European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton has made a high profile visit to several Central Asian capitals in a bid to strengthen ties between emerging nations in the region and the West. Ashton convened a meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with foreign affairs ministers from all five Central Asian states: host Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. After the meeting, Ashton announced an agreement on increased economic and security cooperation.
“In this region, we face increasing and new challenges. To make sure we can jointly tackle each challenge, we agreed to strengthen our cooperation in the security area and to have a regular high-level security dialogue. [We also] agreed that we should step up our cooperation to strengthen our economic relations and work to develop full potential of our trade and investment relations,” Ashton said after the meeting.
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev, who acknowledged that his nation had been the beneficiary of “substantial aid” from Europe since declaring its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, echoed Ashton’s remarks. “I would like to stress that since the independence of Kyrgyzstan, the European Union has always been and remains one of the main targets of our foreign policy. We enjoy very close, good, and fruitful relations on the political, economic, and cultural levels. Our common agenda is very broad and covers multiple questions, including the issues of democratization and the rule of law,” Abdyldaev said.
Specific areas discussed by the ministers were not revealed; but in an interview given to Radio Free Europe shortly before embarking on the trip, Ashton cited border issues, education, support for civil society, and human rights as topics on her agenda. She acknowledged criticism of the EU’s Central Asia agenda, but said her visit was intended to do more than just check off items on a so-called “shopping list.”
“It looks like a shopping list, but actually, what we try to do is to pick up the different threads of issues,” Ashton said. “What we need to do is make sure that we have a kind of success criteria. How do we know that we have been successful? And again, part of the reason for me to meet the ministers is to be able to try and work through with them what ways and in which areas [we can] be most successful in our collaboration.”
Ashton’s visit has predictably caught Russian attention, or perhaps provoked it. In an analysis of the trip titled “Will Europe Succeed in Central Asia” posted on the Voice of Russia radio website, Moscow dismisses the trip as being all for show and not substance. “This is not about tough competition with Russia — the EU simply does not have money for this. They [are] just [trying] to remain active not to get ousted from the Central Asian region,” says Vladimir Bruter of the Moscow based Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies.
Russia casts the Central Asian states as increasingly turning to China for investment and development funding, finding this not at odds with Moscow’s own desire to maintain its sway over the region. But the Kremlin is concerned enough about increasing ties to the West to feel the need to pooh-pooh Ashton’s visit. One gets the impression that Putin doth protest too much.
In reality, with the notable recent exception of Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian nations have not done enough to attract serious attention; indeed their actions have actively discouraged it. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are ruled by strongmen of varying degrees who exercise iron-fisted control over their people, provide precious little opportunity for the free exercise of popular will, curtail access to diverse sources of information and opinion, ban Facebook, and rename the months of the year, not to mention turn their weapons on their citizens.
Despite this catalog, however, the region has natural resource wealth, a moderate and industrious population, and a strategic location. All are key ingredients for development. Europe and the West are keen to provide a helping hand, if not a blank check, in return for progress on the domestic front. There are signs of hope in Kyrgyzstan, which has moved to a parliamentary system of government – shunning the regional standard of an all-powerful executive and rubber-stamp legislature – and recently rejected an overt attempt by Russia to influence local elections. More needs to be done to ensure stability, but Ashton’s visit shows the Europeans are willing to kick the tires on increased involvement in the region if Central Asia’s leaders are willing to open the doors to more opportunity for their people.