Trans-boundary water cooperation in Central Asia: do European experiences help to solve the problem?

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International trans-boundary water resources are the most important type of natural resources. A rational and equitable use of water can provide prosperity and security to individual states and entire regions. Therefore, the effective use of trans-boundary waters is of particular relevance today. This is due to the fact that these resources have the capacity not only to promote regional cooperation and intensify the integration processes, but also may act as a source of potential conflicts.

At the end of 20th century, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the efficient use of transboundary water resources arose on the agenda of Central Asian states and shortly became one of the most pressing issues to be addressed in order to ensure a peaceful and progressive development of Central Asian nations.

There are 276 rivers in the world which cross several countries. Nine of them lie in Central Asia. These are: Amu-darya, Sir-darya, Zarafshan, Chu, Talas, Ili, Murgab, Tedjen and the Irtysh river. The Amu-darya and the Sir-darya have great strategic importance because they provide the Aral Sea with water. These rivers also play an important role in the agriculture, industry, services, and city-building in Central Asian countries.

However, the adoption of politically driven short-sighted decisions taken by the Soviet Union authority in the past under the quinquennial plans for the socialistic development with the aim to «catch up and overtake the West» and to reach out «worldwide triumph of communism» led to extensive interventions into natural processes, wasteful use of water resources and dramatically altered the flow regime of the Amu-darya and Sir-darya rivers over the centuries. These factors have caused a greater environmental catastrophe related to the desiccation of the Aral Sea. Water shortages, loss of cultivated land, a sharp decrease in flora and fauna, climate change, as well as accelerated melting of mountain glaciers in the Pamir and Tien Shan form a short list of consequences related to the environmental degradation of the Aral Sea. The socioeconomic and ecological consequences of this tragedy, such as high-level droughts, unusually warm springs, increase in salinity and toxicity of herbicidal and pesticide-contaminated water and an increased number of dust storms are not only felt in Central Asia itself, but also far beyond in other countries.

Despite these problems, Central Asian republics are continuing using water resources on the basis of purely national interests, often without considering the interests of neighbouring countries located in the lower parts of the rivers’ basin, and the whole region. Upstream countries of the region (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have high water consumption for energy purposes while downstream countries (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) suffer from water shortages for agricultural use. This is especially true when considering issues of food security, which are directly dependent on the availability of irrigated land and sufficient water during the growing season. At the same time, there is an increasing number of projects on the construction of large hydraulic structures (mega dams and hydroelectric power stations) on rivers in the upper part of the basin. The implementation of such projects can increase water shortages and potentially lead to catastrophic human-made environmental and social impacts, which ultimately threaten sustainable development in the region.

In fact, transboundary water conflicts are one of the most serious problems in the world. Over the last twenty years, several developing countries have already faced trans-boundary water problems. However, these problems are still far from being resolved. Water management and water conflict resolution is placed high on the political agenda of all countries and is an ongoing issue for political debates. Particularly, competition over freshwater resources is consistently growing in Central Asia.

International law offers a wide range of mechanisms and norms to regulate the utilization and management of water in order to avoid and settle disputes and to transform competition into cooperative development paths. In Europe, where one finds a large number of trans-boundary rivers, successful mechanisms for effective trans-boundary water resource management were formed through peaceful means. This happened through strong commitment to international law and through sensitivity towards the interests of countries in river basins, which certainly deserve special attention. Investigating the case of Danube, the Rhine and other cases and implementing the best European experiences would play a crucial role in resolving transboundary water problems in Central Asia. Hence, joint research between European and Central Asian scholars on the issue is needed.

SEnECA blog contribution by Jean Monnet Chairman Prof. Khaydarali Yunusov, University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent.

Preserving while observing: ways for sustainable tourism in Central Asia

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In the last decade, Central Asia has become an increasingly popular destination for hikers and adventure-seeking travellers. Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union and especially since the publication of the first Lonely Planet for Central Asia in 1996, the region has been attracting more and more Europeans who seek to experience the picturesque alpine forests, want to try horse-riding or are eager to discover ancient Silk Road cities. With the increase of tourism, however, a number of problems has arisen, which have been a strain on the already vulnerable ecosystems in the region. While economically benefitting some locals who are in one way or another involved in tourism, the growing amount of foreign visitors in the five Central Asian republics has also meant environmental degradation through carbon intensive development, resource inefficiency and pollution of lakes, which are of great importance as fresh water reserves for the region.

When planning my own 3-week trip to Central Asia, I had to ask myself: what can I do to make this journey as sustainable as possible? What came to my mind was avoiding domestic and regional flights, selecting eco-friendly accommodation and following a vegetarian diet. The latter seemed an easy goal for a vegetarian, but turned out to be quite difficult in light of the meat-heavy Central Asian cuisine. Still, the motivation was high to have a low CO2 footprint and minimal impact on the environment during my journey.

