- Article by Federico Castiglioni, PhD
The resurgence of border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, together with the last meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, have recently shed a light on a region of the world traditionally neglected by western mainstream media and yet pivotal for the national interest of many European Countries. Even in the last months, while all the eyes in Europe were turned on Ukraine, another front of the “geopolitical” game entangling China, Russia, the US and Europe (to a smaller extent) was expanding in central Asia. There, in the area spanning from the Caspian Sea to the Chinese borders, five former Soviet Republics (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) border one of the most complicated regions of the world, where the influence of Iran and the turmoil of the Taliban’s Afghanistan meet the vital interests of Russia. All these countries have historical ties with Moscow and are members of the Euro-Asiatic Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Some of them are also bound to Russia by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military organization raised from the ashes of the Soviet Union to reconnect the region with the Kremlin but consistently losing membership and momentum ever since. Besides Russia, China is the other major power actively engaged in this area mainly – but not exclusively - through its flagship “Belts and Roads Initiative” (BRI) which for years has been pouring hundreds of billions of renminbi into the five economies. The Chinese money are financing infrastructures and facilities (not always explicitly connected with the BRI itself), thereby following a known pattern of economic expansionism that is fuelling competition with Moscow. All these factors make the region an incredible observatory not only to follow the shift (and bargain) of power taking place between Russia, China and India, but also to study the EU strategic posture vis-à-vis these three countries. As proven by the choice of Samarkand as a venue to host the last summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the strongest nations of the area – such as Uzbekistan – are really arena of the (un)friendly competition(s) spanning across Eurasia, and as such significant for the West in general and Europe in particular. Purposely, in this same region, the EU and its member states have been establishing a foothold since the collapse of the Soviet Union, combining human rights activism and dealings with oil and gas, which is the local main capital. The latest modular strategy for the region was set forth by the European Council in 2019, to upgrade and expand the previous strategic document which dated back to 2007. Under this framework, the relationship between the EU and the five republics rests on a double-fold pillar. The first is oriented toward a deeper interregional connectivity, comprehensive of (but not limited to) energy transportation. This partnership opens the gates for possible ambitious projects in the future (i.e. in space) and the inclusion of this area in the unfolding EU 2050 connectivity plan called Trans-European Networks-Transport (TEN-T). The second pillar of cooperation outlined in the European strategy is rather aimed at establishing a dialogue on human rights, a long matter of concern across all these countries according to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the UN. In this field, the EU regional approach is consistent with the civil society bottom-up guidelines of the Commission and the programme “Global Europe” that acts as the EU’s main device for the promotion of human rights abroad.
Historically, the critical importance of the region for the EU largely lies in natural resources and route transportation, but most of it changed dramatically after February 2022, vis-à-vis the war-ravaged against Ukraine by Russia. Under the new light that the conflict is casting on global international relations, the five countries are likely to climb up the priority ladder of the External Action Service and that of many European chancelleries. Recently, there have been many hints both in facts and words suggesting an upgrade in that direction. As for the facts, European diplomacy is changing the size and pace of its regional investment - doubling the efforts promised and delivered before the conflict – and taking unprecedented financial decisions. For instance, a piece of news that attracted some media attention in July was the unexpected involvement of the European Investment Bank (EIB) in the construction of the massive hydropower plant of Rogun, an infrastructure deeply craved by the government of Tajikistan with the stated objective of rendering the country energetically independent. This investment – allegedly in the size of billions – was not planned by the EU main investment bank and apparently came overnight by the request of the Commission itself. The timing and the billionaire scale of the financing are probably unpaired against the regional standards; to make a trope, the overall exposure of the Bank in all the five countries between 2014 and 2020 was only 186 million. Tellingly, Tajikistan is one of the countries that suffered the most after the Western sanctions due to the deep links interlacing its bank system with the Russian one. The choice to traditionally maintain its financial operations in Moscow is now backfiring to Dushanbe, clenched between China, which holds more than half of its national debt, and the volatility of the diplomatic situation unfolding as the war progresses. In this setup, the dam would at least limit the dependence of Tajikistan on Russian gas, thus providing more political leeway for the government of Sadır Nurgojoeviç Japarov. Besides the direct investments, a second example of European economic pressure on the region is on the financial territory. In this case, the leading actor is the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), an organization owned by an array of European institutional investors and with a long history of development aid in the Central Asiatic/Caspian region. The EBRD is financing dozens of projects worth billions in all five countries, and its support is pivotal for different financial institutions involved in these programmes. The central role of the EBRD highlights the importance of the decisions taken by this organization after the Russian aggression on Ukraine, whose purpose is to uphold the EU quarantine toward Moscow. Among them, there is the commitment to freeze all the Russian financial assets in its inventory and isolate the Russian banks operating in joint programmes. As far as the region is concerned, an important signal from the bank came in June, when the government of Kazakhstan proposed the nationalization of the Russian bank Sberbank to avoid Western sanctions. On that occasion, the EBRD offered help to the Kazakh government to partially cover the costs of that transaction. This step could lead to similar decisions in neighbouring countries and streamline the financial uncoupling of Central Asia from the Muscovite system.
These economic facts have been followed by words and political gestures. The last April, just a few weeks after the outbreak of the hostilities, a Kazakh delegation headed toward Brussels to discuss sanctions and deliver a message of an economic overture and political accountability on human rights. The move was far from obvious considering the upsetting unrest that the country experienced in January and the support that the government of Vladimir Putin provided to restrain the protest. Furthermore, a pledge to advance economic cooperation between the EU and Nur-Sultan and to foster a stronger political dialogue was debated in June, during a meeting of the Cooperation Council focused on the constitutional reform that the country has been embarking on. Similar negotiations are taking place with all the countries in the area. In May, the EU Special Representative for the region started conversations based on gas and human rights with Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, who however is a strong partner of Russia and has recently signed a comprehensive cooperation agreement with Moscow. In July, the EEAS signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan (EPCA), addressing both economic and political issues. The “geopolitical” confrontation between Brussels and Moscow, which is unfolding in a core area of Russian influence, will be challenging for the EU need to remain consistent with its moral values in the area and therefore balance international relations, business, and human rights. Notwithstanding, this endeavour is necessary to have a part in the great political game triggered by Vladimir Putin in February and that any ambitious “Global Europe” should be ready to play.
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Federico Castiglioni is researcher in the programme “EU, politics and institutions” at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI). He is also part of the Editorial Committee of the International Spectator.