The European Union’s engagement in Central Asia has experienced a major readjustment since the adoption of the first Central Asia strategy in 2007. Especially during the past two years, the EU has moved away from its typical soft power mission based on promoting and establishing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and has shifted its focus toward security questions. This shift could be motivated by two rationales. First, the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan later this year is approaching at great speed. Second, the EU may have realized that if it wants to have an impact in Central Asia, it will have to take an active part in security discourses that have so far been dominated by the region’s big players: China, Russia, and, formerly, the United States.

EU Engagement in Central Asia

The EU established initial contact with the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as soon as they became independent in 1991. Yet it intensified its engagement in the region only in 2005 with the appointment of the first EU special representative for Central Asia. In summer 2007, the EU reinforced its move toward the region when the European Council adopted “The European Union and Central Asia: The New Partnership in Action”. This strategy aims to strengthen relations and cooperation between the EU and the Central Asian states in areas such as education, trade, the rule of law, the environment, and transportation, as well as reinforce dialogue on human rights. Even though the document contains a section on security issues and threats such as drug trafficking and border management, the focus is clearly on soft policy issues. The strategy also foresees regular ministerial meetings between the EU and the Central Asian states.

The second strategic document that structures the EU’s cooperation with Central Asia is the “Regional Strategy Paper for Assistance to Central Asia for the period 2007–2013”. This document also puts a clear focus on soft policy issues and identifies the rule of law, education, and the environment as the three main areas for intensified policy dialogue and enhanced cooperation.

Implementation of the two strategies is supported by EU “carrots” to stimulate compliance: financial assistance through the EU’s Development Cooperation Instrument and favorable access to the EU’s internal market through a scheme that allows developing country exporters to pay lower or no duties on their exports to the EU. For the period 2007–2013, a budget of €675 million ($931 million) was allocated for cooperation with Central Asia. After the Lisbon Treaty came into effect in 2009, the EU increased its diplomatic presence in the region and opened EU delegations in four out of the five Central Asian states. A fifth delegation, in Turkmenistan, is planned.

Why Is the EU Engaging in Central Asia?

One might ask why the EU decided to step up relations with Central Asia, given that the region certainly does not belong to the European neighborhood. What is more, besides being geographically remote from Europe, Central Asia also lies within the clearly demarcated spheres of interest of China and Russia. Yet the EU has three major reasons to engage with this region.

First, Central Asia is rich in natural recourses, especially gas, and the EU would like to decrease its dependence on Russian gas supplies and diversify its access to raw materials in general. This is becoming even more relevant in light of the ongoing Ukraine crisis. The serious dependence of some member states on Russian energy supplies is probably reflected in the cautiousness of the EU’s actions toward Russia. Besides natural resources, the EU is also interested in Central Asia more generally as a market for its own exports.

Second, Central Asia is of geostrategic importance as a bridge from Europe to China and the Middle East but also as a buffer zone against Afghanistan and Iran. The EU shares with China, Russia, and the United States an interest in the general stability and security of Central Asia. Many European countries are engaged in Afghanistan through NATO operations, and Central Asia is moving back into the spotlight especially in view of the withdrawal of NATO troops later this year. The EU has a crucial interest in preventing any spillover effects from Afghanistan, such as refugee flows or the spread of radical Islamism and Afghan extremism, which could destabilize the whole region. This concern for the region’s stability also motivates the EU to engage in reducing poverty and fostering economic development as well as promoting regional cooperation and peace.

Third, since the Lisbon Treaty strengthened and consolidated the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, the union is trying to sharpen its foreign policy profile and “actorness.” Engaging beyond its Eastern borders gives the EU an opportunity to expand its sphere of influence and increase its global visibility.

An Insignificant European Presence?

Even though the EU has institutionalized its relations with Central Asia on paper, its impact does not seem to reach beyond diplomatic presence and high-level visits. Especially in its key areas of engagement human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, the EU has been unable to improve Central Asia’s record as analyzed by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.

The reasons for Europe’s low impact on local structures, reforms, and processes are manifold. The EU lacks a grand strategy for Central Asia that credibly explains what the EU aims to achieve and how it is going to realize its goals. In addition, EU integration does not represent an equivalent alternative to Central Asia’s vertical dependence on Russia, on whose goodwill, financial support, and security guarantees the Central Asian states rely heavily. The EU’s offers of integration are too weak, especially when it comes to security guarantees. Most Central Asian governments are not interested in engaging in the EU’s human rights and democracy dialogue and accept those phrases on paper only in order to profit from the EU’s financial support.

While the EU distributes “carrots” to promote reforms, it does not apply effective “sticks” in terms of pressure and sanction mechanisms to chastise its partner countries in case of noncompliance. At most, the EU can suspend partnership and cooperation agreements or withhold financial assistance, but it cannot force the Central Asian states to raise their human rights standards. What most of the region’s leading elites are interested in are economic growth, stability, and the preservation of their power. Engaging in human rights and democracy discourses or even implementing reforms toward those aims would open up space for criticism of their rather authoritarian style of governing, which could endanger their long-term survival.