Most travellers follow a similar route in Central Asia: they start out in Kazakhstan, work their way south to Kyrgyzstan and then move westwards to Uzbekistan or further south to Tajikistan. I chose the first option and was amazed at how easily I was able to purchase train tickets for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan online. Here, my Russian language skills were an asset because websites in Russian (such as www.caj.uz) often offer lower prices. Inter-city bus tickets are more difficult to acquire online, but buying in advance is usually not necessary. Tickets to cross the Kazak-Kyrgyz border (3 hours) are available on the spot at the Sayran Bus Station in Almaty and those to cross the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border from Bishkek to Tashkent (12 hours) can be bought at the Western bus station in Bishkek approximately three days in advance. Next to that, the cheap and cosy Soviet-style “marshrutkas” build a convenient transportation web connecting all cities and villages throughout the region.

Information on eco-friendly accommodation was more difficult to find. Websites such as “Green Pearls” or “Kiwano Hotels” do not offer green lodges in Central Asian countries yet. Therefore, I decided to book accommodation with small family-run businesses, and to avoid big hotel chains. To my surprise, I learned that when a family owns a hotel or hostel in Central Asia, it often lives in the same building or just next door. This not only leads to reduced energy consumption, but also creates an opportunity for the traveller to learn more about local customs, to experience authentic regional cuisine and to befriend the hotel owners and staff. My favourite accommodation turned out to be an “Eco Yurt” in the mountain village Altyn-Arashan in north-east Kyrgyzstan. The yurt camp offered a natural hot spring as well as a delicious vegetarian “laghman”, a dish of pulled noodles and vegetables, which were extremely soothing after a five-hour hike from the city of Karakol. With good outer isolation, the yurt kept warm at night and was unexpectedly comfortable.

These experiences lead me to believe that sustainable tourism is possible in Central Asia if the governments of the five republics are willing to take the issue of ecological degradation seriously and to pay close attention to environmental sustainability when developing tourism. Here, the governments can take countries such as Buthan or Switzerland as positive examples. The landlocked and mountainous Buthan, for instance, follows the motto of “high value, low impact”. This foresees a minimum daily tariff for tourists varying from 200 to 250 USD, which includes accommodation, a licenced guide and hiking equipment. This strategy is highly successful in preventing cheap mass tourism that is often so detrimental for local ecosystems and biodiversity. Central Asian states can adapt a similar strategy tailoring it to their own circumstances and needs.

Furthermore, the European Union can contribute its part to eco-friendly tourism in Central Asia. In its recently published new strategy on Central Asia, the EU included the environmental dimension as one central policy area under the goal “Partnering for resilience”. When implementing the strategy in the upcoming years, the European External Action Service (EEAS) wants to focus on climate change next to connectivity and rule of law, as stated by Boris Yaroshevitch from the EEAS during the SEnECA Recommendations Workshop in July 2019. Here, the EU should establish concrete ways to strengthen inter-regional and intra-regional platforms that deal with environmental governance and ecotourism, mobilize public and private capital for environmental projects in Central Asia and share its own lessons learned from the development of sustainable tourism and waste management in the Alps.

One thing is certain: without political will and investments in eco-friendly development, problems such as water pollution and scarcity, soil erosion and degradation of forests will accelerate and threaten not only local ecosystems, but also human development in Central Asia. The lake Issyk-Kul in the Tien Shan mountain belt in Kyrgyzstan, for example, is already endangered through anthropogenic activities such as pollution through tourism, overfishing and past and present industrial activity. The world’s fifths deepest lake and second largest high altitude lake shows signs of deterioration in form of increasing salinity and dwindling number of fish and plants that usually keep the health of the lake intact. According to several locals with whom I was able to speak during my journey, the Kyrgyz government keeps a low profile on the environmental degradation of the Issyk-Kul trying not to damage the idyllic image of the region and not to scare off tourists.

There are always two levels to tackle environmental challenges: the political and the personal one. On the personal level, I think it is extremely important to inform oneself in advance on the ecological situation in the desired travel destination and on the existing infrastructure for ecotourism. Once one starts changing own travel habits (even with minor steps), family, friends and colleagues might get inspired to do the same. As an elderly Kazakh lady told me on an overnight train from NurSultan to Kostanay: “How we treat mother earth is how she treats us”. I think that this could be a great motto for tourism development in Central Asia.

SEnECA blog contribution by Tatjana Kuhn, research associate at the Centre international de formation européenne (CIFE) in Berlin

Spain’s relations vis-à-vis Kazakhstan: so far apart but so friendly

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Spain’s main foreign policy priorities —namely North Africa, the EU and Latin America— are far away from Central Asia. Nevertheless, the country does have a significant interest and presence in one of the five Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the independence of Kazakhstan in December 1991, the relations between Astana —now Nursultan— and Madrid have been outstanding. The two countries established diplomatic relations in early 1992 and have opened embassies in Madrid and Astana respectively. Kazakhstan hosts Spain’s only diplomatic mission in Central Asia. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan matters are managed by it as well, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan related issues are directed by the embassy of Spain in Moscow.

