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the european union enhances its presence in the caspian region

The European Union Enhances its Presence in The Caspian Region

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Foreign policy generally describes current realities and predicts what the academic experts, government leaders, and diplomatic implementers would like to see come next.  More often than not, however, these well-meaning experts are frustrated because history moves like shifts in tectonic plates – sometimes, although very rarely, dramatically fast, but more often almost imperceptibly slowly.  Such is true about the Caspian region that includes the three nations of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – and the five of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

At the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Western observers were ecstatic, and many believed that the new nations would soon – of course! – become free-market democracies.  But these new countries didn’t race forward in that direction because their leaders were part of the Soviet past, and, more profoundly, because they had no intellectual history of Western political culture, economy, and social ideology to fall back on.

To its credit, quite soon after independence, Kazakhstan, jealous to guard its newfound independence, enunciated a foreign policy it termed muti-vector.  By this, it meant that it would seek to develop good relations with each of the so-called Great Powers:  Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union.  Eventually, in some cases over several decades, the other countries in the region more or less came to operate on the world stage with the same multi-vector foreign policy.

Of the four so-called Great Powers, the European Union generally played the smallest role in the region – not because it had the smallest interest in the region, but quite simply because it’s a multi-national entity that operates by consensus.  And reaching consensus among multiple members can be a very long and slow process.  Individual European countries – especially Italy, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom – played more prominent roles because of their private-sector companies’ investments in the region, especially in the hydrocarbon sector.

But sometimes those tectonic plates of history shift quickly and dramatically.  Essentially, that is what has happened because of Russia’s criminal war against Ukraine.

A high-level delegation from the Caspian Policy Center met in Brussels early in February with senior officials at the European External Action Service of the European Union.  This was soon after the EU had announced its historic €10B investment at their Investment Forum to build out further the so-called Middle Corridor – i.e., the trade and transportation routes through the Caspian region from China to Europe that now, because of international sanctions against the government in Moscow, have to bypass the long-established more northern routes through Russia.

The vast majority of this new investment will be in the hands of the major Western-based investment banks already active in the region, like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and it will focus on projects that will enhance the Trans-Caspian Corridor:  e.g., further updating the Port of Baku and Georgia’s railways as well as specific projects that will add to the reasonably well-developed Middle Corridor infrastructure in Kazakhstan.  As a visible symbol of the EU’s new commitment to the region, it is planning a summit in April with Central Asian leaders in Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand.  Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s upcoming chairmanship of the COP-29 will enhance European interest in the region.

However, a senior EU official with broad knowledge and deep experience in the Caspian region commented that the European Commission has judged that the long-proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline to transit natural gas from Central Asia, especially from Turkmenistan, to existing pipelines that begin in Azerbaijan and move westward to Europe would take so much time and money that it’s not worth pursuing.  Natural gas resources from the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa will be adequate for Europe into the foreseeable future, said this official who asked to remain anonymous.  “In reality, we missed this opportunity 10-15 years ago,” was what we heard.

However, as is always true in the real world, all is not sunshine and roses for the European Union in the Caspian Region.  One stumbling block is the mediation role the EU is supposedly playing between Armenia and Azerbaijan as those two nations seek a framework agreement for a true and lasting peace after Azerbaijan reclaimed its Armenia-Occupied district of Karabakh in September 2022.  The problem with EU mediation is that France is not perceived in the South Caucasus as a neutral mediator because it tends to favor Armenia over Azerbaijan due to the political influence of hardline diaspora Armenians on the government in Paris.

Nevertheless, an enhanced role for the European Union in the Caspian region is a most welcome step forward.  It will be well worth watching how the €10B investment further builds out and institutionalizes the Middle and Trans-Caspian Corridors, bypassing Russia over the long term for enhanced trade and transportation from China to Europe.  


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