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The EU’s balancing role in Central Asia

The European Union opened its last European External Action Service (EEAS) delegation in Turkmenistan last year. The only diplomatic representation missing in Central Asia and a definite signal of an increasing closer relationship towards the region. Even if the five ‘Stans’ haven’t  always figured as priorities on top of the European foreign agenda in the past, as the closer neighbourhood currently faces big challenges, the EU hasn’t overlooked the opportunities to cement a stronger Eurasian relationship in recent years. Increasing its diplomatic presence signals an important trajectory towards the region, which complement new and recently negotiated trade agreements, as well as the 2018 Connectivity and 2019 EU Central Asia Strategy.

The latter Strategies consolidates new foreign policy objectives, ranging from preventing radicalisation and developing people-to-people contacts to energy, cross-regional cooperation and border management. For most Central Asian republics, the EU’s 450 million consumer market remains an attractive and important single destination for energy exports and trade. Similarly, the EU continues to play a key role in development aid and foreign direct investment. For Kazakhstan alone, the EU represents its biggest trading partner in terms of Kazakh exports.

EU priorities linked to democracy and human rights continue to represent an uphill battle in Central Asia, yet some countries have started a slow path of socio-economic liberation, which have also supported the EU’s increased levels of investment and sustainable economic development across the region.

Taking the shape of large-scale infrastructures on energy efficiency and natural resources management, the EU has materialised an impressive investment package over the years through the European Investment Bank and Commission assistance. Despite large-scale EU economic efforts in the region, Russia’s sizable work market for Central Asian migrants and China’s investments continue to represent a sizable portion of the region’s economic activity and energy relations.

Of course, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many Central Asian countries were severely impacted both in terms of employment, foreign direct investments, production rates and trade overall.

In such difficult circumstances, the EU has once again demonstrated its global role as a “soft power” and supported the Central Asian republics with a € 124 million solidarity package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ten years ago, the EU prioritised  poverty reduction, intra-regional cooperation on energy supply chains, higher education and environmental protection. In 2020, these development goals in part have been achieved, while others necessitate further efforts. Transport and energy play key roles in the green transition, while digital connectivity and furthering people-to-people contacts represent vital and new objectives. These two new dimensions connect loose dots that are much needed to further advance prosperous partnerships that are visible to the population.

The EU wants to appeal to the younger generations who want to be part of an international community placed between Asia and Europe; the ones who don’t want to choose between East and West.This comes with smart communication strategies not only towards governments, but also towards citizens, private entrepreneurs and civil society at large.

The EU’s strongest asset is where other international actors are absent: from education, media literacy, preventing radicalisation, Erasmus exchanges and programmes with academics to civil society training, job skills, development aid and other expertise. In a future of rising climate change, disinformation and lower employment levels due to automation, young activists, entrepreneurs, and citizens benefit from new skills, preparedness and solid partnerships across Asia and Europe simultaneously.. Keeping a strong grip on the fight against violent extremism, while moving towards a stable and free society will become the priority of all developing countries in Central Asia. A gradual alignment with international human rights conventions and free-thinking to allow for innovative business and improved living standards.

The EU offers something very different from China, and it’s not mutually exclusives.As the EU’s Special Representative, Amb. Peter Burian recently put it:“China is coming with an offer nobody can refuse, while the EU is coming with an offer nobody understands”.

To be clear, the EU’s role in Central Asia can be balanced by exporting high democratic standards and protecting human rights. At the same time, to counter aggressive trade strategies on the international stage and to soften China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative.

Additionally, against the backdrop of a weaker American interest in a multilateral global order, the EU’s more cautious approach to  should be revised. Despite the recent US Central Asia Strategy, followed by China’s promise to work towards Sustainable Development Goals in the 20th EU-China Summit in July 2018, both the US and China remain ‘ambiguously committed’ to the Central Asian region.

Тази публикация е достъпна и на следните езици: Bulgarian