The Tian-Shan Gambit: Europe’s Ambitions in Central Asia 

Daniil Sidorov
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Josep Borrell attends EU Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on 17 November, 2022. Source: Yasin Akgul / EU

Central Asia is a vast and resource-rich region situated between three major centers of influence. Formerly part of both the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, its nations have only recently gained independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They continue to be influenced by Moscow, although they have made some significant strides towards autonomy in their own right. The Russian military’s actions in Ukraine have continuously eroded the credibility of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance. This, coupled with a significant loss of soft power in the countries of the post- Soviet space, which traditionally formed part of its sphere of influence, could create an opening for other influential actors to emerge as real alternative partners. The European Union wishes to consider an even more proactive role in Central Asia, given the young nations’ of Central Asia newfound pragmatism in foreign policy and its potential to enhance EU interests. This article serves as a brief summary of EU interests in the region.

Political map of Central Asia. Source: Cacahuate, Wikipedia Commons.

Russia has not yet been able to achieve a swift victory in Ukraine, nor has it been able to facilitate an organic resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Furthermore, its approach to ethnic tensions in Central Asia has not been as effective as it could be, resulting in general ignorance of border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Moscow’s significant resources and manpower investment in what many Central Asians believe is a futile cause has led to some anti-colonial sentiments in Central Asian nations. These nations aim to maintain their unique national identities against perceived regional hegemony. It is worth noting that the Kazakh president Tokayev has publicly refrained from recognizing the sovereignty of the separatist republics in Ukraine and still does not recognize Crimea as Russian. Additionally, pro-Ukrainian demonstrations have been permitted in the country to some extent. While it would be unwise for any of these governments to be overly pro-Ukrainian, given their heavy security and economic dependence on Russia, the recent public divergences from a strict pro-Russian rhetoric are indicative of a step towards a more neutral foreign and domestic policy.

In matters of regional cooperation, energy and connectivity, it seems that the EU has increased its engagement with Central Asia. European interests in Central Asia are manyfold, and it would be a mistake to view them as a one-way street. The European Union is in a position to provide an alternative path to development for the region that Russia or even China does not offer. It would be advantageous to capitalize on this while gaining significant ground in the ongoing geopolitical competition against Russia and China. At the same time, it would be prudent to ensure a positive economic partnership conducive to European energy security. As a result of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the subsequent decline in Russian gas imports, German stakeholders and decision-makers have been faced with a number of challenges, including domestic uncertainties and elevated energy prices. Securing a reliable and cost-effective supply for German power plants has remained a top priority since then. While the more straightforward options, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States or trade agreements with suppliers in the Middle East, were initial steps, they often involve higher costs than the gas previously supplied by the Nord Stream pipeline.

It would be remiss not to mention the considerable potential of the gas and mineral-rich Central Asian nations to provide a stable supply of raw ressources to the EU in the future. While currently financially and logistically challenging, the idea of the great Middle Corridor, an alternative to the northern route through southern Russia and the southern maritime route through the Suez Canal, continues to spark the interest of European strategists and geoeconomists. The Middle Corridor, also known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), is similar to some of the projects of the Belt and Road Initiative in China in that it aims to create a comprehensive transportation network, including freight and passenger railways, to connect Central Asia through various ports in the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and to Europe through Turkey. Currently, the existing infrastructure and Caspian trade fleets are only capable of carrying but a small fraction of the potential capacity, which presents an opportunity for further development. In order for the capacity to be fully utilised, significant funds and political will power will be required to implement long-term strategies that will bypass trade routes that are perceived to be susceptible to foreign intervention .

The trade routes connecting the EU and the nations of Central Asia. Source: EBRD

While Central Asia is renowned for its vast and barren steppes and deserts, its ground hides a vast amount of precious minerals, including gold and uranium, which are mined in Kazakhstan. Additionally, there are significant untapped reserves of natural gas and oil in both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It is worth noting that these countries’ economies are still heavily dependent on the export of these raw resources and on sending labor to neighboring Russia. While there is a possibility of a resource curse, given the limited development since the fall of the Soviet Union, a failure to modernize infrastructure and significantly diversify its economies, it is possible that significant investment in these untapped resources could yield positive socio-economic results in Central Asia, if circumstances permit.

It is worth noting that European support is traditionally accompanied by political obligations. In this regard, the challenges to good governance in Central Asian countries have been a source of quite some concern for European policymakers, especially recently. All Central Asian countries except for The Republic of Kyrgyzstan are essentially super-presidential autocracies with tight control of civil society, media and economy, which is a result of the heavily securitized decision-making agenda. Despite this, there have been some encouraging signs of progress, including the promotion of mild reforms to enable institutional building, attempts to transition to a liberal market economy since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the enhancement of minority rights with EU support.

Additionally, European engagement in the region encompasses regional security concerns. Although the region is geographically distant from Europe, there is a growing awareness of the potential threat of transnational terrorism and a rise in religious extremism. This has been a priority on the agenda since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. It is a concern that its conflict with ISIS fighters in Khorasan could potentially become more intense and spread beyond the region. The Central Asian leaders are aware of the threat and grateful for already established European support, which they view as a method to enhance regional security and by extension the stability of their domestic regimes. In particular, the EU is interested in expanding cooperation with Central Asian nations to address common security concerns, such as religious radicalization, violent extremism, terrorism, hybrid and cyber threats, and nuclear safety. Furthermore, the EU Global Gateway Initiative, which acts as a European alternative strategy to the Belt and Road Initiative, focuses on infrastructure development across the world, including Central Asia. This initiative is positioned to enhance connectivity in the region, which is an important aspect of addressing the socioeconomic roots of radicalization. It facilitates greater mobility of people and goods and provides opportunities for growth and development. The EU acknowledges the significance of this aspect and is striving to reinforce it through these initiatives and other avenues.

In order for this to succeed, it would be beneficial for the EU to continue to engage with the region for the long term with a consistent level of economic investment and diplomatic involvement. This could help the Central Asian countries to develop economically while also enhancing their independence and civil identity, which they are now actively seeking. However, this must be done in a way that does not risk a negative response from Russia, which may perceive that Central Asian states are becoming less aligned with it and could seek to leave its sphere of influence, which is so integral to Russian foreign policy. In essence, European decision-makers must engage in a geopolitical game for Central Asia in a way that does not appear to be geopolitical. While it is quite unlikely that Central Asian nations will ever become close and staunch, values-oriented allies of the EU, this gambit may result in a pragmatic and valuable partnership while denying ground to Russian and Chinese ambitions in the region.

Questions:

Are normative obligations to foreign help conducive to success in geopolitical competition? 

Is the long term investment into the Middle Corridor an economically sound plan? 

Could Central Asian countries become long term European allies or will they be forced to pursue pragmatic neutrality given their geography? 

Recommended further reading:

Matveeva, A. (2023). A New Opening for EU-Central Asia Relations? In Carnegie Europe.

Walter, W. (2022). Challenges and opportunities of the Middle Corridor. NEWSLETTER UZBEKISTAN , NO 21.

Mammadov, S. (2024). The Middle Corridor set to halve cargo transit time between Asia and Europe. In Intellinews.

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The Tian-Shan Gambit: Eur…

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