Central Asia has started to assert its interests and identity. European powers should seize the initiative and bolster these trends.
By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies
Originally published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 2nd May 2018
The catalyst for change in Central Asia has been the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The change in Tashkent has brought Shavkat Mirzioyoev to power, a former regime apparatchik who has shown an impressive ability to stimulate change and transformation throughout the Uzbek system.
Regionally, it has led to dramatic changes as well. Longstanding regional blockages have opened a bit, and while there are still some complicated bilateral issues to be resolved, there has been more movement on regional relations in the past year than in the past couple of decades.
Tashkent’s decision to host a conference on Afghanistan, play a greater role in Afghan reconstruction and economic development and more generally be willing to be proactive in multilateral formats there has re-opened a new forum for engagement on the long-beleaguered country.
However, it is equally important to note the growing international role played by Kazakhstan. It was where President Xi Jinping first announced his broader Belt and Road Initiative concept, as well as a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union, and Astana has for some time placed itself at the heart of Eurasian dynamics.
It has also sought an increasing role on the international stage as a mediator in the conflict in Syria, as well as working to help the international effort to manage the Iranian nuclear confrontation.
Most recently, it reaffirmed its independence by refusing to support a Russian-sponsored UN Security Council resolution condemning US-led airstrikes on the Syrian regime’s forces after the gassing of civilians in Douma.
Both Astana and Tashkent are demonstrating the potential that middle-ranking powers can have when they focus their efforts and attention on specific issues. So, the EU has started to take note and High Representative for Foreign Policy Frederica Mogherini has visited the region twice in the past six months.
To build on the current good relations between Europe and Central Asia, engagement should focus on: connecting ideas; countering violent extremism; and creating an environment conducive for economic development through small and medium-sized enterprises.
Connecting Ideas: A New Silk Road Think Tank
One ‘soft power’ initiative that would be an easy win and would provide a forum for a proper Eurasian discussion about connectivity would be the establishment of a regional connectivity think tank. This institution could draw on expertise from across the region to work together on some of the fundamental problems which still exist at the heart of Eurasia, such as regional economy and security.
It would also help to strengthen civil society across the region, as well as assist education and research needs. It would be able to help develop a data-driven research base that would help to support the work of international financial institutions that seek to give money and develop projects regionally, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the Asian Development Bank, or even the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Leading on Counter-Radicalisation Efforts
This think tank should not focus solely on understanding the difficult economic and trade questions (including those that are generated by China’s – or other external powers – investment in the region). It should also to focus on some of the difficult security questions of the day, such as violent extremism and the fall-out from the many radicalised Central Asians who fought alongside jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
There are many reasons why people join overseas extremist groups. They are in some cases – as recent RUSI research has shown – a product of people’s experiences as labour migrants in Russia, but they are also in part a result of people’s experiences in Central Asia.
Many training programmes are already underway in the region through various institutions, but the EU should explore whether there are ideas and projects that have been attempted in the region which might be interesting in a European context.
And vice versa: Establishing a platform for greater engagement between countering violent extremism practitioners in Europe and Central Asia – potentially through a platform such as the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network – would strengthen the connective tissue between our two regions. There is already some connectivity in this regard but improving it and potentially focusing on what joint research projects could be undertaken could help to provide answers to some of the most difficult questions troubling both of our societies.
Boosting Investment and Economic Opportunities
Finally, more needs to be done to encourage private sector development in Central Asia. Regional economies are currently dominated by state-owned enterprises or firms controlled by key tribes or leaders, a pattern which foreign investors – China, Russia, major international energy or mining firms – tend to strengthen.
Serious problems still exist in the investment environment. Fears of expropriation, problems with corruption and difficulties in repatriating profits remain key obstacles to foreign investors, and particularly small or medium-sized European firms that cannot afford such risks.
Addressing this problem will require time and will not be easy. Entrenched economic interests will resist change, but a focused European effort that sought to engage with outside powers such as China, Turkey or Russia on questions surrounding transparent governance, an independent judiciary and accountable governance could help deliver change. This would help to improve the business environment in the region and make it more attractive to European investors as well as nurturing a genuine local small and medium-sized enterprises.
The EIB, EBRD or other European investment tools like national development agencies (as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Asian Development Bank where a number of European powers play an important role) could be used to target investments focused on SME development and which do so through projects designed to incentivise local governments to establish more accountable practices.
This is not, in itself, a new approach, but some of the answers and ideas for these targeted investments could draw on research commissioned from the new Silk Road think tank. The multilateral regional data driven perspective offered might offer some new ideas for how to manage long-standing regional problems.
The key to success lies in Central Asia showing interest in working with Europe, and the latter maintaining a consistent level of attention. Unlike the past when the region was largely seen as a playground for great powers, Central Asia is increasingly attempting to write its own story.
Progress on this has been halting, but the Kazakh-Uzbek Central Asian ‘motor’ is currently pulling in a positive direction, and Europe should take notice and make a more concerted effort to encourage and nurture this process.
With limited investment which can deliver an outsized result, the EU’s image as the dominant normative power on the Eurasian supercontinent could be strengthened. Or, to paraphrase Halford Mackinder a century ago, Europe can once again reclaim the narrative in the Eurasian heartland.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.