Brainstorming Workshop “Central Asia — Exploring EU interests and options”

The IEP Brain­storming Workshop II “Central Asia- Exploring EU interests and options” took place at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin on 19 January 2015. The workshop is the second of three gathe­rings, dealing with the progress and review of the Central Asian strategy, which was led by the EEAS and at the same time consti­tutes a priority of the Latvian Council President. The 34 parti­ci­pants of the workshop on the EU’s interests and options concerning Central Asia drew major attention to the conti­nuation and refinery of the EU’s activities in the area, its current geopo­li­tical ascension and rising interests of Russia, China, the US and even India. Despite successes, such as the EU being the region’s most important trading partner, topic and format should be reviewed and “lessons learned” should be consi­dered.

The speakers opened the panel on interests and priorities of Central Asia, focusing on the region’s geopo­li­tical status and the progress of the EU’s Central Asian Strategy. The panel­lists eluci­dated the strong military presence of the Russian Federation and recent economic interests of the People’s Republic of China. Also, they provided evidence by explaining recent efforts of China to foster the Shanghai Coope­ration Organi­sation (SCO) and the interest in the New Silk Road Initiative (SRI) to create an economic belt, which both comprise domestic and foreign inten­tions. Some speakers mentioned Russia’s initiative to create a free trade zone via the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) — a combined military and economic approach. China fears a weak Russia as much as its military hegemony in the region. Beyond the original scope of the panel, the speakers also referred to China’s astonishment over the EU’s recent indif­fe­rence on the Central Asian region. The ensued discussion entailed issues such as the role of topically margi­na­lised Afgha­nistan, questions on infra­st­ruc­tural projects of SRI, diffi­culties of trila­te­rally integrating Russia, its domestic issues and the EU’s functional role in China’s venture.

Subse­quently, the event intro­duced regional and bilateral interest of the Central Asian republics and inter­na­tional organi­sa­tions and their interests in coope­rating with the EU. First, the panel­lists debated the question on whether multi­la­teral or bilateral approaches in Central Asia should be pursued, leading to a combined recom­men­dation. As the republics have very diverging needs, the approach should not be standar­dised. In selected areas, the speakers appre­ciated the EU’s efforts, although a sole Human Rights approach will be proble­matic. According to the round table, fighting corruption and preventing the failure of economies are the base to enable good gover­nance and stability. Especially the case of Kazakhstan reveals that NGOs in the region either conduct social service under the favour of the government or carry out capacity building as being externally funded. Besides this, some speakers expressed recom­men­da­tions to alleviate the situation and achieve viable results. Special focus was dedicated to the area of security, energy, the rule of law and ad-hoc regimes. Condi­tio­nality should be kept a possible, albeit subop­timal, choice.

Finally, the speakers discussed recom­men­da­tions for opera­tio­na­lising a new strategy of the EU with potential partners in Central Asia. The discussion shed light on the question of whether the EEAS or national governments in the EU should be major actors. Furthermore, the speakers drew special attention to the issues of Human Rights, education, the economy and its sustaina­bility, as well as social and national security as they serve as means to achieve higher ends. The panel­lists pointed out the necessity of creating a flanking strategy with regard to Afghanistan’s vacuum of power as well as internal issues in Central Asia, leading to the reluc­tance of the states to cooperate effec­tively. It was agreed that the EU can be successful only if Central Asian states welcome the EU’s help and if the EU matches format and substance in its approach.

In the concluding remarks, the speakers appre­ciated the EU’s perse­verance and its compe­titive advantage for long-term approaches, but reminded the audience of the shift in paradigm since 2007 in Central Asia. Finally, the panel­lists observed that the EU needs a more political approach to the region and should find an appro­priate balance between national and regional strategies.

By Daniel Stoja­novski