Central Asia is increasingly important to EU energy policy. Russia plays a defining role in the region, and any successful European effort to engage Central Asia must include reaching out to Russia. The EU would benefit from studying how Russia operates within Central Asia to understand what states in the region expect from international actors.
Alexey Malashenko, Scholar-in-Residence and expert on Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Johannes Regenbrecht, Head of the German Federal Office's Division for the Southern Caucasus and for Central Asia, gave a comparative assessment of the European and Russian strategies in the region.
A Weakened Position Post-Georgia
Alexey Malashenko began by pointing out that Russia’s war against Georgia and the one-sided recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia came as a shock to Central Asian states. For the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Moscow waged war against a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and unilaterally moved international borders.
There is concern that Moscow could use the implicit threat of future military conflict as leverage in future border disputes in Central Asia or the Caucasus. This is the reason why, at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), no Central Asian state recognized Georgia’s two secessionist provinces as independent states.
Paradoxically, Regenbrecht argued that the war with Georgia has permanently weakened Russia’s position in Central Asia. Constructive efforts for regional development are now absent from Moscow’s policies.
A Geopolitical Bone of Contention
The struggle for influence in Central Asia between the world’s great powers comes down to money. Krygyzstan’s decision to close a strategically important U.S air base in Manas is believed to have been orchestrated by Moscow who promised 1.5-2bn USD worth of aid in return. Malashenko argued that by turning a blind eye to these developments, Europe and the U.S. are strengthening authoritarian political structures in the Central Asian states. There is little incentive within the region to modernize political and economic structures.
Russia Still a Key Player?
In contrast to Malashenko’s assessment, Johannes Regenbrecht, argued that Russia is still the key player in the region. For Instance, Russian companies have monopolized energy transport routes from Central Asia, and Moscow maintains close relations with all the states in the region. As a consequence, it is still of great importance that the EU cooperate closely with Russia on Central Asia.
Regenbrecht pointed out that the EU and Europe continue to express a growing interest in winning over the Central Asian states by becoming partners in energy security and logistical support for the war in Afghanistan. Despite these overtures Central Asian states have not signed on to Europe’s Nabucco project; a natural gas pipeline planned to run from Turkey to Austria.
Presidents of some of the Central Asian states have so little belief in the project that they doubt that the gas pipeline will ever materialize. This is partly due to the fact that Europe sends mixed signals. Brussels and the EU member states have to clarify their position with regards to the Nabucco pipeline completion. Regenbrecht argued that both the South Stream and the Nabucco pipelines will be constructed, but he underlined the importance of a coordination of both projects between Russia and the EU.