Central Asia

The EU’s Central Asia strategy, which was last reviewed in 2015, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. It aims to achieve stability and prosperity, while promoting open societies, the rule of law, democratisation, and cooperation on energy security and diversification. Parliament has highlighted the importance of human rights, good governance and social development. Levels of development and democratisation in these countries vary greatly and the EU tailors its approach accordingly.

Legal basis

  • Title V of the Treaty on European Union (TEU): ‘external action’;
  • Articles 206-207 (trade) and Articles 216-219 (international agreements) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU);
  • Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) covering bilateral relations, with the exception of Turkmenistan, for which an interim trade agreement is in place. The PCA with Mongolia and a new Enhanced PCA with Kazakhstan are in the process of being ratified by the EU Member State parliaments and of receiving Parliament’s consent.

Situation in the region

Central Asia is not a homogeneous region in terms of politics or economics. Moreover, while Mongolia is classified by Parliament as part of the region, the country is in a number of ways an ‘outlier’ in terms of history, geography and politics.

Kazakhstan and Mongolia have recorded the highest economic growth rates in the past — among the highest in the world — and are seeking closer relations with the EU.

Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan stand out politically from the rest, as their democracies are the most developed. However, some of the changes to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution in December 2016 and growing repression in the lead-up to the October 2017 presidential election give cause for concern. All other Central Asian republics — in particular Turkmenistan — suffer from serious human rights shortcomings and lack many fundamental freedoms. They also face the risk of expanding Islamic extremist movements, and their relations with one another are generally poor owing to border and resources disputes. However, since the death in September 2016 of Uzbekistan’s longstanding president, Islam Karimov, the new authorities have been giving encouraging signals on regional cooperation.

All the Central Asian countries follow multi-vector foreign policies, seeking to balance ties with Russia, China and the West. Turkmenistan’s permanent neutrality is even recognised by the UN. With the exception of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, they all have very limited trade ties with the EU.

Kazakhstan is a founder member of the Customs Union with Russia and Belarus. In May 2014, these three countries established the Eurasian Economic Union, which was joined by Armenia and came into effect on 1 January 2015. Kyrgyzstan joined in May 2015.

Agreements in force and under negotiation

The EU signed a new enhanced PCA with Kazakhstan in December 2015. It is awaiting ratification but has been in force provisionally since 1 May 2016. The 1998 PCA with Turkmenistan may soon receive Parliament’s consent, provided that a system to check the progress on human rights is established at the same time. Mongolia signed a PCA with the EU in May 2013, and its ratification by all EU Member States will be completed in 2017.

The EU’s 2007 Central Asia Strategy was reviewed in 2012, 2015 and in June 2017. The strategy provides basic guidelines on future interactions with the region and builds upon previous EU agreements, assistance programmes and initiatives. It aims to achieve stability and prosperity, while promoting open societies, the rule of law, democratisation, and more cooperative relations on energy security and diversification. Kazakhstan’s and Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbons may prove important for the EU in the future. A significant issue for a number of EU Member States was the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan, at the end of 2014 — although a few thousand US and NATO troops remain in the country. An EU-Central Asia high-level security sector dialogue was launched in 2013. There are EU Delegations in all these countries, except in Turkmenistan. The EU is about to open a delegation to Mongolia.

The Central Asian states receive funding from the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI): EUR 1 028 million for 2014-2020 (up from EUR 750 million for 2007-2013), which includes both bilateral assistance and regional programmes (EUR 360 million). The assistance is focused on education, regional security, sustainable management of natural resources and socio-economic development. Kazakhstan has recently ‘graduated’ from the bilateral parts of the DCI, while continuing to access the regional programmes. Turkmenistan is likely to ‘graduate’ in the future. The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) operates in all the states except for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where civil society organisations are too few in number, too poorly organised and too strictly controlled.

The role of the European Parliament

a.Positions adopted (resolutions)

Parliament supported the EU’s Central Asia Strategy, but called for it to be more focused in its resolution of 13 April 2016 .

  • On Kazakhstan, Parliament stressed the importance of agreeing on an enhanced PCA — and welcomed the country’s WTO accession in 2015 — and of addressing human rights abuses. Parliament has also said it will apply the ‘more for more’ principle for political and socio-economic reforms.
  • Parliament passed a resolution in 2010 in solidarity with Kyrgyzstan following violent unrest in the country’s southern region. In 2015, it expressed concern at the NGO registers drawn up by Kyrgyzstan and its LGTBI ‘propaganda’ draft laws.
  • On Tajikistan, Parliament consented to the conclusion of the PCA Agreement in 2009, but called for the country to demonstrate improvements on human rights, corruption, health and education.
  • Parliament has consistently expressed concerns about Turkmenistan’s poor human rights record.
  • Parliament approved the EU-Uzbekistan Textile Protocol in December 2016 but condemned the use of forced labour and called for human rights monitoring.
  • Parliament’s statements on Mongolia have largely related to economic issues, while addressing the country’s development and humanitarian needs linked to extreme weather conditions. In April 2016 Mongolia hosted the 9th Asia-Europe Parliamentary Partnership Meeting.

b.Inter-parliamentary cooperation

Parliamentary Cooperation Committees (PCCs) with the Central Asian countries meet every year. MEPs oversee the implementation of the PCAs and focus on human rights issues, political violence, economic and development cooperation, and electoral processes. While there is no PCC with the Mongolian and Turkmenistan parliaments — because there is no PCA in force — inter-parliamentary meetings do take place.

c.Election observation and democracy promotion

Owing to the differing levels of political development and the extremely variable levels of democratic progress in Central Asia, Parliament has not consistently observed elections in the region.

  • In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODHIR), including the European Parliament delegations, observed parliamentary elections in 2015, drawing negative conclusions about the former and encouraging ones about the latter.
  • Kazakhstan has sporadically invited Parliament to observe its elections. The OSCE ODHIR has consistently found significant shortcomings.
  • A European Parliament delegation observed Mongolia’s June/July 2017 presidential elections and noted that the country is developing a solid democracy.
  • Parliament has never been invited to observe an election in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

Fernando Garcés de los Fayos