Is the EU investing in a value driven foreign policy? Writing from Uzbekistan, E&M looks at EU foreign aid in central Asia to find out.

Central Asia has moved on to the EU’s radar in recent years as NATO prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan. European policy-makers are aiming to create a stable security framework in the region, but this priority is threatening to undermine the EU’s value driven foreign policy. Authoritarian regimes persist and neglected human rights records are undermining the EU’s success in running a value driven foreign policy in Central Asia.  

When you find yourself travelling in Central Asia, the people you meet are very proud of the ancient civilisations that once spread across the region. With great excitement they point at old oases like Khiva and Merv along the Silk Road that used to connect Europe with Asia and fostered the first commercial and intellectual links between the Orient and the Occident. From these civilisations to fragmented political states; the breakup of the Soviet Union led to the creation of five independent nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, each struggling with different socio-economic and security challenges. 

EU interests in Central Asia

European engagement in Central Asia has traditionally been conducted through those individual member states that enjoyed good relations with their regional partner countries. In 2007, the European Council adopted the “EU Strategy for Central Asia”, enabling the empowered European External Action Service to advocate and act on multifaceted policy objectives. In reality they did this in no cohesive way.

Map of Central Asia | Photo: Google maps (fair usage)

Current EU policy can be seen through three key strands of activity. First, being above all a normative power, the EU seeks to emphasise democratic values, human rights and provide crucial development assistance in Central Asia.

Second, the upcoming withdrawal of international security forces from Afghanistan and the feared spill-over effects of reviving extremist forces plus transnational crime require NATO/EU member states to strive to establish a stable environment. EU programmes are specifically focusing on border securitisation and anti-drug trafficking efforts, prioritising the construction of border posts, equipping and training border guards, and on performing combined exercises with neighbouring countries.

Finally, the EU is pursuing an energy diversification plan by exploiting rich oil and gas reserves in Central Asia that have yet to be developed. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are of particular interest in that regard.

Russia and China are investors without inconveniently high moral expectations.

The EU faces serious obstacles when fulfilling these diverse and less than complimentary objectives. While security cooperation is intended to foster inter-state dialogue, providing security assistance in countries where individual rights are largely neglected runs contrary to the goal of fostering democratic reforms. 

It is also questionable if European countries, being positioned as a potential energy consumer, would be willing to fiercely call on oil and gas producing countries to step up their reform efforts given that Russia and China are keen to expand their energy projects; they are investors without inconveniently high moral expectations. Yet it is in finding the right balance between the three factors that will achieve sustainable development in the region.

The reality of EU development work

The EU strengthened its commitment to ensure sustainable development in Central Asia with an indicative budget of €719 million allocated across the countries until 2013. EU Foreign Aid in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, by far the poorest nations in the region, is tailored to increasing living standards, rural development, good governance support and ensuring food security.

In Tajikistan, the EU even provides budget support for agriculture and social protection programmes. But Afghanistan’s northern neighbor groans under widespread corruption and is a hub for drug trafficking and organized crime. The bulk of development assistance in Tajikistan is thus largely aimed at creating a stable security environment instead of addressing more profound governance issues.

Despite being authoritarian states, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have received EU assistance.

Despite being highly authoritarian states, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have received EU assistance and donations driven at poverty reduction, judicial reforms, health and education. In Uzbekistan, projects concretely aim at enhancing water supplies, improving legislative capabilities of the parliament and at reforming the criminal justice sector. These structural reforms are surely necessary but remain somewhat helpless against ongoing human rights violations.

Kyrgyz child | Photo: Colombe de Mercey, EUROPEAID (open source)

Child labor, for example, is commonly used in Uzbekistan during the summer months to collect the cotton harvest and international organisations are withheld the right to freely monitor the annual harvest. Moreover, Uzbekistan’s case demonstrates security interests colliding with calls for human rights promotion. The double-landlocked state functions as a transfer site for NATO and the authoritarian government around President Islam Karimov justifies repression against regime opponents by referring to them as Islamic extremist threats – utilising the name of the worst potential menace to western security forces. 

Turkmenistan is the most enclosed Central Asian state when it comes to cooperation with the EU and the political regime is using its energy reserves as a bargaining chip to keep the EU on friendly terms and avoid any political intrusion. As a consequence, There has been little to no progress in terms of human rights in the country at the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea since the start of intensified EU engagement. The limits in bilateral engagement are reflected in the fact that Turkmenistan is the only country in the region without a diplomatically accredited EU representation.

The political regime is using its energy reserves as a bargaining chip to keep the EU on friendly terms.

Finally, in Kazakhstan, the biggest central asian economy, public sector modernisation, judicial reform, economic diversification and promotion of the private sector are key areas of development cooperation. The multi-ethnic country has done more progress in terms of the rule of law than Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan but certainly doesn’t possess a democratic electoral and party system. On-going EU projects providing technical assistance to the judiciary and building an efficient public sector, focus more on ameliorating Kazakhstan’s investment climate rather than empowering civil society. The EU’s strategy Is to run a middle course that protects its economic interests and advances the development of a politically mature middle class, whom it is hoped will help to foster long-term political benefits.

Genuine commitment or fading normative power?

The question remains whether EU development aid in Central Asia can achieve genuine political change or if the EU’s normative power is toothless. The regions deep-rooted governance problems remain untouched in the frame of EU development assistance. Worse still, a paradox has emerged in which development projects in Central Asia are funded with little pressure to improve human rights’ conditions but Member States, such as Hungary, are regularly challenged on their attempts to curtail individual rights. 

Nevertheless, eradicating threats to regional stability and prosperity are necessary preconditions for the development of good governance. Efforts are considerably curbed in the long-term. Any expectations of fast and far-reaching changes towards democracy are simply not realistic in a region with virtually no history of statehood and the rule of law. The EU and its member states remain the most capable actors to pressure the silk road states to improve the human rights situation and to credibly place democratic values as the underlying basis of its development work.

The EU and its Member States remain the most capable actors to pressure the silk road states to improve the human rights situation.

Achieving enduring, region-wide democratic change in this region will be the task of generations to come. At present, the focus must be just as much on establishing the necessary security and economic prerequisites for that stability. This is a mission the EU should undertake with continued dedication and as much a reflection on its own self-identified values as its interests.

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