The EU in Central Asia: An Interview with Jos Boonstra

In mid-August we had a chance to speak with Jos Boonstra, a Senior Researcher at leading European think tank FRIDE, where he specializes in Eurasian and transatlantic security issues, as well as Central Asia and the South Caucasus. He is the director of the Europe-Central Asia Monitoring (EUCAM) program, and has published dozens of policy papers on Central Asia and the Former Soviet Union.

SD: With the retaliatory food bank sanctions setting in for the US and the EU, where will Russia attempt to procure its food from, being dependent on imports? Will a newfound dependence on Central Asian states for imports fit into Russia’s grand strategy for a Eurasian Economic Union?

Boonstra: The Eurasian Economic Union is unlikely to play a crucial role in this matter, as current EEU members Belarus and Kazakhstan (next to Russia) do not produce substantial amounts of meat or fruit and vegetables. Furthermore, the Central Asian states are almost entirely dependent on Russia. So far, the best option for Russia – that is now being discussed in Moscow – is Latin America, principally Brazil, and which could quickly increase production and exports to Russia.

SD: Islamic extremism is an ongoing source of concern for governments in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Given the fact that more and more young Central Asians are leaving their home countries to fight in Syria and Iraq, how do you foresee these governments adjusting their security policies, if at all? Do you believe that extreme varieties of Islam, such as that embodied by the Islamic State, pose a threat to the status quo in Central Asia?

Boonstra: The security policies of Tajikistan and especially Uzbekistan are already fully geared towards countering Islamic extremism. This while the foremost security threat does not seem to lie here. In reality, it is the Central Asian regimes themselves that are the biggest threat to their own populations, as their police forces are corrupt, their armed forces are in a deplorable state, and their intelligence communities are only concerned with regime security and profit-making enterprises.

In light of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Central Asian leaders have consistently stressed the threat of radical Islam to their partners. The reason for this is twofold: first, Central Asian leaders fear disengagement by the US and, to a lesser extent, Europe, after the withdrawal is completed, and they’re left between Russia and China as the most influential actors in the region. The EU and US are regarded as an important alternative in Central Asian multi-vector foreign policies. Second, the emphasis on a perceived external threat from Afghanistan is meant to take away attention from Central Asian security threats (including home-grown extremism) that stand largely separate from Afghanistan’s future. Undoubtedly Islam is on the rise in Central Asia, but in most cases these are moderate forms that have no violent agenda (excluding such organizations as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan). Nonetheless Islamic extremism is a threat to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well as to the other three Central Asian states. The harsh authoritarian, secular rule enforced throughout the region (possibly with the exception of Kyrgyzstan) is likely to increase this threat instead of effectively counter it.

The phenomenon of nationals joining the fight in Syria or Iraq is not typical for Central Asia and is also very common in Western Europe. In the latter the debate is ongoing concerning how to handle fighters that return, having previously sworn an oath to the Islamic State. This is no different in Central Asia, as these young fighters need to be monitored carefully.

SD: Will the EU enter into Central Asia as a competitor against China and Russia for energy resources, in order to diversify its gas imports to hedge against Russian blackmail? What Central Asian states would have the largest role to play in continuing energy development?

Boonstra: China and Russia are by far the most influential actors in the Central Asian region. The US comes in third through the strong security role it plays in the region, but if trade and investment are used as a metric, it is the EU that comes in third. The EU is already by far the biggest investor in Kazakhstan (about 50 per cent of Kazakhstan’s foreign investment inflow) and is Almaty’s most prominent trade partner (about 40 per cent of Kazakh trade goes to Europe). Most European countries take a keen interest in Kazakhstan’s economic development and are active in the country’s energy sector, especially in areas related to the oil industry. This cooperation is, however, unlikely to expand as a direct result of current EU-Russia tensions.