The good relations between the two countries have mainly been a result of the friendly relations of their former heads of state, King Juan Carlos I and Nursultan Nazarbayev. King Juan Carlos I boosted the relations between the two countries with a state visit to Kazakhstan in 2007 and his son, and current King of Spain, Felipe VI, followed this path with an official visit to Astana in 2017. Likewise, both former Spanish Prime Ministers Zapatero and Rajoy have visited the country and met with Nazarbayev in an official capacity. On the other hand, Nazarbayev paid official visits to Spain in at least two occasions, 2008 and 2013. Conversely, no Spanish head of state, nor prime ministers have visited any other Central Asian country in an official visit, albeit Felipe VI met with president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, during the International Exposition in Astana in 2017 (Expo 2017).

The positive development in the bilateral relations between the two countries translated into the mutual support in different political and cultural initiatives. Spain, for instance, supported the Kazakh presidency of the OSCE in 2010 and the Expo 2017 Astana’s candidacy. In addition, numerous bilateral agreements have been signed between the two countries, emphasizing the establishment of a strategic partnership in 2009. This agreement covers cooperation in a wide range of topics, such as culture, defence, science, technology and trade.

The volumes of trade between Kazakhstan and Spain are also significant, particularly compared to the other four Central Asian states. The main reasons being, inter alia, the advanced economic situation and legal security of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan exported goods worth 2 billion Euros to Spain in 2018, while its imports reached 120 million from Spain in the same year. This meaningful trade imbalance is primarily the result of the Spanish need for unrefined oil, which represents nearly 94 per cent of Kazakh exports to Spain. Spanish exports to Kazakhstan are, on the other hand, electronic devises sold by Talgo —the main Spanish manufacturer of trains—, Indra —a Spanish information technology and defence systems company—, and Airbus.

In total, sixty-six companies with Spanish capital are registered in Kazakhstan. They are not only businesses working in the energy, construction and infrastructure sectors, but also in the fashion and textile industries, which have notably grown in the last years. Although other European countries such as Italy and the Netherlands are still ahead in the ranking, Spain is one of the ten largest trading partners of Kazakhstan nowadays.

The transition of power from Nazarbayev to Tokayev in June 2019 is unlikely to impact the good relations between Spain and Kazakhstan. Both administrations seem to be committed to increase and deepen the relations between the two countries in the future. Recently, in March 2019, the Spanish authorities announced the opening of a Cervantes Institute, the Spanish state-agency responsible to promote studying and teaching Spanish around the world (the first one in Central Asia), while Kazakh authorities have already communicated its intention to intensify business relations between the two countries.

SEnECA blog contribution by Pol Vila Sarriá, project officer at the Trans European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA) in Brussels.

Three main problems in countering extremism and terrorism in Central Asia

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Terrorism-related issues are highly politicized and securitized in Kazakhstan and in Central Asia in general. Whereas it is necessary for the governments to maintain stability and national security, counter-terrorism efforts sometimes undermine the state’s credibility.

There are three main problems with counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia. The first, and most significant, problem is the legal framework that regulates this sphere. Laws on terrorism are almost the same in all five countries and they all are filled with vague terminology. As a result, the governments use this vagueness to strengthen their monopoly on the use of force. Because the wording of the laws on countering extremism is vague, it allows the government to use the law on a case-by-case basis to punish opposition activists. In addition, the governments have created a narrative of fear by using these legal traps to strengthen the state’s monopoly on the use of force. As a result, the security services prosecute 'potential' ISIS sleeper cells or supporters, in particular in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Despite all the efforts to fight online terrorism, the Central Asian governments have not managed to stop terrorists from using the internet to plan their activities. Rather, the governments’ approach to counter extremism has so far resulted in limitations and violations of civil liberties.

The second problem is that Central Asian countries prefer to cooperate on counterterrorism with non-regional actors, e.g. the United States, the EU, Russia, Turkey and others, or within the UN, OSCE, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, rather than establish intra-regional dialogue to address this issue properly, especially with Afghanistan. 2018 field trip to Kabul and meetings with high-level officials reinforced the absence of cross border cooperation with the Afghan security forces on travel of terrorists, as Central Asians are not ready to collaborate daily with their Afghan counterparts.

Recent special operations focusing on bringing foreign terrorist fighters, including women and children from Syria back to the region in 2019 (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) were the result of successful cooperation with big powers rather than a regional decision. A well-established dialogue on terrorism and extremism issues should be established, as it will result in a better approach towards information sharing, borders and profiling. Additionally, this will help address the threats that might arise from the Afghan terrorist groups.

The third problem has to do with the governments’ (non)communication about terrorist threats. Whereas the level of terrorism threat is relatively low, regional governments do not communicate with the public in case of an actual threat of a terrorist attack, forgetting the main audience and leaving it behind when an incident occurs. As a result, it is extremely difficult to counter terrorism in non-democratic societies, where everyday communication between the government agencies and the public is minimal. The lack of trust between both sides poses a great challenge for improving these relations. The absence of alternative and/or independent media makes this task even more difficult.

