’ fragility, and of increasing popular discontent. Moreover, focusing on development also provides a way to engage in dialogue with Central Asian governments that are often reluctant to discuss democracy or human rights directly, which they view as a threat to regime security. Last but not least, this could also offer new tools to promote, less directly but more efficiently, values such as good governance and human rights by increasing contacts with local civil society. The fact that the new EU strategy devotes real attention to civil society in Central Asia goes in the right direction. 

You recently wrote about European educational assistance to Central Asia, commenting that EU assistance in this sector has been provided mostly through “grand instruments.” Can you describe some of those instruments and why that hasn’t worked as intended? What do suggest the EU do instead?

For more than 20 years, the EU has focused on tertiary education assistance and urged several Central Asian governments to embark on large-scale systemic reforms. Yet, despite the laudable goals of helping local education, the EU’s use of “grand instruments,” such as its quick pace in trying to integrate authoritarian states like Kazakhstan into the Bologna Process [Editor’s Note: the Bologna Process is a series of ministerial meetings and agreements between European countries to ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher-education qualifications] and to push other Central Asian countries into it raises questions. The Kazakhstani Ministry of Education has had little real engagement with the country’s academic and civic communities to reform the system, and instead has deliberately perpetuated the pervasive bureaucratic checks and controls over the entire education system. This has impeded the implementation of several fundamental principles of the process, such as university autonomy, the empowerment of faculty, and the free flow of knowledge. Consequently, the Bologna Process brought into the European system — one in which the norms of democratic respect, of human rights, and of transparency are fundamental — a country in which these very principles are regularly violated. Moreover, through the use of these “grand instruments,” the EU has risked having its assistance usurped by local authorities for their own domestic purposes; [former] Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, for example, tried to boost the country’s image by boasting about the success of reforms that were either only partially implemented, or even not implemented at all. As a result, and to me worryingly, rather than having the intended effect of fostering reforms, premature integration might have the unintended consequence of slowing down or even stopping reforms.

Rather than focusing on such broad reforms, EU countries should instead consider setting up more targeted projects consistent with the amount of funding it is able to commit in the longer term to the region and better adapt them to the local social context. Many modest measures or initiatives, some of them already launched in the region, could contribute to improving local education. For example, allowing more Central Asians to study at European universities, or facilitating the opening of satellite campuses of European universities, like the Turin Polytechnic University in Uzbekistan, would contribute to counteracting the considerable dearth of slots for students in Central Asian universities. The EU could focus more on basic and elementary education, a sector that the new strategy does not address, including by helping to improve the quality of instruction, including in European languages and implementing targeted support programs for teachers. The EU should concretize its intention to develop cooperation in vocational training by developing new initiatives and programs. Some Southeast Asian models, such as South Korea’s opening several vocational training centers in Uzbekistan and providing them with support grants, among others, could be a good examples to follow. European countries could also promote European private sector engagement in local vocational training, for example through subsidies or tax deductions for companies that participate. This list of possible initiatives is not exhaustive.

Last but not least, more specifically targeted projects would make it easier to engage local stakeholders. In many cases, local actors who were not consulted about the programs or planned reforms have been often unwilling embrace concepts that they perceived as far from their local social and economic reality. It is the new generation of Central Asian stakeholders who will breathe life into long-term reforms by drawing on the European concepts they have been taught or initiatives they took part in, if these concepts are perceived as not imposed from the outside, but locally owned.

In late May, European Council President Donald Tusk traveled to Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Why did Tusk visit those three countries in particular and do you think it was a successful trip?

The visit of European Council President Donald Tusk to Central Asia is undoubtedly a good thing. It demonstrates the EU’s interest in Central Asia. Despite the efforts of personalities such as EU Special Representative for Central Asia Peter Burian, who travels to the region regularly, visits by senior European officials are rare, particularly as compared to visits by senior Russian and Chinese officials. For example, the  last visit of a president of the European Council took place in December 2010. 

Moreover, several political factors made this visit particularly important, such as the release of the new EU strategy, the presidential transition in Kazakhstan after the resignation of Nazarbayev, and the numerous political and economic reforms in Uzbekistan that are opening up many new opportunities for cooperation. However, and in my opinion regrettably, key issues concerning human rights and freedom of expression reportedly were not addressed. For example, during President Tusk’s meeting with Kazakhstan’s new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, there does not appear to have been much discussion about the questionable conduct of the recent election process.

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Kazakhstan had a presidential election in early June — you were there, in fact — that was marred by days of protests, arrests, and in the judgment of the OSCE, at least, was far from free and fair. What stood out to you in observing the election?

First, the electoral campaign was highly imbalanced. The regime’s authoritarianism allowed the mobilization of administrative resources and media outlets in favor of Tokayev, and through censorship, pressure, and repression, prevented journalists, bloggers, and analysts from circulating ideas deemed too critical by the political authorities. Moreover, by convening the presidential election early, a practice that seems to have become the norm in Kazakhstan — this was the third time in a row (2011, 2015, and 2019) — the Kazakhstani authorities undercut the ability of opposition candidates to organize. The authorities also imposed strict requirements for candidate registration that were difficult to fill in the short time allowed, as well as a mandatory language test with opaque rules of assessment that was denounced as an instrument to ward off potentially embarrassing candidates.

Second, my personal observation on election day – as part of the OSCE observation mission – is exactly in accordance with the OSCE report. I witnessed many irregularities, some of which may have been the result of a lack of training of the chairperson and staff of the polling stations, while others may be related to intentional fraud, such as multiple signatures on the voters list, people voting several times, and phone calls to pressure people to vote. In addition, the opaque counting process I observed did not conform to the official election rules, which, for example, required presentation of each bulletin to observers. Moreover, the results announced orally at the conclusion of the counting in the polling station for the number of ballots cast for Tokayev was lower than what was reported on the written protocol, suggesting that the polling station had received instructions to alter the results in favor of Tokayev. This opacity in counting was not corrected when the protocols were collected at the district level election commission, where the ballots were not recounted, and to which many other observers were denied access. Regrettably, the 2019 presidential elections are part of a long tradition of flawed and unfair elections held since the country’s independence.

After the election, while an EU spokesperson echoed the OSCE’s concerns, Tusk’s office produced a warm congratulatory letter. What do you make of this seeming contradiction? Is this just the bitter reality of engaging in diplomacy with autocratic states?

From the very beginning of its engagement with Central Asia, the EU has been confronted with these kinds of contradictions. Its engagement with Central Asia involves many different actors, which gives it richness, but also limits its capability to act in a unified manner. The European Union itself is a complex structure with three heads — the Commission, Council, and Parliament — and with different spokesmen. It is hindered by internal contradictions among the various administrative services. In addition, member states have conflicting views about their interests in the region, with some advocating for a clearly utilitarian engagement with Central Asia, while others wish to emphasize the value-based agenda. The EU’s policy likely will remain torn between these different approaches. 

It is undoubtedly important to preserve dialogue and a diplomatic approach. However, Tusk’s office’s letter gave validation to an election process that did not respect OSCE principles and commitments concerning democratic elections, although Kazakhstan is a participating state of the OSCE and even chaired it in 2010. Moreover, and to me importantly, while the new EU strategy in Central Asia emphasizes the importance of promoting democracy and human rights, the letter from Tusk’s office risks making the new strategy simply another declaration of intent, not followed up by concrete actions, a criticism that has been all too often made concerning the programs of the EU and its member states.