Unknown Central Asia

Posted on

Many people seem to be intrigued when I mention that I am involved in SEnECA (“Strengthening and Energizing EU – Central Asia relations”), a Horizon 2020 project that aims to better connect the EU and Central Asia. “What does Central Asia mean?” is the usual reaction. Many countries are considered as Central Asian: Mongolia, Iran, Turkey, but few people think of the five countries that the project actually targets, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Having previously mainly worked on Europe and its immediate neighbours, I have also had until very recently only limited knowledge of the region.

Central Asia is indeed not on the radar of the European public. Of course, the exceptions are adventurous travelers who tell of beautiful breathtaking scenery, delicious food and kind and hospitable inhabitants upon their return.

Similarly, when conducting our Stakeholder Analysis in the framework of SEnECA, which entails looking for stakeholders who engage in the field of EU-Central Asia relations, we found that there are very few people who work exclusively on Central Asia. Central Asia usually falls under broader terms such as Eurasia, Asia and so on.

That is what SEnECA wants to change. We want to bring Central Asia closer to Europe by connecting not only experts on the topic, but also citizens who, like me, have previously rarely engaged with Central Asia. One of SEnECA’s objectives is in fact to raise awareness for the importance of Central Asia for Europe in the wider public by bringing the region closer to the citizens of the EU. This also means showing why the region is important in the daily life of a European citizen: One example is that there is a sizeable diaspora from Central Asia living in Europe. Also, Central Asia will become a main connectivity hub between Europe and Asia in the future due to China’s ‘One Belt, on Road’ initiative. Finally, preserving stability in the Central Asia region will also have an effect on the everyday life of Europeans.

How to better help citizens familiarise with Central Asia than exhibiting photos of the region? In spring 2019, SEnECA will organise a two-day free photo exhibition in Brussels to show the beauty, culture and traditions of these countries, to portrait the daily lives of their inhabitants and to stimulate reflection on the differences and the similarities between Europe and Central Asia. The exhibition targets citizens and the wider public as well as professionals from the field. The idea behind the exhibition is also to present the academic papers that the project produces in a format that is easily digestible for citizens without prior expertise in the field of social sciences.

Within SEnECA, we will do our best to make Central Asia more known in Europe and to connect Europeans and Central Asians better. For me personally, this objective has already been achieved through my involvement in the project. I have especially enjoyed working with our Central Asian partners and hearing stories about Central Asia from them directly. What has surprised me the most while working on the topic of Central Asia is that the region will soon gain more importance by become the connecting piece for both China’s and the EU’s connectivity strategy. I am certainly looking forward to continuing working with our Central Asian and European partners for the success of SEnECA.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Julia Krebs from the Trans European Policy Studies Association

Europe’s Security Stake in Central Asia

Posted on

The European Union is traditionally seen as a non-security focused actor. Given member state capitals’ preference to lead on national security and defence, there is a tendency to see the EU solely through the lens of non-security and to focus instead on economic questions when engaging with Brussels. Yet, this view misses a vast range of activity which is already going on as well as the fact that some key European security questions are intimately tied to Central Asia. Broadly speaking, these key issues fall into three categories: geopolitics, terrorism and regional security. One key consideration from a European policy perspective is to think about how to focus on these issues in a more coherent way to enhance the other strands of the EU-Central Asia relationship.

To start with geopolitics – Central Asia is a region where clichés of the ‘Great Games’ abound: from Mackinder’s often repeated comments about the region being the ‘pivot of Eurasia’ to the fact that four of Eurasia’s great powers are located in its immediate proximity (China, Russia, India and Iran). These are all powers with which the EU has complicated relationships (although it is important to note that the relationship with India is nowhere near as adversarial as the other relationships), and therefore present an opportunity for joint thinking about how to manage concerns that might emanate from these great powers.  The cooperation can be thought in terms of regional influence, regional security activity or in terms of global postures more generally. Understanding Central Asian perspectives on the great powers might help enrich European responses to their activities regionally as well as globally. Both sides might benefit from sharing perspectives and ideas about what these powers are doing as well as develop strategies to manage their activity.

