Civil society – the basis of the EU strategy in Central Asia

The EU needs to put civil society at the heart of its strategy to rebuild its political presence in Central Asia, writes Barbara von Ow-Freytag.

Barbara von Ow-Freytag is a Berlin-based journalist, political scientist and adviser to the Prague Civil Society Centre, an international NGO supporting and empowering civil society in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The new EU Central Asia Strategy, adopted in 2019, is an overdue step to rebuild Europe’s presence in the region. It offers an ambitious roadmap to re-embed positive European messages in Central Asia.

However, it runs the risk of dissolving into a fog of good intentions unless it puts civil society at the fore, particularly youth and women. Only by relying on its unique resources and tapping into peoples’ real needs can the EU develop a distinct profile and gain a competitive edge in the region.

Over the past decade, the EU has lost important ground in Central Asia, not only to Russia and a newly assertive China but also to the Gulf States and Turkey. Experts forecast its influence is set to further decline.

As EU Special Representative Peter Burian once quipped, “China is coming with an offer nobody can refuse, while the EU is coming with an offer nobody can understand.”

The new Strategy offers a comprehensive blueprint to counter this diminishing leverage. But to realise its potential, the EU must play to its unique strengths and develop a distinct, attractive agenda offering young populations of Central Asia what they really want: quality education, skills training, independent media, socially-minded business and sustainable environmental protection.

The EU Strategy comes at a time when the whole of Central Asia is undergoing momentous change. Amid massive population growth and important political and societal shifts across the region, the five Central Asian countries could benefit immensely from a deepened relationship with the EU.

In a region with traditionally weak governance, the EU should position itself as a key actor to promote healthier relations between the state and its citizens. Cooperation between governments and wider civil society will be essential not only to meet the myriad challenges facing the region but to build the “sustainable connectivity” envisioned in the EU’s Strategy.

Throughout Central Asia, society is at a crossroads. The failure of the region’s kleptocratic governments to provide basic services such as clean water, healthcare and opportunities for their increasingly young populations is resulting in a legitimacy crisis.

Civil society, led by a new generation of activists, social entrepreneurs and creatives, is increasingly pushing back to demand change. While regimes systematically marginalize, isolate and criminalize civil society, civic groups are becoming more connected, vibrant and vocal than ever.

The EU should side with this emerging young landscape of civic activists as an optimal partner to further reform and development in the region.

Youth and women must be the primary target groups. With the median age just under 27, and nearly a third of the region`s population under 15, the EU must act fast to counter the threat of a “lost” generation in Central Asia.

Thirty years after independence, a critical mass of the population has grown up without a shared Soviet identity. This vacuum is providing a fertile recruiting ground for radical Islam, but also for China’s model of prosperous authoritarianism.

At the same time, an exciting new generation of activists are using new tools and formats such as Telegram, Instagram, podcasts and YouTube to reach millions, mostly completely new audiences. The EU should cultivate strong relations with young Central Asians who will look to it as a model – socially, economically and politically.

Ensuring that women and girls participate in EU projects will also be key. Women drive everyday life in Central Asia and are increasingly emerging as a new social vanguard. With many men away as labour migrants, women are responsible for budgeting and day-to-day decision-making.

EU programmes for social entrepreneurship and socially-minded businesses should see them as ideal target audiences. Increasingly, women are also challenging societal norms and assuming prominent roles in grassroots activism, art, culture and independent media. Kyrgyz singer Zere Asylbek, with her hit 2018 feminist hymn “Girl”, is one example.

Others include popular Kyrgyz Youtuber Eldana “Foureyes”, Kazakh film director Katerina Suvorova, or the women behind a popular satirical Tajik YouTube channel.

More than anyone, the EU has a state of the art offer rooted in connectivity, prosperity and values that are genuinely attractive to Central Asians. But any long-term solutions to the many issues outlined in the new Strategy will require civil society`s active participation.

Cooperation with active change-makers will be essential to meet all the complex challenges facing the region, from promoting human rights, the rule of law and security, to tackling urgent environmental issues, fostering innovation, developing competitive economies and offering perspectives for a youth hungry for opportunities and perspectives.

The EU should rely on the unique soft-power experience it brings to the region. Anchored at the heart of the EU`s offer to Central Asia, it will be an offer that people in the region will not only understand but also want to embrace.

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