by Giuliano Bifolchi
The European Union is developing a new approach toward Central Asia with the purpose of being better engaged in regional economic and political dynamics. Brussels elaborated this new strategy although EU is facing serious internal problems (Brexit, the coming EU Parliamentary elections, Euroscepticism, migration crisis, economic stagnation, confrontation with Russia and the United States on specific issues, internal division) and its presence in Central Asia might produce a divergence with Russia, the United States and China.
During this week the EU Diplomatic Service (EEAS) published the document The EU and Central Asia: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership where the EU stressed the ‘longstanding relationship based upon strong mutual interests’ with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. A new European Union strategy for Central Asia will be officially presented in Bishkek on July 7th, 2019, during the 15th Joint Meeting of EU and Central Asian ministers of Foreign Affairs attended also by the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and the EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica.
Central Asia is a strategic territory for its geopolitical value and energy resources and a crossroads between Europe and Asia. For centuries the region has been the battleground between great powers in what anybody knows as the ‘Great Game’ who opposed Tsarist and British Empire in the 19th century, Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, and nowadays China, Russia and the United States.
In geopolitics, Central Asia is considered essential in Mackinder’s Heartland theory and its control can shape the destiny of the entire world. Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that it was imperative for the United States to avoid the rise of a regional power such as the Soviet Union in the past (and China nowadays) which could have controlled entire Central Asia and threaten the US interests and primacy in the international arena (L’Eurasia e il destino del mondo).
The new EU strategy aims at deepening cooperation with Central Asian countries, signing a modern non-exclusive partnership taking into consideration the aspirations and interests of each State of the region because everyone presents a different internal condition and peculiarities. The new EU plan for Central Asia will contrast Chinese, Russian and U.S. policies in the region and might change relations with these big powers.
In fact, Central Asia is the core of the Belt and Road Initiative started in 2013 by Beijing whose goal is to establish a ‘bridge’ between Europe and Asia and improve trade exchange. The Chinese have invested a significant amount of money into the region supporting political and socioeconomic development (Geopolitical Report Vol.1/2019 “Belt and Road Initiative: Security Issues, Investment Opportunities and Geopolitics”). The Russian Federation considers Central Asia part of its Blizhneye Zarubezhye or Near Abroad because the region was part of the Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union and today the Kremlin wants to keep its influence through military bases and historical and cultural roots. The United States were involved in Central Asia during the Cold War where they faced the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and after the collapse of USSR played a decisive role through diplomacy and humanitarian organisations. Although NATO closed its Liaison Office in Tashkent in 2017 (La NATO “abbandona” l’Asia Centrale), Washington is still engaged in the Afghan War and wants to preserve its military presence in the area as a deterrence against the Russian Federation, Iran and China.
Brussels is seeking to expand its commercial partners and energy imports, and Central Asia might become an essential asset in this strategy. During the ‘90s became popular the idea to develop the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) which should have transported natural gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to EU member countries, circumventing both Russia and Iran. TCP could have reduced EU natural gas imports from the Russian Federation and made Brussels more independent from Moscow’s request. The Russian Federation and Iran criticised TCP considered a threat for the stability and prosperity of the region whose consequences could have also affected the near Caucasus, particularly Armenia that could have faced isolation and economic recession. After over two decades TCP remains an interesting project or idea and sometimes it appears in the news to revitalise the interest of the public opinion and foreign investors although there are no tangible developments.
Brussels should also study the security problems in Central Asia related to jihadist propaganda, terrorist activities, organised crime, illicit trafficking and ethnic clashes. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Central Asia has experienced ethnic conflicts, the affirmation of strong regimes such as in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, revolutionary movements in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the rise of terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State, and the diffusion of crime organisations and illicit trafficking. Being more involved in Central Asia means that the EU members can face problems related to the regional instability connected with the international terrorist network as China understood after the terrorist attack against its consulate in Bishkek in 2018 (Terrorist attack in Karachi highlights security threats for China along the Belt and Raod Initiative).
In conclusion, the EU countries need actively to take part in the Central Asian economic and political dynamics because the regional countries have adopted foreign policies and fiscal laws to increment the cooperation with foreign actors. The Central Asian energy market might play a decisive role in the EU Energy Strategy and natural gas import diversification. Hence, it is essential that Brussels is more engaged in the regional oil and natural gas market and infrastructural projects. The construction of the TCP has the potentiality to change the international energy market, thus it is advisable that the EU will transform words into action showing to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan its political and economic support guaranteeing ‘protection’ against possible Russia and Iran’s retaliation.
The new EU strategy in Central Asia is a fundamental step in Brussel’s regional engagement, foreign policy, and economic development. As previously mentioned, the opposition of big powers and the regional instability whose repercussion might affect the entire European continent are the main challenges that the EU could face soon.