A few years back, European relations with Central Asian states were fairly quiet. And, at least as far as appearances went, the US, due to its close relationship with Uzbekistan, seemed to be less principled or more pragmatic (depending on your point of view) compared to Europe. RFE/RL today carries a story that shows just how pragmatic Europe (or at least the German-speaking parts of it) is getting about Central Asia. In fact, the focus of the story, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, is sounding quite a bit like defenders of US policy toward Uzbekistan from a few years ago.
“I think it’s not a matter of securing the energy resources only — it’s really a matter of engaging with these [Central Asian] countries,” Ferrero-Waldner told Reuters. “If we don’t engage with these countries, these countries will turn eastwards and turn to Russia and China. And I think it’s highly important that [Central Asians] also look very strongly towards Europe.”
That sounds quite a bit like arguments that I made about US policy toward Uzbekistan a couple years back, and I think it is fairly safe to assume that though Ferrero-Waldner has engagement with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan mostly in mind, arguments that EU engagement will produce marginal improvements over the status quo must most vigorously be applied toward convincing European states and publics to agree to reaching out to Turkmenistan and especially Uzbekistan.
Ever since Andijon, Western policy in the region has been a disjointed mess. The US has shifted its focus toward Kazakhstan, sought to maintain access to Manas airfield in Kyrgyzstan, and that is about it. Europe, with the exception of Germany, has also more or less been in a holding pattern since mid-2005. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has been taking daily steps to overtake Turkmenistan as the universally-recognized most repressive state in the region. Is it time for someone in the West to pursue a comprehensive regional policy and reengage with Uzbekistan?
The RAND Corporation’s findings on US security assistance to Uzbekistan indicate that repackaged engagement and assistance to Uzbekistan can bear some fruit. Isolation has not accomplished anything, and any policy aimed at the entire region cannot exclude the country where nearly half the region’s population lives. If John Negroponte’s characterization of Central Asian governments as unreliable is any indication, the US is not terribly interested in either renewing ties with Uzbekistan or breathing new life into its regional policy, leaving Europe to take up the slack for the West.
Germany is at the fore in encouraging European engagement with Central Asian governments, and it is facing an uphill battle.
Germany argues engagement is the way to promote rights, but activists were concerned when it argued successfully against toughening sanctions on Uzbekistan last year and lobbied — inconclusively — for Kazakhstan to take the helm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.
Analysts say Germany will not find it easy to persuade all its 26 EU partners to follow an “interest-driven” policy.
Reuters packages activists’ concerns as being about German interest-driven rather than idealism-driven foreign policy. The Western experience with Uzbekistan over the past five years provides a good deal of empirical evidence about the merits and demerits of interest-driven versus idealism-driven foreign policy. Interest-driven policy accomplished little. But idealism, even though it has not been executed as I imagine most idealists would prefer, has not accomplished anything. Germany apparently feels that a little is better than nothing, especially when Europe’s interests in Central Asia are so strong.
Germany could, I suppose, go it alone if it wished. But one of the biggest problems with Western policy in Central Asia (and between agencies in US policy) has been not just that the region has rarely been treated as one region so much as a collection of neighboring states but also that Western states have not been on the same page. Though having the West as a whole on the same page would be preferable, a comprehensive EU policy would be a great achievement, and working together stands a far better chance of achieving (probably still marginal) results. Russian gas games prove to Europe that it needs Central Asia. And Central Asian governments know they do better with multiple partnerships. Developments in much of Central Asia over the last year-and-a-half have made the future look dim, and at least part of that is due to the West’s absence. Perhaps it is time for a second round of close relations.