Strengthening the legitimate use of force to ensure domestic security is necessary, yet the Central Asian governments’ current approach demonstrates a major imbalance in the citizens’ civil liberties and security. In Central Asia, where political rights and civil liberties, in particular freedom of (online) expression, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion, have been significantly limited for the sake of stability, social media has also been manipulated by the governments. People across the region are now being arrested for posting, sharing or ‘liking’ politically, nationally or religiously “incorrect” or sensitive content on social media on the pretext of countering extremism. Citizens’ unawareness and lack of knowledge when it comes to behavior during terrorist attack and what extremism is and what is not are also of great importance. Along with the missing communication on potential threats, it is also necessary to educate people, communicate with them and inform them in a timely manner which actions are appropriate, and which are not.

These and other relevant issues should be further explored during the implementation phase of the new EU Strategy on Central Asia, which outlines ad hoc measures on countering violent extremism challenges in Central Asia in order to create resilient societies across borders.

SEnECA blog contribution by Anna Gussarova, Director of the Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies (CAISS) in Almaty, Kazakhstan

EU-Central Asia relations: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership?*

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In June 2019, the European Council adopted the new EU strategy for Central Asia “The EU and Central Asia: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership”. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, has presented the new strategy to the Central Asian partners at the occasion of the 15th EU-Central Asia Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 7th July 2019. In light of these new developments, Susann Heinecke (SEnECA’s consortium member and senior researcher at the Centre international de formation européenne) has conducted an interview with the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Ambassador Peter Burian, to receive his assessment of the new EU Central Asia strategy and its implementation.

Which significance does Central Asia have for Europe? Are there external factors that shape that significance?

PB: I think we have started fully appreciate the significance of the region only recently when many important processes began, including a more active approach of players such as China and its Belt and Road initiative. We have been engaged in the region since the Central Asian states gained their independence, supporting their state-building, institution-building, and supporting their strategies for sustainable development. We wanted to strengthen the resilience of the region so that the countries could address their own problems and challenges. These, in the end, might also have consequences for our own security and stability.

The region is also of significant importance for Europe in terms of security of neighbouring Afghanistan that is a security threat for the region, but also for us including threats like violent extremism, migration and other related issues. From this point of view, Central Asia is even a closer neighbour of the EU than it seems, and in case of any major security crisis in the region, the EU will be one of the first to face the consequences. Last but not least, we look to the region as a young and growing market with potential for transport, for business, for trade, and also connectivity.

Let us come to the new EU Central Asia strategy. Why was there a necessity to update the previous strategy? What were its main deficits or shortcomings?

PB: First of all, the previous strategy was developed in 2007, and since then, many changes have occurred in the region, including geopolitical shifts. Moreover, Central Asian countries have progressed with nation-building, have strengthened their identity, and so on. So, we felt the necessity to reflect these new developments in our new strategy, a better focused strategy. We wanted to highlight the specific role of the EU as a supporter for modernization and transformation in individual countries. Further, the EU wants to play a role in promoting regional cooperation as a factor of stability and, possibly, as the only way for addressing issues and challenges like security or the impact of climate change and connectivity in an efficient manner.

Moreover, our partnership with Central Asia has matured and progressed since 2007, and has developed into a true partnership where we not only appreciate the willingness of our partners to learn from our experiences and best practices in transformation processes, but also see how they are more and more prepared to work with us in addressing existing global and regional challenges. In particular, they work with us in helping Afghanistan to stabilise and find a solution to its protracted conflict. Hence, I believe that we are moving with our partnership to a qualitatively new level where we benefit from each other’s knowledge, experience, and contribution to addressing problems together rather than individually.

What are the next steps for implementing the new strategy?

PB: The first step was taken in Bishkek last weekend, where the 15th EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting was held. We presented the strategy and immediately started the discussion how to implement it. We heard very positive comments from our partners, and they were already coming with concrete ideas. In the area of security, we agreed on the expansion of our programmes BOMCA and CADAP. We are also looking to new areas such as education, which was viewed as a core priority. Our partners highlighted the importance of education for their transformation and reform processes in terms of capacity building. And, last but not least, a focus on economic cooperation and promoting the potential and opportunities for trade and business cooperation between the region and the European Union was very much in the focus of our discussion in Bishkek. The Kyrgyz side came with an idea to organise a first EU-Central Asia economic forum for identifying opportunities, but also for discussing the conditions, which need to be created such as the strengthening of the rule of law and good governance as well as the fight against corruption. We probably have promoted them in an abstract manner so far, but now, with this very practical focus, I believe that our partners better understand our approach and its practical significance for attracting businesses.

* This is a shortened version of an interview conducted with Ambassador Peter Burian in Brussels on 11th July 2019 . The complete interview can be found here.

The battle for hearts and minds in Central Asia: Russia vs. China

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The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a political and security alliance bringing together numerous Central Asian countries, as well as Russia and China, held its most recent summit in Bishkek on 14 June 2019. While this is an opportunity for Kyrgyzstan to play host, the meeting has also brought discussions of Russia and China’s influence in Central Asia back to the fore.

