NATO, EU, Central Asia and Mongolia: searching for common interests

12 Aug 2014 - 15:19

From 30 June - 18 July, the Clingendael Academy organised a training programme in diplomacy, stability and prosperity for diplomats from Central-Asia and Mongolia. The programme was made possible with funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The quintessential question throughout the course was: what connects Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Mongolia with Europe and the Netherlands? Even though the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the only international organisation of which all countries involved are members, the main avenues for cooperation have been NATO and the European Union. The question to what extent this relationship is based on pragmatism or on structural mutual benefit was at the background of a visit to both organisations on 10 - 11 July.

Geo-strategic rebalancing of power

The Clingendael Strategic Monitor in 2013 already concluded that ‘the global system is moving more and more in the direction of a multipolar configuration of power, within which cooperation becomes more difficult and will in particular depend upon the relations between the main powers, foremost the US and China’. This is particularly relevant to the Central Asian States and Mongolia, which are literally in the geographical midst of this rebalancing of power. NATO, which relies predominantly  on US resources and priorities, is clearly one of the players aiming for more influence in the region, while competing with both Russia and – for the moment – to a lesser extent China. In parallel, the European Union has been presenting itself mainly as a partner in economic development as well in furthering principles of democracy and good governance, standards that not necessarily resonate with Moscow and Beijing. With the current crisis in the Ukraine the two ‘spheres of influence’ evidently do not align with a common objective for the region. One can witness  this in the foreign policies of the countries involved: all follow a ‘multi-vector’ approach, trying to maintain a careful balance of neutrality towards the major powers.


Security environment

Given this geo-strategic context, what are the security interests in the region? There is no immediate danger of ‘fragile or failed states’. Most regimes have a strong powerbase and have been in place for a long period of time, certainly by European standards. Only the smaller nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have gone through some domestic turmoil; Tajikistan faced a painful civil war in the mid-1990s and Kyrgyzstan went through two revolutionary regime changes, in 2005 and 2010. Reason for concern may be any future regime changes, due to either elections or natural developments, and how the national elites respond to such domestic upheavals.

Economically, the region is reasonably rich in natural resources: oil, gas and uranium in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, water, gold and aluminium in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, copper in Mongolia and cotton, silk and gold in Uzbekistan. Reason for concern may be any future regime changes, due to either elections or natural developments, and how the national elites respond to such domestic upheavals.  International trade is increasing with goods reaching the world market, even with a for expansion into what former US Secretary of State Clinton coined the New Silk Road. However, there are great challenges for the region. One is the even distribution of wealth and benefits from extractive industries across society.  And a second refers to stronger regional cooperation in terms economic enablers: infrastructure, water, roads and power. The main security stakes in the eyes of NATO, and in effect the US and Europe, are crime, terrorism, narcotics trafficking and weak border management. This was most recently confirmed in a report published by the OSCE network studying threat perceptions in the OSCE area:

“The dominant problem seen almost everywhere is a general lack of governance capacity at all levels to address a multitude of threats perceived: transformation states complain of a lack of norms, rule and institutions; more developed states deplore a lack of suitable policies at national and international levels.“

Good governance and economic development

The EU traditionally presents itself in the region as an economic and development cooperation actor. It established relations with the Central Asian states right after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but it was not until 2006-7 that a regional strategy for Central Asia was adopted  . In the case of Mongolia, a trade and development relationship started in 1989 resulting in a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) that was only concluded in 2013. The EU’s Regional Strategy for Central Asia consists of the provision of development aid targeted towards  further development of the rule of law, education and water management for a total of approximately EUR 750 Mln. Additionally, the EU Strategy comprises a series of high-level bilateral Human Rights Dialogues.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan turned out to be the main beneficiaries of EU aid, while in the course of several years aid to Kazakhstan was gradually phased out. By OECD standards, Kazakhstan now qualifies as a middle-income country and hence negotiations are underway for an enhanced PCA with preferential trade access to the EU market.