At the same time, by engaging in discourse and taking actions to increase security, political elites can preserve stability and implement extraordinary measures to control their people. Central Asian states have a vital interest in expanding relations with the EU to diversify their foreign relations and decrease their dependence on Russia. However, the EU’s human rights and democracy path is not attractive enough to replace existing ties with China or Russia, partners that do not question the Central Asian states’ domestic order.

An area where the EU has some leverage at the moment is trade and economic relations. The EU has become the region’s main trading partner, accounting for about one-third of Central Asia’s external trade. Nonetheless, Central Asian exports to the EU are limited to a few commodities like cotton, metals, and crude oil. The same holds true for EU exports to the region, which are concentrated on machinery and transportation equipment.

A Shift in Strategy

In summer 2012, on the fifth anniversary of the EU’s Central Asia strategy, the EU foreign ministers met to review and discuss the strategy’s achievements and shortcomings. In their final statement, the ministers “welcome[d] the progress” in implementing the Central Asia strategy and approved the continuation of the strategy in its current form. But even though EU governments deemed the strategy and the priority areas for cooperation still relevant and up to date, their final conclusions mark a turning point in the EU’s relations with Central Asia, as the document moves security to the core of the EU’s approach. The ministers noted that Central Asia was facing “increasing . . . challenges, notably as regards developments in Afghanistan.” Although they promised to “make the bilateral human rights dialogues more results-orientated,” their statement was centered on security issues. It called on the EU to adjust the focus of its actions according to the new challenges identified and to strengthen cooperation in the area of security.

In the same year, the EU unveiled a “Progress Report on the implementation of the EU Strategy for Central Asia”. Among other steps, the report confirms the establishment of a regular EU–Central Asia High-Level Security Dialogue and strengthened cooperation on counterterrorism, as well as consolidated EU support near Central Asian states’ borders with Afghanistan. Most interestingly, these security-related goals and measures are mentioned before the traditional EU goals of promoting human rights, democratic reforms, and civil society development. They also appear before the goal of advancing plans for the Trans-Caspian pipeline system.

Key threats and challenges identified by the report include rising levels of terrorist threats, drug and human trafficking, illegal migration, organized crime, complex interstate and interethnic relations, and disputes over water, as well as instability in Afghanistan that could spill over into Central Asia. This shows that the EU now plans not only to engage on soft security issues such as poverty reduction and migration but also to tackle hard security issues like organized crime and terrorism.

Some of the goals mentioned in the progress report and the foreign ministers’ conclusions have since been achieved. The first High-Level Security Dialogue took place in June 2013 in Brussels; the next is planned for May 2014 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Moreover, a Joint Plan of Action for Central Asia under the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy has been developed and is currently being implemented. EU programs to increase border security and combat drug trafficking have also been advanced.

At the beginning of the EU’s engagement in Central Asia, the focus of cooperation was clearly on promoting democracy and good governance as well as respect for human rights and the rule of law. Now, however, the EU seems to have broached the security discourse that was previously dominated by Russia. This shift in strategy makes sense in the light of NATO’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the fear of possible spillover effects from this failed state to Central Asia. Indeed, the foreign ministers’ conclusions acknowledged such spillover effects as a reason for the change in approach, while the first High-Level Security Dialogue placed Afghanistan at the top of the agenda.

Despite this new emphasis on security, it can be argued that the EU does not have the means to engage meaningfully in this field, which is in any case already covered by classic security actors such as China, Russia, the United States, and even NATO. So has the EU switched discourses and abandoned its classic soft power aims? It seems as though European policymakers realized that the union could not make a difference to human rights or democracy reform in Central Asia, so decided to pursue another field of discourse that is a higher priority to local elites in the region, since it is directly connected to their survival: security.

Human Rights vs. Security

So far, the EU has not become a relevant security actor in Central Asia—at least, not in terms of traditional security issues. The EU is engaged mainly in areas related to human security, such as poverty reduction or migration. It remains to be seen whether the EU’s overdue new Central Asia strategy will shift the union’s focus further toward traditional security issues and away from democracy and human rights.

On the one hand, intensified engagement in the regional security discourse, which has the potential to become a global discourse in case of spillover effects from Afghanistan, will allow the EU to gain more leverage and influence in the region. On the other hand, the EU risks undermining its soft power strengths and losing its credibility as a normative power that does not normally engage in global power races fueled by nation-states such as China, Russia, or the United States.

A stronger focus on security questions risks diverting attention away from human rights violations and could further strengthen authoritarian rule in Central Asia, as it allows local leaders to act even more decisively under the guise of security and stability. Last but not least, a further shift of attention to the consequences for Central Asia of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan might hide the fact that local regimes themselves are sometimes the source of insecurity and conflict.

Ann-Sophie Gast is an intern at the Carnegie Moscow Center.