Drafting an EU Policy on Central Asia

by Nathan Hamm on 1/24/2007

Snazzy EU Logo I Took from SomeplaceGermany has made clear that one of its goals for its EU presidency is to come up with a new Central Asia policy for the Union. The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who toured Central Asia late last year, met with European Parliament members on Tuesday to discuss Central Asia policy.

On his earlier trip, Steinmeier made human rights a prominent issue in statements concerning Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. According to the EUobserver.com on Steinmeier’s Tuesday meeting, this issue appears to have fallen by the wayside. Instead, he says that the first priority of EU policy in Central Asia should be regional security and the second should be energy.

Mr Steinmeier, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, said EU energy interests take second place to the security agenda in Central Asia, which sees “instability” and “radical Islam” from Afghanistan and Pakistan “exported northward” to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

This is curious, and somewhat disappointing to hear. First off, Europe should be allowed a bit more flexibility in its Central Asia policy. It has extremely compelling interests in engaging the region to secure another energy source that reduces Russia’s ability to disrupt supplies by shutting down its pipes. As unpalatable as it may be to some, it can be somewhat forgiven for not vigorously pursuing human rights reforms. (Whereas the US, with less compelling strategic interests in the region, should not be as quick to make trade-offs.) That said though, declaring security to be the cornerstone of Europe’s interests in Central Asia is dangerous. If the US experience with Uzbekistan is any indication, gains will be hard to come by, and the disconnect between what Europe and regional governments consider genuine threats will create constant tension. It it wants a foreign policy grounded in realpolitik, Europe would do much better to approach Central Asian governments as energy suppliers with whom it wants to do business and keep security assistance limited.

Steinmeier, addressing relations with Russia, revealed that he believes there are inherent contradictions in policy-making, illuminating his apparent belief that the perfect should not be the enemy of the… well, if not exactly good, then bad. It makes sense then that the reason he believes Europe “shouldn’t hold back” in pursuing energy interests in Central Asia is that China and Russia are already heavily active. And given the unfavorability of having European supplies travel through Russia’s pipelines, he is also advocating support for new Caspian pipelines.

Not all is terribly controversial though. Steinmeier says that education, research, and educational exchanges will feature prominently in the German policy proposal. He also advocates a policy modeled on but different from the neighborhood policy for Central Asia, which apparently frustrates Kazakhstan’s bid to join the neighborhood policy.

The European Commission and Javier Solana’s office are also coming up with Central Asia policy proposals of their own. EU member states are to discuss the proposals before the end of Germany’s presidency this summer.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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