Turning to terrorism: an observable reality of the past couple of years has been the growing number of Central Asians involved in terrorist activity in the West. Be this on the ground in Syria or in Iraq where the Turkestan Islamic Party (an Uighur group more traditionally associated with China which has increasingly broadened out to encompass the wider Central Asian region) has become the last non-Levantine group standing on the battlefield and has increasingly featured Europeans and Central Asians fighting amongst its ranks.

Outside the region or the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, Central Asians have been involved in terrorist attacks around the world: incidents in New York, Stockholm, Istanbul and Saint Petersburg all involved Central Asian perpetrators. In each of these cases, it is important to note that the respective individual’s links to Central Asian militancy were sometimes quite tenuous (for example, the New York attacker had lived in the United States for seven years prior to launching his attack and the Saint Petersburg attacker was an Uzbek-Kyrgyz who had lived in Russia for years). However, in the other two cases there was clear evidence of links to Central Asian networks. And while this may not sound surprising, it is in fact relatively new to see Central Asians involved in the global jihadist terrorist community in such a prominent way.

Finally, the question of regional security is mostly one about Afghanistan. A country into which many European powers and the EU have poured money, blood and effort for many years still has tremendous problems which do not appear to be receding. This is something of which Central Asians need little reminder. The ultimate answer to Afghanistan’s long-term stability is most likely to come from the region – something that Western powers have sought to instigate, but which has not materialized in the way they were hoping. Instead, there has been a sense of a piecemeal response, which has taken place in an ad hoc fashion. With the transformation currently underway across the region, there is an opportunity for the region’s links and approaches to Afghanistan to change substantially. There have already been some efforts by Central Asia to connect with Europe on this difficult question. For example, Tashkent invited the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Frederica Mogherini, as a keynote speaker at the important Samarqand Security conference in 2017 and there was a renewed willingness to regionally discuss Afghanistan and cooperative efforts. The EU-Central Asia High Level Political and Security Dialogue conducted recently included Afghanistan for the first time and the EU has made efforts to incorporate Kabul into its Central Asian framework.

Both the EU and Central Asia still face difficulties in defining their policy interests in Afghanistan. The powers in Central Asia remain deeply concerned with the potential for security threats of different sorts emanating from Afghanistan. This is clearly something shared with Europe that is concerned about Afghanistan’s regional impact (both to Central and South Asia) as well as about the danger of terrorists, narcotics or refugees coming to Europe. Working together makes absolute sense in order to manage and mitigate these threats and to help Afghanistan onto a path of greater stability.

These three security issues are of interest to the EU as well as to Central Asian powers. Together, these two regions could form the basis for a more sustained and substantial security dialogue through which European powers could use their contacts and try to affect Central Asian leaders in their approach to manage these problems at home. When thinking of problems around terrorism and violent extremism in particular, there is considerable capacity for learning and exchange of ideas which could have a positive effect on both sides.

Europe is not traditionally seen as a hard power security actor. This characterization is somewhat unfair considering the volume of security-related work that the EU does. Within the Central Asian context, the work already done can become a useful foundation for a more serious and sustained bilateral relationship, which would help both powers to deal with some key regional security concerns as well as with some of the larger global security trends.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Raffaello Pantucci from the Royal United Services Institute

The “New Silk Road” and Kyrgyzstan: problems and perspectives

Posted on

The Great Silk Road, the route connecting the East and the West since the Middle Ages, is restoring back to life. Today, the idea of reviving the Great Silk Road is fully embodied in the ambitious Chinese initiative “One Belt – One Road” (OBOR), which shall better connect countries located between China and Europe. The project is not purely economic, but has also a geopolitical side since it pursues Chinese foreign interests. However, economic and trade relations are given a strong emphasis within the project. The idea of OBOR is very attractive for Central Asian countries as it provides them with the opportunity to become an important hub in the international transit between the Europe and Eastern Asia. Currently, the integration of the landlocked region into the global economy is hampered by the lack of sea connections. Therefore, the development of communication channels is very important for the further advancement of economic and trade relations both among Central Asian countries and with neighbouring regions.

