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Conference “EU and Central Asia Cooperation: Reality Checks, Lessons Learned and Ways Ahead”

On Friday, 30 January 2015, the Conference „EU and Central Asia Cooper­ation: Reality Checks, Lessons Learned and Ways Ahead” took place at the Martin’s Brussels EU hotel. The conference was organised by the Latvian EU Presi­dency, the Institut für Europäische Politik (Berlin) and the EU Institute for Security Studies (Paris).

The three sessions of the conference, which was attended by more than 120 people, assessed the compli­cated geopo­litical environment currently affecting Central Asia. In addition, they analysed challenges and devel­op­ments persisting at regional level as well as strengths and weaknesses of the Central Asia Strategy of the EU. The conference was synched with the review process of the strategy conducted by the External Action Service and priori­tised by the Latvian EU Presi­dency. It is part of a sequence of events organised in Berlin, Brussels and a number of other European capitals.

The first session dealt with the greater geopo­litical game, i.e. the broader geopo­litical environment and the interests of various actors in the region, notably China, Russia and the US but also inter­na­tional organ­i­sa­tions such as the Shanghai Cooper­ation Organ­i­sation (SCO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). During the session, a disputed question was, whether the relations of the actors could still be termed a “great game” in the region. Overall, the role of the inter­na­tional organ­i­sa­tions was estimated as relevant but limited due to their need to decide unani­mously (SCO) and the dominance of one member (Russia in the case of the EEU). The session came to the conclusion that the EU can play a crucial role in balancing the powers in Central Asia not only because the EU is the most important trading partner for all Central Asian countries.

The second session dealt with the regional challenges based on the assumption that the Central Asian republics were weakly integrated amongst themselves. However, it was argued that there exists more cooper­ation amongst the Central Asian republics than usually assumed. Examples mentioned were the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) and the United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Ashgabat, which was estab­lished upon the initiative of the govern­ments of all five states. However, it was also under­lined that even though the region is currently not at the centre of attention in foreign policy due to more pressing conflicts surrounding Ukraine and Syria, it should not be disre­garded because there was always the possi­bility for a crisis to eruption not only due to the expected upcoming changes in heads of state.

The third session focused on lessons learned and ways ahead and included short inter­ven­tions by repre­sen­ta­tives of the embassies of the five Central Asian republics. In this session it was under­lined, that the cooper­ation with Central Asia was a political not merely a technical endeavour, that the cooper­ation should be result-oriented and balanced and that increasing the links with and within the region should be a guiding principle of all actors involved. Therefore it is necessary to emphasise on less contro­versial issues such as trade, transport and infra­structure and not only human rights issues.

Ultimately, the conference partic­i­pants under­lined the need to carefully differ­en­tiate in discussing the different countries in the region, the need to better define the aims of the Central Asia Strategy and its prior­ities and the requirement to exchange more amongst planners and thinkers of the policy vis-à-vis Central Asia.