Russia and China have often competing, but occasionally overlapping political, economic and security interests in countries across the world. These interests can converge in places, such as the Arctic, or diverge, as in their growing competition on the arms market, and as they compete for global recognition as powerful political players. Central Asia is often overlooked as a theatre in which Russian and Chinese interests come together, and where the five republics are caught between the influences of these two large powers. The way in which the republics are able to balance these alliances will have a profound impact on the region in the coming years. But there are already early signs of discord.

Russia’s approach to Central Asia draws on its longstanding political alliances with all five republics, establishing itself as the main hard security provider in the region. Russia has set up military bases in three of the five republics, and trains and supplies weapons to many of their armed forces. While Central Asia does present an economic opportunity for Russia as an export market, Russia also uses its extensive investments in Central Asia’s infrastructure and business environment as an additional lever of political influence.

China’s influence in Central Asia is chiefly economic, with the goal of promoting its political hegemony. China is focused on using Central Asia’s territory as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to promote trade ties, and investing in Central Asia’s railway infrastructure. China relies on its economic links and the prospect of job creation as a way of promoting influence in Central Asia although China does have security interests in the region. Instability in Afghanistan and the spread of Islamist extremism are a joint security concern for China and Russia.

Between a rock and a hard place  

Thanks to its Soviet legacy, Russia’s political and security reach is relatively well-established in Central Asia, but not without tension. Kazakhstan criticised Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and has resisted Russia’s attempts to promote the benefits of the annexation in the media. But the recent handover of power in Kazakhstan - in which President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down - was widely thought to be organised with Moscow’s approval. There was much speculation at the time that Putin was closely observing the handover as a model for his own transition when his presidency ends in 2024. This is unlikely given the different political environments in Russia and Kazakhstan – while former president Nazabayev’s daughter Dariga is a highly visible part of the political system, Putin’s family life is extremely private and never publicly discussed.It has been reported that Nazarbayev had called Putin a few hours before his departure, and appeared to have discussed the transition with Moscow, indicating their close links on major issues.

This push-and-pull relationship is also playing out with China as its growing influence has begun to rankle locals in Central Asia. As Bishkek hosts the SCO summit, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov will be keen to deepen trade ties with China, and to encourage investments in Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure. Although ties between China and Kyrgyzstan may be progressing at an official level, locals have become increasingly dissatisfied with the country’s move towards China, and have protested in response. In January 2019, hundreds of demonstrators in Bishkek protested against illegal Chinese migrants, the government’s granting of citizenship to Chinese people married to Kyrgyz nationals, and against the persecution of Kyrgyz people in ‘re-education’ camps in China. Evidently, high-level diplomatic negotiations do not always translate into fruitful partnerships.

There may be similar scope for tensions with China in Uzbekistan. Since the change of administration in Uzbekistan in 2017, China has sought to promote bilateral ties, entering into several major gas deals, including the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, as well as constructing new railway tunnels. But on the ground, Uzbeks responding to local surveys maintain that Chinese investment has not had a tangibly positive impact. China will also face competition in Uzbekistan - since President Islam Karimov’s death in 2017, Russia sent large trade delegations to the country, most notably in October 2018, as an indication of its intent to improve deeper economic relations.

The tussle between China and Russia over Turkmenistan’s gas market is well-documented, and a serious cause of tension. Russia has looked to Turkmenistan in recent years to help strengthen its border with Afghanistan - although this has not been always positively received by the Turkmen -, and is renewing joint military training with Uzbek and Turkmen forces. Russia’s gas giant conglomerate Gazprom at the end of 2018 began to discuss the resumption of deliveries of Turkmenistan’s gas in 2019, which is highly likely to drive up frictions with China. While Turkmenistan’s political environment does not allow large protest movements to foster, Turkmenistan may become the locus of renewed business competition between Russia and China.

Countries such as Belarus – also looking to China for investment – have encountered similar pushback against China from locals. Residents there complain that investors employ Chinese labourers for large projects, without stimulating the local economy. Should China use these same business practices in Central Asia, this could stimulate the already nascent unrest. To take advantage of Chinese and Russian interest in their economies, Central Asia’s political leaders will be obliged to traverse a careful line, to ensure that Chinese presence does not spill over into regional instability.

SEnECA blog contribution by Emily Ferris, Research Fellow at the International Security Studies department of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

In search of a common ground: European and Chinese engagement in Central Asia

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China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is often seen as a rival to the European Union’s (EU) take on connectivity. This has to do with the fact that China’s approach to infrastructure lending and engagement in other countries does not have the EU political value component. Poorly governed and non-transparent projects are eligible as long as they subscribe to the narrative of BRI. The motives of China’s infrastructure lending are criticised as driven by the will to increase political and security influence, especially in its neighbouring Central Asia, and for such drivers good governance is not a requirement.