For a small landlocked country like Kyrgyzstan without any significant mineral resources and a huge external debt, the OBOR initiative looks like as a ‘lifebuoy’ and a great opportunity for the country’s development. Through active involvement in the project, Kyrgyzstan can receive new perspectives for the development of the economic, political, cultural, humanitarian relations with all participating countries. This is very important for Kyrgyzstan since it is searching for its place in the global community as a country which is attractive for establishing international organizations, hosting international and regional forums, as well as serving as a regional educational and cultural center.

Prior to China, a similar idea has already been implemented by the European Union under the TRACECA programme with the aim to create an international transport corridor from Europe through the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea with access to Central Asian countries. The programme has buildt trans-Eurasian connections and developed communication channels among the above mentioned regions, but it did not cover the whole Great Silk Road. China has initiated its project with larger investments and more global coverage.
However, there are also some downsides to OBOR. First, China will significantly strengthen its geopolitical domination over Central Asia. Second, the fact that China is the largest creditor of Kyrgyzstan will exclude equal partnership. Third, Chinese immigration is a great problem not only in Kyrgyzstan, but in all Central Asian countries. There is no simple answer to the above mentioned challenges at the moment and only time will show how they can be solved by all parties.
At the same time, advantages from the participation in the project outweigh possible challenges for Kyrgyzstan. The development of transport routes will allow not only Kyrgyzstan, but all countries of the region to intensify trade relations in the future. The implementation of the project can lead to new investments, the development of new technologies, cultural exchange, intensified relations creating more stability, security and multilateral cooperation, and gradually, turning the Great Silk Road region into a new axis in the global economy and politics.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Nazira Momosheva from Kyrgyz National University

Strengthening the EU-Kazakh Relations: from Capacity to Feasibility

Posted on

The European Union is one of the main economic and foreign policy partners of Kazakhstan. The Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev always emphasizes the strategic significance of the EU in his annual addresses to the nation of Kazakhstan. Deep interaction with the European countries helps to promote democratic reforms, improve the quality of life, attract investments and new technologies as well as improve legislation (including rule of law) and modernize the system of public administration in accordance with existing standards.

The interaction of Kazakhstan with European countries is developing both bilaterally and multilaterally, including the EU supranational structures. Key priority areas for EU cooperation with Kazakhstan include:

(1) Political dialogue. The established political dialogue forms a strong basis for further development of bilateral relations. Kazakhstan actively interacts with key European institutions, such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe as well as with related institutions such as the European Cultural Convention and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which Astana recently joined. Among key issues of bilateral cooperation remain the facilitation of the visa regime and the possibility of the Kazakh airlines to fly to European countries.

(2) Energy and natural resources. Dialogue on energy issues is one of the key mutually beneficial areas of the Kazakh-European cooperation. Whereas Kazakhstan is the main supplier of Caspian oil and gas resources to Europe, the European Union is the largest trading partner of Kazakhstan. 80 percent of the Kazakhstan resources (oil and gas) are exported to the EU. Diversification of export routes for energy resources are of mutual interest, both for Kazakhstan and for the European Union. The interests of the EU are mainly focused on the Southern route for gas supplies to Europe.

(3) Culture and humanitarian cooperation. There is an annual dialogue on human rights with state bodies of Kazakhstan, regular meetings with NGOs and seminars with the participation of civil society of the EU and Kazakhstan. At this stage, priority areas include local government and the reform of the judicial system, which in turn will promote social cohesion, democratic development and respect for human rights. Cooperation in science and education plays a fundamental role in bilateral relations. Cooperation between the universities, vocational education and the adhering to international educational standards within the Kazakh education system are the key areas of cooperation between the EU and Kazakhstan.

