A new EU Special Representative for Central Asia: Towards Enhanced Cooperation

Tehri Hakala, the newly appointed EU Special Representative for Central Asia visited the region in August 2021. What can we expect from her term as EUSR and what are the EU's priorities in its relations with the region?

On 21 June 2021, the Council of the European Union appointed Terhi Hakala as the new EU Special Representative for Central Asia, a position she will hold from July 2021 to February 2023, with the possibility of extension through an EU Council decision. H.E Ambassador Hakala is a Finnish career diplomat who has previously acted as the Permanent Representative of Finland to the UN, WTO and other international organisations in Geneva. She has gained extensive working experience in diplomatic positions in the Central Asian region, as well as in Eastern Europe and Russia. Between September 2012 and August 2016, she was the Director-General of the Department for Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, where she held responsibilities related to the development and coordination of the Finnish policies and activities concerning Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. As part of this assignment, Terhi Hakala contributed to the enhancement of the cooperation with Central Asian republics, in addition to supervising the Finnish development aid program for the region. Furthermore, in the early 2000s she held the position of Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, in the framework of which she travelled extensively to the region.  In her most recently held position, Ms. Hakala acted as Ambassador for the Countering of Hybrid Threats in Helsinki, through which her most notable achievements included the development of the EU’s hybrid policy and actions, from a Finnish perspective. The Special Representative’s extensive experience in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is expected to contribute considerably to the enhancing of the EU’s role in the region. 

In a press release on 21 June 2021, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs highlighted that, in the framework of the European Union’s Strategy for Central Asia, further emphasis will be placed on fostering sustainable connectivity, in addition to stimulating investments and contributing to the development of the business environment. Moreover, H.E. Ambassador Hakala added that the EU will continue to project itself as a balancing partner and will contribute to the region’s recovery from the pandemic. On the occasion of the appointment, Ambassador Hakala stated that “In Central Asia, the EU is a welcoming and balancing partner to help tackle the challenges of the region. The EU has many tools that can be used to promote recovery from the global pandemic. The mandate of the EUSR for Central Asia emphasises the need to strengthen regional cooperation and stability in collaboration with the countries of the region and other international actors.  In the coming years, this will be even more important than before”.

End of August 2021 the EUSR paid an official visit to Uzbekistan, the first travelling to the region in her newly assigned role. In the context of the developing situation in Afghanistan, H.E. Terhi Hakala visited Termez, in order to become acquainted with the situation at the border. Furthermore, she visited the Center for training Afghan citizens and the International Logistics Center of Termez. During her official visit, the Ambassador met with Government Officials of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the First Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Chamber, as well as NGO representatives.

The EU’s Special Representatives

The EU Special Representatives (EUSRs) hold an active role in representing the EU High Representative/European Commission Vice President in the regions and thematic fields they have been appointed to, where they are responsible for enhancing the EU’s visibility and promoting EU policies and key interests. The EU Special Representatives are considered to bring specific added value to the EU’s external action. They are not formally part of the hierarchy of the European External Action Service and are regarded as a flexible instrument in the EU’s foreign policy, at the disposal of the member states and acting beyond the framework of the EU’s foreign policy institutional hierarchy. EUSRs contribute to the development and the enhanced efficiency of the EU Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) on the ground and to the Union’s image as a coherent actor on the international stage. The EUSRs are appointed by the Council of Foreign Ministers with a qualified majority vote and can be commissioned either for regions, specific countries or certain thematic issues. Throughout the years, the role embodied by the EU Special Representatives evolved in an ad hoc manner, in order to respond to a broad range of unfolding crises.

Beyond Central Asia, the EU Special Representatives cover the following regions and thematic areas: Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Horn of Africa, Kosovo, the Middle East Peace Process, the Sahel, the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia, Human Rights, the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, the Middle East Peace Process, and since the launch of the EU’s Strategy for the region also the Indo-Pacific. The first EUSRs were deployed in 1996 for the Great Lakes region and the Middle East Peace Process, while the first EU High Representative was appointed in 1999, following the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty. The fact that the first EUSRs were deployed previously to the establishing of the EU High Representative position generated challenges for the first appointed representatives, not only from a policy-making angle, but also from the perspective of fitting into the structure of the Council Secretariat. Following the changes implemented through the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy holds the exclusive competence of proposing the EUSRs, who will perform their mandate under the direct authority of the HR/VP. Furthermore, the appointment of the first EUSRs also preceded the creation of the Political and Security Committee (PSC). 