The only Central Asian country that has considerable potential in the field of gas production is Turkmenistan. However, it is unlikely for a number of reasons that the EU will invest substantially in its energy sector and seek out Turkmenistan as a substitute for Russian gas. After more than ten years of European debate about building the Nabucco pipeline, that could also be extended to Turkmenistan, the EU decided to cancel the project. In the meantime, China had already built a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China’s Xinjiang province. It will be difficult to bring Turkmen gas to Europe via the Caspian Sea, or very expensive if carried out by investing in LNG terminals. Moreover, it is not clear how large the Turkmen gas reserves are. Most importantly, it is considered very risky to invest in Turkmenistan as the regime is extremely authoritarian – resembling North Korea – and thus not a stable long-term business partner.

SD: The Eurasian Economic Union seems to be growing in popularity, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan recently outlining their own road maps for accession, while Russian offers of accession have been made to Tajikistan as well. Do you believe that the EEU is sustainable as a long-term economic union? If so, what do you think the lasting benefits are to Central Asian states, beyond initial financial aid? Do Central Asian states stand to benefit as much as Moscow claims they do?

Boonstra: No, I do not believe in the EEU as a sustainable long-term economic union. Whilst the EU is a long-term integration project that took over fifty years to mature and indeed continues to mature (often two steps forward, one step backwards), the EEU is a drawing board union that has to be up and running from the start which seems unlikely to be effective and beneficial to all members. Most members and future members are also unwilling and unenthusiastic members. Notably, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, countries in the Eurasian are likely to have begun to see the project as one of submission to Moscow; not one of integration on equal footing. Belarus has made consistent attempts to find loopholes in order to evade EEC regulation, while Kazakhstan is the only member nation with economic and political strength, and is seeking to curtail Chinese influence in its economy. Armenia is not yet fully certain to become a member as Yerevan has doubts. It is the security dependence on Russia with regard to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan that is used by Russia to persuade Armenia. In Eastern Europe, Ukraine is of course lost to the EEC and future Eurasian Union and Moldova signed an Association Agreement with the EU. In the Caucasus, Azerbaijan will not join as it has strong economic ties with Russia, Turkey and the EU and will not want to commit solely to one side. Also, Georgia was already lost to Russian integration processes ten years ago after the Rose revolution.

In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan might join but they are economically insignificant and their membership is mostly important for the number of members that Russia wants to boast. Both are in large part economically dependent on Russia via Kyrgyz and Tajik migration workers that bring in a large share of their countries’ national income through remittances. Kyrgyzstan’s economy is especially likely to suffer as the lucrative shuttle trade with China will become more difficult and costly. Uzbekistan, the most highly populated country in the region, and Turkmenistan, largely isolationist, are unlikely to join. Without Uzbekistan (and Ukraine) the EEU is likely to remain a paper tiger, although it could offer Russia another tool to influence some of its neighbors.

SD: The governments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are in constant communication over the state of their borders. To what extent is the conflict between the two countries localized, or does border demarcation represent a rivalry between the two governments? Is this more of an ethnic issue or a political one, and what are its origins in either case?

Boonstra: The Central Asian republics are very young states and are in a process of nation building. This results for instance in a lack of regional cooperation. The states’ leaders – although very experienced – are afraid to give away too much in negotiations and therefore choose to avoid regional dealings. There there are many matters that will have to be solved bilaterally and regionally, especially between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and with regards Fergana Valley that they share, and which is inhabited by a variety of ethnicities that could bring about a host of other issues. Water management is the most noteworthy and problematic example of a lack of regional cooperation where tensions often run high between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Border demarcation is indeed another matter that the Central Asian republics will have to settle in building their states out of Soviet republics where borders were not significant. The Kyrgyz and Tajik governments at least debate the matter and both show some willingness to find a settlement. However, the lack of clarity keeps local Kyrgyz and Tajik farmers that squabble over the availability of fertile lands on which to grow crops largely in the dark concerning negotiations.