2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between Kazakhstan and the EU. Therefore, the country and the people would like the new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to significantly enhance bilateral relations in many areas including regional cooperation in Central Asia. There is much potential in the EU involvement in Kazakhstan and the region. However, it is high time to make it more feasible and public. It is necessary to implement those ambitious economic and political commitments into something real that people of the region can feel.

For Kazakhstan, the EU support in the international arena is very important. Many European countries assess Kazakhstan’s success and achievements quite positively. Kazakhstan would like to see a more active and ambitious European Union in Central Asia in many spheres. Whereas geopolitical context is obviously lacking in bilateral relations, the pragmatic approach makes it easier to strengthen the EU presence and influence in the region and to balance Chinese and Russian growing interests in Central Asia, among other challenges.

In addition, the European soft power has great potential and will certainly receive support in the region in the long run. At the local level, it will be interesting to build people-to-people relations in the two regions, so that citizens from the EU, Kazakhstan and Central Asia can learn about each other, share ideas and exchange the views on many common concerns.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Daria Larionova from the Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies

The Art of (dis-)integration

Posted on

The Central Asian countries’ participation in the Eurasian integration promoted by Russia under the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is indispensable for the full success of this project. The countries of the region, however, carry out diverse foreign policies and depend – to various extents – on good relations with Russia. Therefore, only some of them are interested in integration within the EEU. Kazakhstan is a founding member of this organization, Kyrgyzstan joined shortly after its founding, and Tajikistan is negotiating a membership. At the same time, Uzbekistan, with its multi-vector foreign policy, and Turkmenistan, maintaining neutral status, are skeptical about the EEU, perceiving it as an instrument of Russian influence – a reluctance that prevents Russia from fully realizing the post-Soviet reintegration in the region.

The focus of the EEU is economic integration. Despite the fact that the EEU’s competences and goals are limited to economic issues, it is de facto an instrument of achieving Russia’s geopolitical goals. The Central Asian states are a key link in the reintegration of the former Soviet Union and the implementation of the “Great Eurasia project” by Russia. For the EEU and Russia it is a priority issue not to allow the region’s states to permanently rally with other superpowers, and to balance the growing role of China in this region. Apart from its economic dysfunction, Russia’s unspecified intentions towards those players who are fearing growing Russian political influence remain a key obstacle to the EEU’s success.

Regarding its main field of activity – economic integration –, the EEU did not increase its influence on the global economy, mainly as a result of the economic crisis in Russia after 2014, affecting strongly the Central Asian states. The standard of living is not improving due to reduced transfers from economic migrants working in Russia, the weakening of local currencies, and restrictions on conducting cross-border trade. Considering the ongoing economic stagnation, the EEU has shown that it does not have adequate instruments to effectively assist its member states. Russian infrastructural projects in Central Asia have largely not reached the stage of implementation as Chinese investments do.

A crucial factor that effectively limits the EEU’s potential in Central Asia is China’s active economic policy covering a wide range of sectors like infrastructure, energy, finance, the aerospace industry, telecommunication and others. Russia tries to conceal this situation by claiming a synergistic relationship of its Eurasian integration and the Chinese OBOR initiative. But in fact it is only an attempt to mask the growing disparity between China and Russia in creating instruments of influence, not a real idea of common vision for this region.