In a meeting with a representative of the EU Central Asia Monitor (EUCAM;, it became apparent that the EU’s effectiveness is hampered by its own extremely complex structure, specifically regarding Central Asia. Across the different policy areas, the following ‘EU services’ are currently active:

  • Foreign Affairs Council: High-level dialogues and conclusion of PCAs: the
  • EU External Action Service: Day-to-day exchanges regarding bilateral relations, human rights and democracy by different sections of the EEAS;
  • European Commission, in particular DG Development Cooperation and DG Trade:  Implementation of financial commitments in thematic areas;
  • European Parliament: Specific Rapporteurs on Central-Asia, on Textile Protocol, on Kazakhstan’s Enhanced PCA and other Parliamentary delegations reports on progress and compliance.

Even though there are distinct advantages to closer cooperation with the EU (market access), tangible profits or benefits remain often hard to point out. Representatives of EUCAM and the EEAS acknowledged there is great confusion in the region about the EU and its role Questions included: are we partners or is there a donor-recipient relationship? Is the EU promoting human rights and democracy or securing its energy supplies? Additionally, the EU is often simply seen as a physically and culturally distant entity.


Whereas official narratives highlight shared interests an challenges, the region primarily gained  the interest of NATO and the EU due to the operations in Afghanistan. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share their border with the northern part of Afghanistan, whereas all Central Asian countries have been instrumental as part of the so-called ‘Northern Distribution Network’, the logistical supply chain for NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Mongolia on the other hand, has been contributing dozens of troops to NATO’s ISAF Mission. In return, the six countries gained Western recognition and prestige in addition to substantial financial compensation. Financial benefits, geographical proximity and ethnic connections aside, a report by the Afghanistan Analyst Network concluded that the Central Asian States do not see a vital security interest for themselves in Afghanistan. Their concerns relate primarily to their own interests and benefits as the ISAF mission is winding down.

NATO and EU ‘poor organisations’

So what can NATO and the EU offer outside of the Afghanistan framework? After the end of the Warsaw Pact, NATO supported Central Asia and Mongolia through its Partnership for Peace programme, which provided training and technical expertise in the fields of defense reform, training and education, disaster readiness and public diplomacy. This programme still provides the framework for bilateral cooperative security assistance, implemented and ultimately decided by individual NATO countries, whereby the Alliance as such (through e.g. the NATO regional liaison officer) plays a facilitating role as broker. The European Union focused its activities on democratisation and trade relations. With the Central Asian states and Mongolia gaining higher levels of development and political astuteness, it is questionable  whether the EU’s aid will be as welcome as it was in the 1990s. At the same time, the very importance the EU itself attaches to the region has been put into question. For example, the position of Special Representative to the Region (Cabinet Minister-level) has been downgraded to that of Special Envoy (EEAS Official).

The future

Conceptually, the Central Asian States, Mongolia, EU and NATO do have shared interests in security cooperation and economic integration. However, given the geostrategic rebalancing and the winding down of the ISAF Mission, NATO and EU are no longer (if ever) the first and most logical partner. On the security front, international organisations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the OSCE play just as much a role in the regional security architecture. Economically, Russia is keen to re-assert its role as the political and economic centre of gravity of the region, whereas China is step-by-step increasing its political outreach and economic investments.

For all parties involved, it seems therefore best to focus on maintaining good regional relationships in diplomacy and security cooperation and to foster regional economic integration. Only a strong region can play a proper role for itself in its international affairs and make a strong case towards Beijing, Moscow or Brussels. For both Europe and the Netherlands, this looks like the best possible scenario. Clingendael is therefore looking forward to cooperate with all countries and institutions involved, to continue to build professional relationships, to support regional cooperation and to strengthen diplomatic skills.

Want to know more about the Clingendael Strategic Monitor, the re-balancing of global powers and the roles of NATO and EU? Follow our Course in International Security starting 23 September.