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EU's Central Asia partnership, one year on

The one-year anniversary of the EU's Partnership Strategy with Central Asia gets off to a slow start but is not without potential.

One year ago this month, the European Union inaugurated a new policy initiative, the "Strategy for a New Partnership with Central Asia," designed to give the EU a profile in the region, where Russia, China, and the US have already been present for some time.

In 1989, after years of discussions, the EU signed a Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the Soviet Union. Thus, after the Soviet Union fell apart, the EU "inherited" bilateral relations with each of the successor states. From the early 1990s, its Technical Assistance to the CIS (TACIS) program included Central Asia, and spent over €1.3 billion (US$2 billion) in the region from 1991 to 2006, although the EU's own reviews concluded that this program had difficulties in conception and implementation.

In the course of the decade, the EU negotiated Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) with most of the Soviet successor states. PCAs are like TCAs, but they expand purely economic cooperation to other fields of policymaking such as culture and the environment. The PCAs with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan all entered into force in July 1999; the Tajikistan agreement was signed in 2004 but is not yet in force because the EU's member-states have not yet all ratified it; the Turkmenistan agreement was signed in 1998 but hasn't been implemented because it was never ratified by Turkmenistan.

As a whole, however, the EU only began to pay Central Asia more sustained attention in more recent years.

The region first appeared on the organization's "radar screen" following 9/11. And although EU member states reacted individually to these attacks, the EU itself did not. After the May 2005 civil unrest in Andijon, Uzbekistan, and the violent government response, the EU felt the need to be more engaged. On 8 July of that year, it decided on measures against Tashkent. Finally, Russia's early-2006 embargo on its natural gas exports to Ukraine riveted pan-European and EU attention on the region, since much of that gas came originally from Turkmenistan. A deliberation process was launched within the EU, culminating in the elaboration of the Strategy.

The Strategy for a New Partnership document forms the basis for the EU's Regional Assistance Strategy to Central Asia, which plans expenditures of €750 million from 2007 to 2013, mostly in such "soft security" issue areas as poverty reduction, education and sustainable development; programs to promote good governance and democratization; and legal reforms in such fields as trade policy and investment regimes. About one-third of the assistance is dedicated to promoting multilateral cooperation in Central Asia and Central Asian regional cooperation with the South Caucasus and the EU.

The Strategy is a framework programmatic document translated into action by country-specific Priority Papers. One aspect of these Priority Papers is that, possibly for the first time in EU relations with third parties, they consciously coordinate EU-wide priorities with the bilateral programs between each of the EU's 27 members and the target countries individually.

This is not a simple inventory but also reflects attempts to promote dedicated set-asides in national programs, even if this is simply the provision of a handful of scholarships to students from the region.

The results of the EU's Strategy so far have been modest.

The EU has tried to improve relations with Uzbekistan but it is hard to point to specific accomplishments.

It played a role behind the scenes in seeking a degree of democratization in Kazakhstan in implicit exchange for the country's assumption of the OSCE presidency in 2010.

Poverty reduction policies support about 100,000 people in southern Kyrgyzstan.

In Tajikistan, the EU recognizes the problem of border control and drug trafficking and will seek to address these issues.

Finally, as for Turkmenistan, the EU has only really started from scratch following the death of the Turkmen leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, who had kept the country in self-isolation. But the EU is especially interested in promoting the construction of a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, circumventing Russia.

The Strategy should not be criticized for accomplishing so little so soon. It is, after all, a strategic document with a time horizon of a decade or more, not just one budget cycle.

At the same time, the EU will have to find a way to avoid the danger of the Strategy becoming a device for simply pigeonholing an eclectic collection of programs lacking comprehensive direction.

Also, having eschewed a real presence in Central Asia until now, the EU will have to find a way to balance, geo-politically and geo-economically, such powers as Russia, China and the US for whom the region is also of major interest.

First published in ISN Security Watch, 18 July 2008.

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