In such a shaped regional environment the EU’s role could be to present itself as an attractive alternative partner, offering real cooperation in such fields as economy, technology, innovations, education, social services, and even security and counter-terrorism. Despite the limitations of the EU activities’ effectiveness in the region, it’s advantage over Russia is the fact that cooperation with the EU does not entail increased geopolitical pressure and the need for difficult political compromises. The better the EU demonstrates its idea of real partnership, cooperation and support, the more important it will become in this part of the world, and the more Russia’s influence will be reduced. That’s why the SEnECA project is a really needed initiative in building self-reliance and openness in EU – Central Asia relations.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Arkadiusz Legieć from WiseEuropa

Horse in North and Ship in South

Posted on

At the time of the Great Silk Road (138 BC-1492), Europe and Asia were closely connected through terrestrial and maritime routes. In the heyday of this transcontinental trade (VII-IX century), the principle “horses in the North, ships in the South” existed. This principle represented the world’s balance of global trade between the land and the sea parts. Commercial caravans loaded with silk and other luxury items (porcelain, paper, spices etc.) departed from the Chinese mega-city Chang’an (today Xian China) and travelled through the expanses of Central Asia, the Middle East and Asia Minor to the ports of the Black Sea or the Mediterranean. Merchant ships, loaded with silk, porcelain and other necessities, went to sea from the port of Guangzhou (or other Chinese ports), headed through the Malacca Strait to the Indian Ocean and later to the ports of the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea. From there, goods were delivered to the eastern ports of the Mediterranean or the Black Sea by land. From these ports, Byzantine, Venetian and Genoese ships delivered Chinese, Indian or other goods to northern Italy, from where they were distributed throughout Europe.

There was also communication between Asia and Europe through the southern Russian steppes or through the deserts of northern Africa. This was truly the time of a good world trade balance, when horses (camels, to be exact) and ships almost equally divided the assortment of goods transported from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

By the second half of the 15th century, the Venetian and Genoese ships were expelled from the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean and lost their traditional precedence to the Spanish and Portuguese seafarers. In their search for an alternative route to India and China, the Venetian and Genoese ships could not choose the traditional way any more (through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea), but had to enter the world ocean. A new era of great geographical discoveries began with the sea gradually becoming a natural continuation of Europe and with communication on land declining. For several centuries, the seagoing ships monopolized the entire world trade. The horses between Europe and Asia were less and less used to guard trade caravans, but more and more for wars, civil strifes and raids. This state of affairs continued until the end of the twentieth century.

At the end of the last century, one remarkable event occurred: all five Central Asian countries gained independence and the process of nation-building and regional development began. Gradual crystallization of the “regional face” of this youngest region of the world entails enormous opportunities. It can restore the balance of continental trade on sea and on land and firmly connect two parts of extensive Eurasia (from the shores of the Pacific to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean).

The geo-economic advantage of the region (in combination with the South Caucasus) was first realized by Europeans who launched the TRACECA project. Now China is seriously joining in with its “Belt and Road Initiative”. In recent years, the new states of the region have consolidated and are determined to connect Europe and Asia again by numerous means of communication on land. The approaching era of high-speed trains which are able to transport not only passengers, but also commodity containers in the shortest time are also a significant help in this process. Soon, the “iron horses” (trucks and trains) will find their place again in the “North” and a natural tandem with the ships plying in the South of Eurasia will be restored.

I believe that SEnECA will also make a great intellectual contribution to this global trend.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Dr. Abdugani Mamadazimov from the Center of Sociological Researchers “Zerkalo”

Central Asia’s Role in Latvian Foreign Policy

Posted on

Cooperation with the Central Asian countries is one of the specializations of Latvian foreign policy, making the Baltic country one of the main advocates in the European Union (EU) for closer interaction with the region. Hence, during the Latvian Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2015, Central Asia regained momentum in the agenda of the EU external action.