However, next to the strategic logic and security logic there is a component of the BRI that is under risk if the loan recipient is poorly governed – namely, the investment logic. As long as this logic does not directly clash with China’s “national interests”, China will not be prone to disrupt the involvement of actors that actually contribute to a better investment environment. This provides an opportunity for the EU to actively engage and shape China’s activities in Central Asia.

In order to achieve that, the EU needs to stress that good governance in Central Asia is key to China because it increases the chances of successful returns on investment. According to D.Dollar (2019), the Central Bank of China “is giving $50 million to the IMF as a grant for training officials in Belt and Road recipient countries on debt sustainability analysis.” This means that China is willing to learn from the West when it comes to money lending management because down the line, forgiving debts or obtaining assets of low liquidity can make China’s leadership look bad domestically. Therefore, China would not impede EU investments in good governance promotion in Central Asian countries. Admittedly, this argument does not automatically mean that China has an interest in combatting corruption in the region since certain levels of corruption are bad for society, but do not necessarily endanger investment.

This is a chance for the EU to work towards better governance in Central Asia by persuading China that the European experience in institution-building benefits not just the societies of the Central Asian countries, but also China’s chances for higher returns from long-term investment and, ultimately, from the broader Eurasian connectivity. The EU needs to lend its expertise to China through the implementation of existing programmes such as the Regional Cooperation Instrument which promote the rule of law and good governance in Central Asian countries. These programmes could be widened to include all sectors involved in BRI projects, starting from legal support with contract terms negotiation, to cost assessment, to institutional oversight. In order to avoid harsh reactions from China, the EU memberstates that have joined the BRI could be included in such exchanges. As the mounting external debt to China is causing worries in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it is likely that the Central Asian countries would agree to accept such expertise coming from the EU.

There is one problem, however. Securing China’s Western border has been named to be another leading motivation behind China’s engagement in Central Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative. This can be observed in China’s army drills in Kyrgyzstan and the reported Chinese military facility in Tajikistan, among others. Security logic becoming the main reason for China’s engagement in Central Asia would undermine the need for good governance, and the return on investment for BRI projects would become secondary.

To conclude one can say that the leading motive of EU’s engagement in Central Asia is to increase Eurasian connectivity and to build ties with the region.  Furthermore, the EU aims to create a better operating environment for EU investors in the region and better conditions for the transit of goods. The motivation behind China’s involvement, on the other hand, more likely centres around strategic logic, security cooperation and investment protection. Still, common ground can be found between the EU and China in promoting good governance and financial responsibility in the region. China will support the EU’s engagement in Central Asia because it is a way to guarantee a smoother operating environment for the BRI. The EU, in turn, can benefit from China’s involvement in infrastructure building in Central Asia because, if managed properly, BRI could contribute to EU-Asia connectivity. As the involved countries come to terms with the risks brought about by the BRI, this is the right time for the EU to be proactive.

SEnECA blog contribution by Dr. Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova, Head of the New Silk Road Programme, Latvian Institute of International Affairs

Uzbekistan – Germany: a wide range of cooperation

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The official visit of the President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to Germany in January 2019 can be considered as one of the key foreign policy events of this year in terms of further enhancement of Uzbekistan’s multifaceted relations on the international area. The negotiations in Berlin are a significant step within Uzbek diplomacy towards Europe.

Germany is one of the main trade and economic partners of Uzbekistan in Europe. At the end of last year, the trade turnover between the countries amounted at $ 772 million with an increase of 24.5 percent in comparison to 2017. Additionally, Germany is one the countries that provide significant support to Uzbekistan. With financial and technical assistance of the German government, Uzbekistan has implemented a number of important projects which amount at 320 million euro in total. Within the framework of the UN, OSCE and the European Union, Uzbekistan and Germany carried out constructive cooperation on the global and regional agenda in a multilateral format. Tashkent and Berlin hold similar or coinciding positions on many issues, including the fight against terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking which benefits the fruitful interaction of the two countries on the international area.

In designating Central Asia as a region of «strategic importance», Berlin invariably emphasizes the importance of this direction of ​​foreign policy at the national and European levels. Germany traditionally positioned itself as the leading European country in Central Asia, which has managed to establish close partnerships with all countries in the region. It should be noted that, Germany became the first European country to open its diplomatic missions in all Central Asian capitals was the main initiator of the «EU Strategy» on Central Asia. Currently, German diplomacy is actively involved in the preparation of an updated version of this document, the adoption of which is scheduled for 2019.

Of particular interest to Uzbekistan in Germany has risen sharply due to the large-scale reforms of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to liberalize and democratize the state. According to Eckhart Franz, a representative of the Ministry of Economy and Energy of Germany, two years ago it was «absolutely impossible to imagine the current recovery in bilateral economic relations».

During his speech at the international Uzbek-German round table held in September 2018 in Tashkent, Niels Annen who is Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office stated that Germany fully supports the achievement of Tashkent in «opening its borders and including Afghanistan in regional cooperation».

