Central Asia: What Role for the European Union?
Central Asia: What Role for the European Union?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
War & Peace: Deconstructing Islamic State’s Appeal in Central Asia
War & Peace: Deconstructing Islamic State’s Appeal in Central Asia
Report 113 / Europe & Central Asia

Central Asia: What Role for the European Union?

The European Union is not living up to its potential as a geopolitical actor in Central Asia. The level of EU interest has been low, and Brussels is doing little to shape developments in a region that has mostly seen marked declines in its economic fortunes, political freedoms and social development in recent years but remains of considerable strategic significance.

Executive Summary

The European Union is not living up to its potential as a geopolitical actor in Central Asia. The level of EU interest has been low, and Brussels is doing little to shape developments in a region that has mostly seen marked declines in its economic fortunes, political freedoms and social development in recent years but remains of considerable strategic significance. If this is to change, Europe must move away from largely unsuccessful policies, particularly the promotion of region-wide projects, and take on a more focused and active role geared to the distinct characteristics of each of the region’s five states. It needs also to raise the level of its representation, spend more money and stick to its political ideals if it is to have a positive impact.

The EU cannot afford to ignore Central Asia, where despite a surface calm, the potential for instability and conflict is high. Central Asia is important for the EU’s future energy security. Public health systems there are in a critical state, creating ideal conditions for epidemics. Islamic radicalism, though not a current danger, is another potential challenge. Progress on human rights and good governance has been slow. The region is a major route for drug trafficking, and instability, if it develops, would seriously hinder efforts at nation-building in neighbouring Afghanistan.

EU assistance to the region has largely taken the form of technical assistance implemented through the program (TACIS) that was designed in 1991 to support transition to market economies and reinforce democracy and the rule of law in the post-Soviet space. That program has included a number of large trans-national projects in transport, drugs, border controls and energy which show few results for the time and money invested. Despite some assistance given to combating drug trafficking, the potential for ill-gotten gains from the drug trade continues to undermine efforts.

The approach to development has been fragmented and project-driven, rather than strategic, and has clung to a model of regional cooperation that has proven to be a non-starter due to the reluctance of Central Asian states to work together. The EU has attempted to promote food security through budget support in return for reforms but progress is difficult to measure. While existing development and aid mechanisms are to be combined into a new single instrument in 2007, the nature of this new instrument remains to be determined; there are concerns that it, too, will be informed by an unrealistic attempt to foster regional cooperation.

Political involvement has likewise been limited, with only a handful of European diplomatic missions in the region. Although the EU has taken the lead in responding to the May 2005 Andijon massacre in Uzbekistan, it has generally been uneasy about addressing such difficult issues. There is some basis for concern that efforts to “engage” even the region’s worst offenders – Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – may be undermining the EU’s stand on human rights and democratisation. The appointment of a European Union Special Representative is a welcome sign of interest, but it is not yet clear exactly how his role can be integrated with existing political mechanisms. Member-state activity has likewise been somewhat limited, although it has served to address areas overlooked by TACIS, notably public health.

If the EU is to be a force for stability and development in the region, it must take steps to increase its visibility and raise public awareness of its institutions, aims and activities. There must also be a move away from failed regional projects and recognition that the five Central Asian states face very different domestic political and economic situations. Regional cooperation should remain a goal but local needs should take priority until the Central Asian states are more willing to work together.

The EU should also balance technical assistance with long-term strategies designed to prevent conflict or, in the worst case, mitigate its effects. These should include planning for large humanitarian crises, including refugee flows, and finding ways to prevent instability in one state from infecting the region as a whole. Recognition is needed that engagement with regimes such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is unlikely to yield results, and that policies should focus on how to ease their eventual transition from dictatorship. Engagement with moderate religious groups, not limited solely to official organisations and institutions, should be pursued more vigorously, and the EU should be unequivocal in its commitment to human rights and democratisation. This will be especially important if the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) becomes increasingly straitjacketed and U.S. credibility on these issues continues to decline. The admittedly modest leverage the EU can exert means that common ground should be sought with Russia. But again this must be done realistically, with realisation that at present not much is likely to be found.

The EU has several advantages. It generally does not evoke in the region the same concerns as encroaching U.S., Russian or Chinese influence does. It has relevant experience in helping some former Soviet bloc countries make successful transitions to democracy and prosperity. It should not allow apathy and indecisiveness to squander its opportunity to have a similar impact in Central Asia.

Bishkek/Brussels, 10 April 2006

War & Peace: Deconstructing Islamic State’s Appeal in Central Asia

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope are joined by Central Asia expert Noah Tucker to discuss how the region became a source of so many fighters for ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Season 1 Episode 14: Deconstructing Islamic State’s Appeal in Central Asia

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq drew between 12,000 and 15,000 fighters from Central Asia. Noah Tucker, expert on Central Asian issues and our guest on War & Peace this week, helps us understand why. 

No overwhelming single factor accounts for such a huge number of people going to fight with the Islamic State. “For every 10 people who join, there are 10 different life stories, and often 10 different reasons”, Noah explains.

But the deep inequalities found in Central Asian countries can help explain. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia underwent rapid modernisation and radical economic changes. While not unique to the region, the additional challenge of constructing a political system from scratch produced clear winners and losers while whole sections of society were left behind with no mechanism for changing the balance. The Islamic State offered a different path to addressing these injustices, an alternative theory on how to construct a government and distribute resources more fairly.

Noah, Olga and Hugh go on to examine the gendered element, the role of ethno-nationalism as state ideology and much more on this week’s episode. Tune in now! 

Click here to listen on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Europod.

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