Will the West Let Go of its Ties to Central Asia? The OSCE Factor
Oct 30, 2023
The OSCE (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) may not be perceived as a very important international organization at the present stage. It is, however, still a forum that includes states, big and small, from Vancouver to Vladivostok, where the respect for the sovereign equality and territorial integrity of participating states is an established principle. In particular, those states seeing their independence in danger highly value the opportunity to participate in an international organization voting by consensus where no decisions can be taken which goes against them without their approval. This is not the case in the General Assembly of the United Nations where decisions only require a majority.
And most international organizations such as the EU, NATO, the Council of Europe, and a number of sub-regional cooperating formats currently controlled by the West operate on the basis of a clear distinction between members and non-members.
The latest addition in this club is EPC (the European Political Community) a forum meeting so far three times on the level of heads of state and government at the invitation of initially France, together with the President of the European Council – and the UK is now gearing up to lead the next phase of cooperation within this format. Although encompassing some 44 states, this number does exclude not only Russia and Belarus, but also the Central Asian States (Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan).
Central Asia In-between China and Russia
For these states with a population of some 75 million people and a territory encompassing some 3,000,000 km² situated between Russia and China this would perhaps not be problematic, would there be an alternative to EPC for contacts with the West on the basis of equal status. So far, this alternative has been the OSCE. And this may not be unimportant for several interconnected reasons.
First, if China and Russia compete in Central Asia, this may give leaders in this region some leeway. But China and Russia are cooperating more closely, perhaps than ever. And they are cooperating with the expressed ambition of keeping the West outside, not only in Central Asia, but in the Global South. At the same time, the West remains the largest trading partner of Central Asia with increasing energy exports and growing imports of machinery, etcetera. This despite considerable Chinese investments into the Belt and Road Initiative and being a part of the Eurasian Economic union with Russia.
Why is This of Relevance at the Present Time?
Current developments point very much in the direction of relegating Central Asia to a second level of political status in relations with European states, if the OSCE after its upcoming yearly ministerial meeting, this time in Skopje - is discontinued as a functioning international organization.
Central Asia Has Historic Ties with the West
This will certainly not lead to a disregard equal to the very unhappy fate of neighboring Afghanistan and its suffering population. But it is a question worth considering, not least for the fact that Central Asia is an important region also in European history, rich in energy resources, and some other raw materials. It was a region at the center of the historic battle between the Mongols and the Tatars and remains of considerable interest to Western tourism to historic sites, such as Tashkent and Samarkand. Not only Marco Polo, but also Finnish Marshal Mannerheim and the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin spared no effort in trying to understand parts of this huge region.
It was, indeed, an historic priority on the part of leaders, such as the German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher to include Central Asia States into the OSCE after the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
This was not a necessity from an arms control point of view - Central Asia was not included in the overall disarmament agreement CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty between NATO and the Warsaw Pact signed in 1990. It was also most likely not an expression of real hope that the region would develop into an area, characterized by full respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
As for the economic and environmental basket of the OSCE many, not least in the EU, felt that this was something which should be dealt with directly between the EU and each Central Asian state, for instance, reinvigorating the European version of the Silk Road vision enabling delivery of raw materials including notably energy from Central Asia to Europe through Caucasus and Turkey wire left the same time, shortening the logistic distance to China.
The OSCE Problem
The Western world is now, however, close to a situation which might signal fundamentally reduced political interest in relations with the Central Asian states. Should the upcoming ministerial meeting in Skopje, among OSCE participating states result in a lack of agreement on the continuation in terms of leadership of the organization, Central Asia would be deprived of a unique forum which made it possible for Kazakhstan to be host of the last summit in 2010 in Astana.
In brief, the background to the present situation is that Russia has refused to accept the candidacy of Estonia as chairman in office for the organization in 2024. Finland, stepping into this role in 2025, the 50th anniversary year of the Helsinki Final Act from 1975, has expressed pessimism as regards the possibility to continue work in the organization if Russian does not align with the consensus on the leadership of the organization, the budget, and the staffing of key leadership positions.
Can the EU Compensate?
As Carnegie Endowment warned in a study published in 2018, there is a risk for the West that China and Russia may seek to change the geostrategic map excluding the West from Central Asia, making the format SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) even more dominant.
European foreign ministers met with their Central Asian counterparts in the margin of other meetings in Brussels on 23rd October, discussing what can be done to maintain and develop European relations with the region as a follow-up to the 2019 EU, Central Asia strategy:
Participants jointly endorsed the Joint Roadmap for Deepening Ties between the EU and Central Asia, signifying a major milestone in their relations. The Roadmap outlines a comprehensive and ambitious framework for enhanced cooperation, fostering a stronger and more dynamic partnership for prosperity and sustainability. It encompasses various key areas, including inter-regional political dialogue and cooperation, enhancing trade and economic ties, engaging on energy, climate neutral economy and connectivity, addressing common security challenges, and strengthening people-to-people contacts and mobility. The Roadmap proposes concrete actions in these areas, and serves as a strategic blueprint, paving the way for deeper engagement, closer dialogue, and continued progress in addressing common challenges and seizing new opportunities for the benefit of both the EU and Central Asian countries.
Filling this initiative with substance clearly is not unimportant for Europe.
As a neighbor to Afghanistan (a problem that has not gone away), the region also shares important problems with Europe, including drugs, terrorism and organized crime. And its population has been suffering from instability and poverty for a long time which also has spilled over into other the parts of the world in terms of radicalization to terrorism.
 The EU is the region's main trading partner, accounting for 23.6% of Central Asian countries' combined foreign trade in 2021. According to preliminary data for 2022, EU goods imports from Central Asia continue to increase (by 67% in 2022) and exports from the EU to Central Asia also grew (by 77%). The EU is also the biggest foreign investor in Central Asia, with over 40% of cumulated investment in the region originating from the bloc.