Key aspects on the role of the EU Special Representative for Central Asia

The first appointment of the EUSR for Central Asia started in 2005 and was held by Mr. Jan Kubis  until 2006, a Slovak diplomat and former OSCE Secretary General.  The role of European Union Special Representative for Central Asia is of paramount importance for advancing the EU’s relations with Central Asia, a region of strategic significance for the EU, as well as for the implementation of the 2019 EU’s Central Asia Strategy. Adopted in June 2019 in the framework of the Joint Communication on “The EU and Central Asia: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership”, the new EU Central Asia strategy replaced the strategy previously adopted in 2007, in order to respond to the newly arisen opportunities and challenges for the region. The 2019 Strategy paved the way for the further deepening of cooperation levels between the EU and the Central Asian republics, in response to the opportunities generated by the reform processes taking place in the region. Given the enhancement of the complexity of the EU’s relations with Central Asia in the framework of the 2019 Central Asia Strategy compared to the 2009 Strategy, the new EUSR is tasked with responding to the challenges and opportunities that have arisen in the region, particularly from a strategic and sustainable connectivity approach. The EU’s engagement in Central Asia is based on mutual interests and encompasses a wide range of aspects in sectors such as the rule of law, security, water, climate change and environment, education, as well as an emphasis on gender equality. Furthermore, under the mandate of the new EUSR, regional cooperation will remain the bedrock of the relations between the Central Asia republics and the EU will continue to invest and extensively contribute to the advancing of EU-funded regional programmes. Between 1991 and 2016, a wide range of challenges stood in the way of a solid development of regional cooperation between the Central Asian countries, among which dissonances deriving from resources and water management, along with border disputes.

Nonetheless, since the election of Uzbekistan’s current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in 2016, the perspectives for regional cooperation in Central Asia have considerably improved and throughout the latest years these countries have made considerable achievements in the process of regional cooperation. The new impetus for the further perspectives of regional cooperation in Central Asia took a new turn in 2018, when the first Summit of the Central Asian leaders took place in Astana (now Nur-Sultan), paving the way for subsequent summits and increased regional cooperation among the republics. 

Moreover, throughout the next few years, EU-Central Asia cooperation in trade will continue to play an important role. The characteristics of the business climate in the region remain challenging, despite the adoption of notable measures such as the introduction of new legislation and digitalisation programmes. Nonetheless, the EU continues to build upon significant assets when it comes to business and trade relations with Central Asian countries. For instance, in the case of Uzbekistan, the country’s economic growth throughout the years that succeeded the coming into power of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has systematically attracted European and worldwide investors. The EU’s main financial instrument for the region is the Investment Facility for Central Asia (IFCA), which represents one of the three regional blending facilities which are currently in place. The IFCA was launched in 2010 as part of the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI) and is one key instrument in supporting the implementation of the EU’s Strategy for Central Asia. Since its launching, the IFCA has been underpinning both economic and social initiatives in Central Asia. Through the financing channels provided under this instrument, the EU is aiming to support economic growth and sustainable development, in addition to contributing to the alleviation of poverty in the Central Asia republics. The implementation of these targets are supported through the EU financing of projects that address challenges such as improving the unemployment situation, social services and the overall social infrastructure (such as the projects focusing on education on health). Furthermore, the IFCA finances projects that focus on issues such as the mitigation of the impact of climate change, environmental matters, and improving the energy infrastructure. The importance of a further continuation to invest in the region’s climate throughout the next couple of years is also underpinned by the fact that the EU and Central Asia are important economic partners, with the EU currently representing the biggest trading partner for the region, accounting for around one third of Central Asia’s overall external trade.

