A year after the German EU presidency introduced the Strategy for Central Asia from 2007 to 2013, the European Commission (EC) published a draft of its progress report. The report notes intensified collaboration with the Central Asian states and sets out future dimensions for cooperation. Overall, the report concludes that “progress on implementing the EU Central Asia Strategy has been encouraging. After only one year, a new quality of cooperation has evolved between Central Asia and the EU” (EC Press Release, June 23).
Among the main achievements, the report notes all five Central Asian states’ willingness to commit to the human rights dialogue and to continue intensification of high-level official meetings. High Representative Javier Solana visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in October 2007, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov visited Brussels in November 2007. Shortly following his visit to Brussels, Berdimukhamedov promised to travel to Paris during the French EU presidency in the second half of 2008. In April the EU Troika in Ashgabat and five Central Asian foreign ministers met to increase bilateral cooperation based on special Priority Papers.
Aside from the EC’s reports, experts have been divided in their assessments of the EU strategy’s success. Some argue that the EU’s approach is overwhelmingly ideological with excessive (and idealistic) emphasis on human rights and democracy, while others conclude that the EU has actually been playing realpolitik with Turkmenistan’s gas. Indeed, to date, economic cooperation with Kazakhstan and brokering a limited deal on the export of 10 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas through the Nabucco pipeline in 2009 have been the highlights of the strategy. Today Kazakhstan is close to joining the World Trade Organization, and the EU has been its biggest investor since 2007. High-level exchanges between Turkmenistan and the EU are unprecedented. Against this background, however, EU cooperation with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as Uzbekistan, has remained somewhat in the shadow.
With that, it still remains unclear to both camps of experts how the EU will maintain a balance between its value-based traditions in building foreign relations and its strategic interests in Central Asian gas reserves. The issue of its leverage in achieving greater economic cooperation and a better human rights situation there, as well as navigating among other international actors in the region, will also remain paramount.
Although the EU has been claiming that following the German presidency, the Portuguese and Slovenian presidencies were able to increase the strategy’s momentum, it still remains questionable as to what extent the forthcoming French presidency will maintain this momentum. On numerous occasions French President Nicolas Sarkozy has identified the priorities for France including greater engagement in the Mediterranean Union and Africa. Sarkozy also seeks to boost Europe’s security through promoting an enhanced military. But he has made no specific mention of Central Asia in lines of the strategy aside from planning to increase the French military contingent in Afghanistan. Despite this overall lack of interest from France, the EU special representative for Central Asia, Ambassador Pierre Morel, a prominent French diplomat, will surely be an important force behind keeping France focused on the strategy. To date, Morel has been the key figure in laying out institutional foundations for the strategy’s implementation.
Following France, in the first half of 2009, the Czech Republic’s role and interest in pursuing the Central Asia Strategy remain unclear, but Sweden’s EU Presidency in the second half of 2009 will be likely to revive the EU’s interest in the region owing to the country’s fairly intensive engagement in Central Asia in the past.
The report sets out five broad goals for future engagement: promotion of human rights and democratization; enhancement of education through the Central Asia Research and Education Network; increasing the rule of law; promotion of regional integration in the areas of environment and water; and, finally, coordination on drugs and border management in Central Asia. Once again, skeptics argue that a budget of €750 million ($1.18 billion) is by far too little for such ambitious plans.
Indeed, the EU has made substantial progress in the past year, given that no such dedicated engagement had been pursued by Europe before. As time passes, the EU is gaining greater visibility in the region, something most Central Asian political officials agree on. But it is, as yet, far from being regarded as a long-term player in the region like Russia and China.