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Europe and Central Asia — a mutually beneficial partnership

Kommentarbild Oliver Rolofs
Oliver Rolofs
September 4, 2022

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is attempting to revive his country's imperialist ambitions through military means. Europe has an opportunity to counter that threat, writes security expert Oliver Rolofs.

The EU flag alongside the flags of countries in Central Asia
The EU must increase it abilities to import oil and gas from Central Asia, believes RolofsImage: Liesa Johannssen/photothek/picture alliance

To respond to Russia's expansionism, Europe must respond with a new, proactive geopolitical strategy — one which goes beyond its usual sphere of political influence. The much-touted speech by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week in Prague, and his vision for an expanded, informal "European Political Community," reflected this imperative. 

Whether through this mechanism, or another, the need for greater engagement and alignment with a broader range of countries has been made abundantly clear in recent months. Germany and the rest of the European Union must look to build diverse and robust alliances across the world, not just in their immediate sphere of influence.

Don't ignore Central Asia

The most interesting region, in this respect, is Central Asia.

Central Asian states have remained relatively united in their refusal to condone the invasion of Ukraine. While they have all taken pains to avoid criticizing Russia, no leader has come out to publicly back President Vladimir Putin's war. Indeed, none of the five countries voted against the resolution condemning the invasion at the UN General Assembly.

Security expert Oliver Rolofs
Security expert Oliver Rolofs was previously the head of communications at the Munich Security ConferenceImage: Privat

Some of them have gone further — sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine, allowing anti-war and anti-Russia protests and making on-record corrections in response to Kremlin disinformation. In a stunning move, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev flatly refused to recognize the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people's "republics" in the presence of Putin, five months after calling Russian troops into Kazakhstan as part of a Collective Security Treaty Organization force.

There has been an undeniable shift in the region, which has presented the West, and Europe in particular, with a rare opportunity. 

In the months and years to come, the EU can take enormous strides towards several foreign policy goals. Primarily, strengthening engagement with Central Asia nations would rapidly enhance the independence and security of the region against external aggressors.

It's the energy, stupid

Crucially, however, the region should not be treated as a mere pawn in the high geopolitical ambitions of any European or Western alliance. Any strategy for increasing European influence in the region must be led by mutual benefit, primarily through economic engagement.

Europe must make the case for itself, from a pragmatic perspective, as the most attractive partner for the region.

The most obvious area of mutual interest is energy. In the short-term, we must increase our abilities to import oil and gas from the region, which could become an invaluable potential supplier of non-Russian energy. At present, however, these opportunities are constrained by an overreliance on Russian infrastructure.

Finally, pragmatism aside, the "softer" effects of increased European influence could benefit those seeking genuine change in the region — helping further European goals on democracy, good governance and climate, while spurring rapid social development. 

Some in the region are already much further ahead than others. Just this week in Kazakhstan, the president announced an expanded program of reforms, a road map for the implementation of his vision for a "New Kazakhstan" which he rolled out after protests in January.

Since resolving the internal turmoil facing his country, Tokayev has reshaped the country's political system through a new, progressive constitution, one which has taken concrete steps toward reducing presidential power, devolving governmental authority, transforming the criminal justice system and strengthening the rule of law. 

In Kyrgyzstan, the government is also punctuating its era of rapprochement with the West by sending encouraging symbols and making gradual progress toward reform, though its own newly minted constitutional reforms have taken the opposite approach to Kazakhstan: strengthening presidential power, rather than promoting decentralization.

A map of oil pipelines in central Asia

A partnership with mutual benefits

Overall, of course, this is not a region that is leading the way in terms of democratic freedoms or human rights. Yet tangible progress is underway, despite the authoritarian tendencies and influences of some powers in the region. 

If Europe can genuinely establish itself as a key influence in the region, then all signs point to a continuation of that trend. If dependence on Russia or China continues, these fledgling reforms could falter.

The real question will be whether European policymakers will have the foresight, and crucially, the political will, to promote substantive engagement with the region, rather than continuing its current approach of flimsy, empty initiatives. With the necessary ambition and resources, the opportunities, and the benefits, could be golden.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Oliver Rolofs is a security expert and was previously the head of communications at the Munich Security Conference, where he established the energy security program.

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