Since the 2014 Ukraine crisis, both Russia and the European Union have reevaluated their goals and priorities in Central Asia. This strategic rethink has come as Central Asian nations have begun to move away from the inflexible foreign policy choice of either/or. 

Yet Moscow still declares that the actions of the EU and the United States are a potential threat to its interests in Central Asia and an attempt to wrest the region from Russia’s sphere of influence. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a recent statement, decried what he called the false geopolitical choice that Central Asian nations are being asked to make between Russia and the West. The visit by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Washington and the launch of the “C5+1 Platform” for cooperation between all five Central Asian states and the United States has also stoked fears in Moscow.

Why should a modestly financed cooperation program, created primarily for international dialogue, provoke such a negative reaction in Russia? And how does it fit with EU goals in the region? 

The EU’s strategy toward Central Asia—first agreed in 2007 and renewed in 2015—is far less ambitious than its policy for the six Eastern Neighborhood countries. It focuses primarily on security and stability, supporting the initiatives of individual Central Asian nations to combat poverty and develop regional cooperation in energy, transportation, higher education, and environmental protection. There was an implicit acknowledgment that an excessive focus on human rights and democratic reform would not yield significant results.  

This approach was criticized by the European Parliament and others. Its main goal—ensuring the stability of existing regimes—sent the wrong signal to Central Asian rulers, that the EU would turn a blind eye to corruption and human rights violations in order to cooperate on certain initiatives it deemed to be strategically important. As a result, the EU ended up with the worst of both worlds: cooperation in energy and agriculture was curtailed, and it failed to have a mitigating impact on the consolidation of local authoritarian regimes.

The EU’s Central Asia strategy did achieve success in certain areas. There is an acting EU delegation in every country (except Turkmenistan), as well as a host of programs on poverty, education, and environmental protection. Central Asian nations have largely welcomed the EU’s development-based approach. 

Russia, for its part, has pursued a three-pronged strategy toward Central Asia of military-technological cooperation (from modernization of armed forces to building military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), joint energy projects, and working to strengthen the institutions of the Eurasian Economic Union.

The goals of the EU and Russia are not in direct competition in Central Asia. Yet the Kremlin fundamentally distrusts EU attempts to build civil society and democratic institutions in the region. It perceives European initiatives in support of democracy and human rights as a front for plotting color revolutions and as means of undermining the regimes’ stability, opening the door for radical Islamists. Growing EU influence in Central Asia’s energy sphere has also generated concern in Moscow, as Turkmenistan is again exploring the idea of a Trans-Caspian pipeline that could ship gas across the South Caucasus to Turkey and Europe.  

The EU enjoys the relative advantage of soft power in the region. Although Russian media dominate the airwaves, the West exerts a greater attraction. About 1,000 Central Asian students head to study in European universities every year via the Erasmus Mundus program, and they are joined by many more in individual programs financed by EU member states. Even though Russian universities enroll more than ten times as many Central Asian students as European ones, the European countries continue to cultivate alumni networks much better than Russia does.

But Moscow seriously overestimates the threat that the European Union poses to its interests in this region. The majority of EU projects in the region are focused on humanitarian issues such as education, women’s rights, and water infrastructure. They do not threaten Russia’s geopolitical influence, but lower social and economic risks and the threat of political destabilization. 

Moreover, the EU’s impact has been quite small. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan still suffer from a severe brain drain. That means there is a shortage of qualified personnel to run international development projects, which are plagued by corruption and nepotism. Additionally, intraregional rivalries mean that the EU is limited to bilateral cooperation and unable to pursue multilateral projects, which would deliver bigger results. 

The nations of Central Asia are seeking a diversified foreign policy in which they have good relations with all the major powers. It is an achievable goal. For example, the development agendas of Brussels and Moscow overlap. In particular, Moscow is financing many United Nations Development Program projects. In 2015, it created a joint fund of $25 million with the UNDP to finance UN projects in Central Asia until 2019.

EU-Russia security cooperation is also possible. A strong security relationship with Moscow is inevitable for the foreseeable future, especially for smaller countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But, in contrast to other parts of the post-Soviet space, Russia and the EU share common goals in this region and want to bolster the capacity of local governments to combat Islamist militants.

Currently, Central Asia resembles the Middle East on the eve of the Arab Spring. The depletion of water resources and other ecological problems have caused a disorderly mass migration from impoverished rural regions to cities, which are completely unprepared to receive the migrants. In the Middle East, this led to a deep social and economic crisis across the region.

The EU and Russia share an interest in preventing this kind of destabilization. Each side has its own advantages and areas of influence in the region. The challenge is for them to overcome their rivalry and find ways of developing joint initiatives in education, infrastructure, and technological assistance in the name of a common strategic goal.  

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Rafael Sattarov