Europe & Central Asia: A partnership with mutual benefits

At present, however, these opportunities are constrained by an overreliance on Russian infrastructure.
Representative image
Representative image

By OLIVER ROLOFS

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. 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 criticising Russia, no leader has come out to publicly back President Vladimir Putin’s war.

None of them voted against the resolution condemning the invasion at the UN General Assembly.

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 recognise 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 Organisation 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.

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.

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.

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