The further deepening and expansion of multidimensional relations both at the bilateral and multilateral levels with one of the leading states of Europe will make an important contribution to the sustainable development of not only Uzbekistan, but also of the entire Central Asian region. The development of in-depth political, trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian relations with one of the largest industrial and technologically developed economies, not only in Europe but also in the world will allow Uzbekistan to significantly increase its potential during the period of dynamic reforms and modernization of the country. The influx of high-quality investments and advanced technologies from Germany will ensure the growth of the industrial sector of the Uzbek economy and help to increase the export of competitive products to nearby markets in South and East Asia. The strategic level of the Uzbek-German relations will be one of the key factors in ensuring the security and development of Central Asia.

SEnECA blog contribution by Mr. Ulugbek Normatov, leading research fellow at the Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan

India’s “knight’s move” to Central Asia

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 More than 2150 years ago, when the envoy of the Chinese emperor Zhang Qian, the “father-founder” of the Great Silk Road, reached the final point of his journey in the northern Bactria (current South Tajikistan), he was surprised to find that bamboo and other goods from China were available at the local market. This discovery of the famous Chinese traveler shows that ancient India had a trade route towards not only Southern China, but also Bactria, which was the largest region in ancient Transoxiana. In other words, the ancient trade road “from Bactria to India” existed before the discovery of the Great Silk Road.

Currently, when the world superpowers initiate large-scale projects for the revival of the Great Silk Road, India – the homeland of chess – is also starting its own serious game on trade route establishment in Central Asia. Due to the fierce competition with Pakistan, India cannot directly enter the Central Asian region through Afghanistan and has to opt for the “knight's move”.

The logic of the “knight's move” of India implies a direct marine connection between the Mumbai harbor and the Iranian harbor in Chabahar. With the railway (which is rapidly being built),  goods are transferred to Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics, and further to Russia and Europe, in this way bypassing Pakistan through the sea.

The Indian rush towards Central Asia contains not only the trade/economic component, but also covers the following “peacemaking” aspect:

1) Conflict resolution in Afghanistan

The first meeting between the foreign ministers of India and the five Central Asian countries took place in Samarkand in January 2019, organized by the Indian side upon the invitation of the Afghan foreign minister to this meeting (in a "5 + 1 + 1" format). The meeting addressed not only the creation of a trans-Afghan transit zone, but also the regulation of the Afghan crisis. This encounter has led to the creation of various strategies for resolving the long-lasting conflict in the region.

Neither the Soviet nor the NATO attempts to foster reconciliation in Afghanistan have been successful so far. The country remains unstable, which causes concerns among Afghanistan’s nearest neighbors. The above-mentioned ministerial meeting of the Indian Minister, Ms. Svaraj Sushma, with her Central Asian colleagues in Samarkand seems to have become a catalyzer for negotiations in Doha and Moscow.

Two other factors regarding Afghanistan need to be taken into consideration. First, the gradual withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the accession of Iran into the SCO in the near future will lead to success of the Indian mediation. Delhi, by having not only good relations with Afghanistan, but also a large amount of experience with resolving conflicts and crises situations non-violently, has more chances to influence the peacemaking process. The forty-year war in Afghanistan, with an active military intervention of the world superpowers, has completely exhausted the ability of these powers to resolve the conflict. Second, the joint Indian-Central Asian effort to achieve peace and social harmony in Afghanistan is guided by the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of a sovereign state (“panja shila” concept).

2) Involvement of Iran into the process of peace creation in Afghanistan

By entering Central Asia through Iran, India can actively involve this country in the trade-economic relations of the region and the whole Central Asia. The involvement of Iran in Central Asian affairs accelerates this country’ entry into the SCO. Iran’s accession to the SCO (accompanied by a withdrawal of the American (NATO) army from Afghanistan) creates a relatively “peaceful environment” around Afghanistan. Further resolution of the Afghan conflict will depend on this authoritative organization. The SCO can initiate the convocation of an International Conference on Post-Conflict Development and Reconstruction of Afghanistan.

3) Regional economic integration

The gradual peaceful (economic) entry of India into post-Soviet Central Asia will also lead to a softening of the tough competition in the strategic “Russia-China-USA” triangle, and will contribute to its transformation into a stable “Russia-China-India-USA” quadrate. The Central Asian region, which does not have a direct access to the seas, will receive a convenient access to world ports due to the Iranian-Indian efforts to create modern road infrastructures from the harbors of the Indian Ocean.

India is starting its own game with a "knight's move" which will lead to a fundamental change of the strategic configuration in Central Asia.

This is the second entrance of India into Central Asia. 2,000 years ago, peaceful Buddhism was born in India and spread through Central Asia to the whole world. In today’s violent and uncertain world, a new humanistic spirit is needed. That will hopefully be the spirit of Gandhi and the “spirit of non-violence".

