The geopolitical and security crisis has forced the CARs and the EU to rethink their foreign policy regarding the region's sovereignty, safety, and stability
The consequent high-level consultations between Central Asia and the EU have sought to establish ambitious, forward-looking, and synergistic relations.The geopolitical and security crisis, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the ticking Afghan timebomb, has forced the CARs to rethink their foreign policy regarding the region's sovereignty, safety, and stability.
With CARs providing the transit route for supplies to Afghanistan for NATO forces, the EU helped the region address concerns such as terrorism and drugs emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.The protests in January and July 2022 in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and contested borders between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have marred interstate relations, forcing CARs to take regional integration more seriously. CARs have adopted a multi-vector foreign policy to promote “strategic autonomy” and minimise Russia and China’s influence by exploring partnerships with the EU to encourage regional aspirations and develop inter-institutional decision-making mechanisms, integration vehicles, and intra-trade. The EU has responded through its understated yet continuous commitment to cooperation in areas such as border and conflict resolution, with intensified dialogue, funding, high-level visits and institutional knowledge exchange. In 2019, the EU’s new strategy for CARs focused on comprehensive, sustainable, and rule-based connectivity, cooperation for peace and security in Afghanistan, and regional integration. The post-2022 geopolitical considerations further enhanced the EU’s regional engagement. The EU has emerged as CARs’ constructive connectivity, trade, and investment partner. In contrast, CARs have offered the former a reliable source of critical raw materials, links to East and South East Asia, and the supply-chain hubs with proposed links to the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), also called the Middle Corridor. The EU has allocated US$150 million from 2021 to 2024 for regional cooperation and integration and has prioritised co-funding the region’s digital connectivity (including satellite), hydel and hydrocarbon energy projects through international financial institutions, member states (Team Europe), and existing Global Gateway funds. On their part, CARs are improving cross-border cargo movement through automated payment systems and seeking to promote paperless information via e-logistic platforms under the CAREC digital strategy 2030, promising to boost EU-Central Asia bilateral trade and investment.
The EU’s new strategy for CARs focused on comprehensive, sustainable, and rule-based connectivity, cooperation for peace and security in Afghanistan, and regional integration.However, many top EU officials and neighbourhood countries like India and Türkiye have highlighted the need for greater EU funding for the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), which oversees the delivery of the Middle Corridor. The Ukraine crisis stressed the existing Middle Corridor transit and trade routes in the region. Bypassing Russia, this corridor cost-effectively transports 75,000-100,000 TEU (20-foot equivalent unit). According to a recent European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) impact assessment, an investment of 18 billion euros in the Middle Corridor targeted at regulatory harmonisation, ship-building facilities, improved and more efficient connection points, diminished red-tape and intra-regional and Central Asian customs harmonisation can enhance its full capacity is beyond 600,000 TEU. From the security standpoint, the EU and CARs are converging on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, mainly concerning the human rights of ethnic minorities and women, preventing radical terrorism, and advocating an inclusive government in Kabul. In 2022, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) and other groups carried out rocket attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from their bases in northern Afghanistan. In April 2023, Tajikistan forces killed two terrorists on the volatile Tajik-Afghan border and seized a huge cache of automatic weapons. Additionally, the presence of Central Asia-based terror groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), Jamaat Ansarullah and Uzbeks and Tajik terrorists in the ranks of ISKP and al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak region has increased CARs and EU’s anxiety.
The Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) and other groups carried out rocket attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from their bases in northern Afghanistan.Given its improved relations with CARs and regional interests, the presence of terrorists in the Af-Pak region also poses a security risk to the EU. Considering the serious and direct shared consequences of terrorism, conflict, forced migration, and terror spillover to the entire region, including the EU, the EU Parliament has circulated several internal memos calling for a more security-oriented stance through mechanisms like Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) or other monitoring and training missions.
China’s BRI debt trap has raised concerns that poorer countries, including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, may be forced to transfer greater strategic control of their assets to Beijing under BRI’s mandatory contractual conditions if they defaulted on loan repayment.While growing anti-China sentiments caused unrest, Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine forced CARs to rethink their security dependence on Moscow. The Kremlin is now seen to be threatening regional sovereignty, stability, territorial integrity and security. In Kazakhstan, most people blame Russia for the ongoing war. Similarly, the sentiment is identical in Kyrgyzstan, with the younger generations increasingly blaming Russia and considering Ukraine as the victim of Russia’s neo-colonial and expansive security plans.
The CARs renewed focus on strategic autonomy aligns with India’s stance to not take sides in the emerging 21st century super-power rivalry.The CARs are in constant flux for political reforms. Many of them, including Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have brought people-friendly constitutional reforms, validating their aspirations towards the improved rule of law and gradual democratisation. The EU can initiate convergence on these political and economic reforms but should tread carefully since it competes with value-free China and Russia. It should also consider CARs legitimate fears of regional instability. The EU’s Central Asian strategy must focus on the practical, business, and stability-inducing forms of democratisation, aligned to its new due diligence legislations, prioritising the rule of law, and environment and workers' rights while simultaneously guaranteeing substantial investments in new regional supply chains. Partners such as India are well-placed to support the EU and CARs’ new policies from a security, democracy, and business perspective, especially since all actors share a new-found appreciation for independent and strategically autonomous policymaking.
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Ayjaz Wani (Phd) is a Fellow in the Strategic Studies Programme at ORF. Based out of Mumbai, he tracks China’s relations with Central Asia, Pakistan and ...Read More +