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Europe’s Security Stake in Central Asia

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