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Dr. Abdugani Mamadazimov, CSR Zerkalo

“Margiana” – A Journey into Prehistoric Turkmenistan

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At first, I did not know where Turkmenistan was located and had to look it up.” Herlinde Koelble’s reaction to an inquiry to photograph excavations in Gonur Depe is quite illustrative. As Turkmenistan was proverbial for periphery in Soviet times, the country is still by far the least known and most mysterious of the five independent Central Asian countries. It is not uncommon to know someone who visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, but few know someone who travelled through Turkmenistan. As she loves adventures, the renowned German photographer agreed at once to document the excavations and findings at the Bronze Age city of Gonur Depe (“grey hill”) in the historical landscape Margiana in Eastern Turkmenistan.

Not only interest in prehistorical cultures, but also curiosity and longing for adventure are probable reasons for the success of the exhibition “Margiana. A Bronze Age Kingdom in Turkmenistan”. It is the first exhibition in a Western country that covers the “Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex” (BMAC) as the ancient culture is called. The term “Oxus civilisation” is also frequently used, however, it has a broader meaning with regard to the timeframe and the geographical scope (Teufer 2018: 80-81). The exhibition displays prehistoric artefacts and Koelble’s photos of the objects, the excavation site and modern Turkmenistan, which she took during her expedition to the country. Being on display at the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum in Mannheim until 16 June 2019, the exhibition raises awareness of the little-known and politically isolated country.

When the idea for this exhibition was first presented to the Turkmen government and then to president Saparmurat Niyazov in 2004, he allegedly gave green light. However, after his death in 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov seemed rather occupied with consolidating his power and installing the cult around his person so that the project advanced only slowly. There were also concerns on the Turkmen side that the exhibits could be damaged or even stolen while displayed in Germany or that the Germans could keep the original artefacts while returning only copies to Turkmenistan. Eventually, Berdymukhammedov agreed that the presentation of Turkmen cultural treasures (of a highly developed culture) would be a good idea and would serve the prestige of the country abroad as well as enhance cultural exchange.

Discovered by Viktor Iwanowitsch Sarianidi in 1972, excavations at Gonur Depe started more than 40 years ago (Wemhoff/Nawroth/Weiss/Wieczorek 2018a: 12). The at least 28 hectares large city of Gonur Depe included a palace, fortifications, irrigation systems and cemeteries with richly decorated graves. The objects found in the city are witness of the outstanding craftmanship of the BMAC and its long-distance trade relations (Luneau 2018) along what should later be known as the Silk Road. The region seems to have been a melting pot with frequent migration as the analysis of skeletons revealed a considerable heterogeneity of the inhabitants of Gonur Depe with regard to their physical anthropological characteristics (Dubova 2018: 112). However, not being of interest for Soviet archaeologists, the knowledge about the BMAC is still very limited. E.g. it is unclear how such a sophisticated culture – much more advanced than societies in Europe at that time – developed, flourished at Gonur Depe from 2,800 until 1,800/1,500 B.C. and then vanished.

The limited knowledge about the prehistoric society is reflected in the “Margiana” exhibition, which currently tours in Germany. The presented variety of technologically advanced consumer goods and delicate objets d’art testifies to an outstanding craftmanship. However, the exhibition struggles to put the accumulated objects into a broader context. The purpose of some findings is still unclear (Wemhoff/Nawroth/Weiss/Wieczorek 2018b: 12), degrading them to objects whose timeless beauty can be admired, but not understood. Despite some insights, the exhibition also lacks a broader understanding how the people at Gonur Depe lived together. Displaying different categories of findings, the exhibition spotlights separated aspects of their life. However, it fails to bring these aspects into a coherent understanding of the BMAC.
Of course, such criticism from a social science perspective is somewhat unfair as it is not the curator’s fault that research on BMAC will have to continue for some decades until another exhibition can provide the broader understanding of the Bronze Age culture by putting the objects into context. At least the Turkmen government seems to have an interest in supporting research. BMAC has moved from the periphery of Soviet archaeological interest to a higher position on the Turkmen (national) agenda of historical research. The pioneering work of the decade-long planning of the “Margiana” exhibition was also an exercise of mutual trust-building with Turkmen authorities on which future cultural joint ventures can – hopefully – build.

As the findings themselves are the centrepiece and strength of the “Margiana” exhibition, it was an excellent choice to have Herlinde Koelble on board for documenting them in the exhibition and the catalogue. While her pictures of the excavation site and its surroundings are solid craftwork, she shows real mastery when photographing the objects. Especially the figurines seem alive in here photos (Wemhoff/Nawroth/Weiss/Wieczorek 2018b: 140). She is first and foremost a portrait photographer as can be seen in her seminal work “Spuren der Macht” (Koelble 2010). Her close-ups of some objects reveal the artistry of the Bronze Age craftsmen in a way which would otherwise remain invisible for the visitors in the showrooms.

The “Margiana” exhibition is not only groundbreaking in combining archaeological findings and modern photography, but also in bringing isolated Turkmenistan closer to Germany and Europe. A task which the upcoming SEnECA Photo Exhibition on Central Asia at Bozar in Brussels on 4-5 April 2019 will continue.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Julian Plottka and Yvonne Braun, IEP