History of the 20th century, namely the Soviet occupation, laid the foundation for closer interaction between Latvia and the Central Asian countries. From the perspective of Central Asian people, Latvia and the two other Baltic nations were seen not only geographically, but also culturally and economically as the Western-most part of the Soviet Union. Many Central Asians still carry good memories of the sandy beaches of the Baltic Sea, music, and commodities originating in Latvia. The interaction in the past strengthened the mutual trust and allowed for a better understanding of each other’s mindsets and mentality.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are all different and so are their relations with Latvia. Nevertheless, the bilateral interaction between all Central Asian countries and Latvia have been fairly active across different fields. Just to name some examples: since the 1990s, exchange of presidential visits with all Central Asian countries except Kyrgyzstan have taken place; Uzbek and Kazakh students constitute one of the biggest groups of foreign students in Latvia; direct flights connect Riga and Tashkent and, starting April of this year, Riga and Almaty will also be directly connected; regular cargo train traffic connects Latvia to the region; Latvia supports different projects in the region related to such fields as justice and home affairs, public administration, agriculture, democratic involvement, civic society, and education.

However, with continuing reforms in some of the Central Asian countries and increasing assertiveness and presence of great powers, the competition for attention in the region will become fiercer as the space for initiatives will become narrower. Therefore, for Latvia to retain the current level of interaction and to go beyond, more should be done. To name a few suggestions: refresh the political dialogue at the highest level by organizing an official presidential visit to the region; establish an embassy in one more capital in order to expand everyday activity beyond Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; provide more funds for the development cooperation projects and, thus, share more of Latvia’s transition experience in the spheres of mutual interest; invest more in people-to-people relations, most importantly by providing more state scholarships to Central Asian students in Latvian universities.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Māris Andžāns from the Latvian Institute of International Affairs

My First Journey to Central Asia

Posted on

Almost ten years ago, I travelled to Central Asia for the first time on the occasion of a conference which gathered participants from all five Central Asian republics and from the Xingjian region in China. Shortly before boarding my plane to Beijing, where I had to change for Ürümqi, I panicked: While being an avid traveller equipped with several world languages, I had never travelled on my own to a country, a region, where I did not speak the language and about which I could hardly find any information on the internet back then. Many hours later, I arrived at the small Ürümqi Airport and was picked up by a driver who did not speak English and a student of the local university who did. I realized how fortunate I was only later on when a colleague told me that his taxi driver had to return him to the origin of his travels since he could not make him understand that he wanted to go to the Sheraton Hotel. Both spelling and pronunciation were just too different.

The conference itself was not only interesting because of its content, but also because of its cultural setting. The food was Han Chinese and the European and Central Asian participants regularly got into a friendly fight over the few knives and forks available at the hotel. Every night, the European participants convened under an artificially lightened purple tree by a lake to drink a few beers and deal with culture shock. Most were lamenting the lack of coffee, especially in the morning, which exacerbated the jet lag.

What struck me most in my few days in Ürümqi was the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of life on the streets. While the strangeness was based on the lack of a common language, it was deepened through the complete lack of recognition of brands of food items or stores that you usually see on every main street from Seattle to Baku.

However, there was also an equally strong sense of familiarity in the friendly faces of the inhabitants of Ürümqi for whom I – as a tall European woman – was equally exotic as they were to me. Of all the friendly encounters, I most vividly remember the moment when my eyes met those of another woman trying to soothe her baby at the bazaar. Even though we did not speak a common language and did not know anything about each other’s lives, the situation was very familiar to me. I left Xingjian with a strong feeling of how small the world really is.

Fast forward to 2018 and our Horizon 2020 project SEnECA, which aims to intensify existing relations between the European Union and Central Asia and to create a sustainable network of academics, decision-makers and relevant stakeholders from both regions. On a personal level, the application process for the funding for this project was influenced by my first encounters with researchers from Central Asia and by my strong belief that these relations make our research richer and more substantial. In addition, I have experienced that while other scientific relations within Europe or with the United States are much more established through programmes like Erasmus and Fulbright, this is not yet the case for relations with Central Asia. Therefore, I am looking very much forward to deepening and strengthening these relations and to broadening my horizon during the following 24 months.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Katrin Böttger from the Institut für Europäische Politik