Brussels putting up a fight in Central Asia

Coinciding with the final winding down of NATO operations in Afghanistan and on the heels of a much-touted tour of the region by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the European Union is willing to put up a decent fight for influence in Central Asia, in close competition with traditional powerhouse Russia and emerging giant China.

Just one day after it was almost confirmed that the EU lost its battle for Ukraine to Russia, Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs announced that the EU will provide around €1 billion to support the development efforts of Central Asian countries between 2014-2020. This package includes the bilateral allocations for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and regional allocations and funds for thematic programs, which shall also benefit Kazakhstan.

Neatly dressed as funds intended exclusively at the lofty goals of promoting democracy and the rule of law, the EU is instead trying to transform its normative power and value promotion efforts into tangible geopolitical and geostrategic results. Andrei Sannikov is quite right when he asserts that the entire former Soviet Union is retreating from democratic values, and both the U.S. and the EU seem increasingly unable or unwilling to decisively revert this trend. In fact, when it comes to Central Asia, U.S. policymakers and their EU counterparts have mostly pressed for building pipelines to move Central Asian gas to European markets, instead of pressing for institutional and legal reforms to move European democratic ideals to Central Asia.

Yet, it is China that made the Central Asian states’ goal of market diversification with no strings attached a reality. China is rapidly becoming the leading trade partner for all the Central Asian states and, although Russia is and will be the biggest loser, unless it convinces other Central Asian states (specifically the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan) to join its Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, some of China’s gain also comes at the expense of trade with the EU.

Will these development cooperation efforts be enough to counter China’s strong, unabashedly practical efforts? It is obviously too early to tell, but there are already some ominous signs and trends. As argued by the Carnegie Endowment’s Martha Brill Olcott:

“Beijing’s strategy of developing investment projects that both sides find genuinely beneficial, and avoiding all discussions of domestic political affairs, has made it an increasingly more attractive foreign partner. China’s leaders seek to win over their Central Asian counterparts by demonstrating respect, offering generous trade and loan terms, and taking a hands-off approach to domestic issues. What Central Asian leaders find most appealing about this approach is that in contrast to Russia, China does not bind them into restrictive trade policies or seek to influence political outcomes from behind the scenes.”

According to Johannes F. Linn, Senior Fellow at Brookings, China and Russia are the key external actors on the Central Asian stage, while Europe and the United States are “far away and hardly visible”. Given this distance and lack of visibility, European aid will probably not make a huge difference in terms of promoting democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties in a region which is economically dependent and politically close to two largely undemocratic powers, where the concepts of rule of law and civil liberties hardly resemble those that the EU aims at exporting.

Offering development money to the Central Asian regimes is, therefore, a necessary toll Europe has to pay in order to keep the spark of grassroots and civil society movements alive and, at the same time, to tell the autocratic governments in the region that it cares about them and would like to have a presence in the region. With Europe scrambling to diversify its energy sources and the EU-Russia geopolitical zero-sum game in full swing, Brussels needs to play the cards it has in Central Asia: grease the palms of the local elites with generous development packages while adding just the right amount of conditionality to the mix to keep all sides happy… and hope for the best.

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