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border skirmishes are on the one hand a national problem of governments and on the other a local problem of dividing resources; it is not so much an ethnic problem in my view. While Central Asia has largely been free of ethnic strife compared to the Balkans in the nineties or the Caucasus there are indicators that this might change over the coming decade. The fights between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in 2010 in Southern Kyrgyzstan have offered a telling example of what might arise over the coming decades. As these young states mature they could potentially look to nationalism to build their identities. The current leaders of Kazakhstan (Nazarbayev) and of Uzbekistan (Karimov) are well in their seventies and will need to pass on power probably soon. New leaders will likely not derive from a Soviet bureaucratic heritage nor can they claim a ‘father of the nation’ status as current presidents do. Speaking to nationalist sentiments might be a tool for upcoming leaderships in the region to identify with the state and its development.

SD: What do you foresee as the future of EU-Central Asia relations? Will the EU seek only to engage on an economic level with energy-rich states in the region, or do you foresee a more active civil society role? What other predictions would you make?

Boonstra: Energy security was one of the key reasons for the EU to formulate a Central Asia Strategy in 2007. Nonetheless, security concerns and development aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have begun to feature most prominently among current EU interests in Central Asia. In the field of security the EU only plays a minor role, although it has a border management support program (BOMCA) and it also plays a role in some aspects of security sector reform in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (police and judiciary reform). Moreover, the EU holds annual high-level security dialogues with Central Asia to discuss the challenges to regional security, including the future role of Afghanistan towards the region and regional cooperation. But the EU has little influence in Central Asia when it comes to security matters, principally because other actors are more influential in this sense (Russia and the US) and because the EU is unlikely to establish a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) mission, due to a lack of EU member state interest in the region.

Over the last seven years or so the EU has stepped up contact with, as well as presence in Central Asia. This has also led to increasingly diversified bilateral relations with the Central Asian republics. Kazakhstan is seen as the economic engine of the region and Europeans take a keen interest in cooperating with Almaty and investing in the country’s economy and energy sector. Uzbekistan is seen as a linchpin state that is crucial for regional stability but cooperation with Tashkent is minimal. Turkmenistan is still isolated, although the EU and Turkmenistan do cooperate in some fields. Kyrgyzstan is the hope for democratic development in the region and is receiving ample development funds from Europe while Tajikistan is seen as a development country that is affected by almost every security threat the region is confronted with. Over the coming seven years the EU plans to spend €1 billion in on development assistance for the region. A part of these funds will go to regional programs, but the lion’s share is reserved for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as the region’s developing countries. Kazakhstan is currently regarded as a middle-income country and thus no longer eligible for bilateral support, and funds destined for for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are limited due to the difficulty posed by working with these governments. On top of EU assistance, several member states, foremost Germany, are also active through bilateral development assistance programs.

Next to security and economic-energy interests and development aid, the EU also seeks to promote democracy, good governance, rule of law and human rights. So far, success has been almost non-existent. The region seems to have become even more authoritarian over the last decade, while respect for human rights is floundering. The EU’s implementation of an annual human rights dialogue with the states in the region was a legitimate achievement, though the impact has been insigificant since. The EU also strives to establish consistently stronger bonds with civil society. This is possible and advisable in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and to some extend in Tajikistan, but in the other two states a free and independent civil society is lacking. This raises a dilemma with regards to the EU’s development aid agenda, as governments are corrupt and non-democratic, and there is often no civil society (that is not government-organized) with which to collaborate.

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3 thoughts on “The EU in Central Asia: An Interview with Jos Boonstra

  1. I believe that Tajikisan’s civil society may be stronger than you think. I interviewed 30 democratzation NGOs for my book and they were having a measurable impact on policy- witness the NGO coaltion against sex trafficking. It may be that the strength of civil society has declined since my visit. I hope the author will comment on this.

    See http://www.importingdemocracy.or

  2. Pingback: Asian partnerships offer double-hedge for European Grand Strategy | Europe Asia Security Forum

  3. Pingback: Asian partnerships for European grand strategy - European Geostrategy

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