The EU’s bilateral trade relations with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are governed by the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs), which stipulate the prohibition of quantitative restrictions in bilateral trade. These PCAs are non-preferential and ensure most-favored nation treatment. According to the principles of the trading system, most-favoured-nation treatment (MFN) translates into the fact that countries cannot discriminate between their trading partners. WTO membership of the Central Asian countries represents a prerequisite for enhanced trade and investment relations with the European Union. Out of the five Central Asian republics, three are WTO members (Kyrgyzstan- since 1998, Tajikistan- since 2013 and Kazakhstan- since 2015), while Turkmenistan was granted observer status in 2020. The process of Uzbekistan’s World Trade Organization accession began in 1994, but was frozen in 2005, amid the initial liberalization reforms that were subsequently replaced by protectionist policies in foreign trade. In 2019, Uzbekistan renewed its commitment to join the World Trade Organisation by circulating its Memorandum of Foreign Trade Regime (MFTR) to the World Trade Organization Members. Due to the progress made by Uzbekistan regarding its efforts to join the organization, the 4th Working Party on Uzbekistan’s accession took place in July 2020, which further highlighted Uzbekistan’s commitment to join the WTO. The accession is of key importance for the integration of the country into the international trading system and the global economy and would bring significant benefits. First of all, a country’s WTO member status increases the predictability of access to the markets of other WTO members, which is ensured by two important principles, MFN (most-favored-nation treatment) and NT, national treatment, according to which imported and locally-produced goods should benefit from equal treatment and which only applies once a product, service or item of intellectual property has entered the market. In line with WTO rules, countries commit to maximum levels of tariff protection and to the elimination of quota on imports, which contribute to the improvement of the business environment, through the creation of predictable and transparent frameworks. Furthermore, WTO membership ensures increased protection of the private sector against detrimental trade actions by other countries. To this extent, the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism is one of the most active in the world and represents one of the WTO’s main contributions to the stability of the global economy

The European Union actively supports Uzbekistan’s accession to the World Trade Organization and the undertaking of interconnected economic reforms. Within the process of supporting Uzbekistan’s WTO accession, the EU undertook a wide range of comprehensive actions, among which offering support for Uzbekistan’s Government Officials in reforming national trade policies, supporting the strengthening of the country’s national capacities for trade facilitation compliance, raising the awareness of relevant stakeholders, the private sector and the population regarding the benefits of WTO membership. One of the projects which was undertaken by the EU in order to support Uzbekistan’s endeavours for WTO accession was “Facilitating Uzbekistan’s accession to the WTO”, launched in November 2020 and implemented by the International Trade Centre. The project focused on aspects such as assisting the executive and legislative branches in Uzbekistan in the development of sectoral laws and regulations that would comply with the country’s new international commitments. 

Out of the five Central Asian republics, three of them (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) are part of the EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan also of GSP+ (the special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and green governance) incentives, which provide these countries preferential access to the EU market. In addition, the EU Special Representative for Central Asia will continue to play an essential role in terms of ensuring the EU’s coordination and cooperation with other important actors in the region, such as UN treaty bodies (among which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNECE), agencies (FAO, ILO, UNDP, UNRCCA) and Special Procedures.

The Comprehensive legacy of Peter Burian’s Mandate

The new EU Special Representative for Central Asia H.E. Terhi Hakala replaces Mr. Peter Burian, who was appointed in April 2015 and whose initial mandate was extended by the Council of the European Union until the end of June 2021. Peter Burian previously held positions within the Slovak diplomatic service, including as the Secretary of State at the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as the Slovak ambassador to NATO. Mr. Burian ended his mandate as EUSR leaving a comprehensive legacy of achievements that contributed to the enhancement of the EU’s role in the region. Throughout his term, Peter Burian has brought a substantial contribution to the enhancing of regional cooperation in Central Asia and has applauded several initiatives taken by countries in Central Asia that contributed to the promotion of regional togetherness among these countries. Moreover, Mr. Burian travelled extensively to the region throughout his mandate and has actively engaged with civil society representatives and other relevant stakeholders, in addition to actively taking part in a wide range of events covering Central Asia, held both in the region and in Europe. His final visit in the role of EUSR took place at the beginning of June 2021, when he visited the Kyrgyz Republic, discussing matters of importance for EU-Kyrgyz Republic cooperation, such as regional cooperation among Central Asian states and cooperation with the European Union in the area of development, the state of implementation of the EU’s Central Asia Strategy and the EU’s role in strengthening resilience in the region, in line with the Strategy’s main aim of partnering for resilience.  In addition, in May 2021 he paid a visit to Tajikistan, where the EU’s Strategy in the region, human rights, political and security issues were discussed. 

Furthermore, Peter Burian has contributed widely to the addressing of cross-cutting matters of utmost importance, among which climate change issues, in addition to playing an instrumental role regarding the development of solutions to the Aral Sea crisis. A notable impulse in the enhancement of regional cooperation between Central Asian countries was marked by the launching of the Consultative Summit of Central Asian leaders. The third Consultative Summit took place in August 2021 in Turkmenistan. The Summit was chaired by the President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and was attended by the Presidents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Republic of Tajikistan, as well as the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Central Asia, Ms. Natalia Gherman. The Summit focused on the topic of the strengthening of intra-regional cooperation in priority areas like security, connectivity, and trade. Furthermore, topics related to the pandemic were discussed, such as mutual assistance, further cooperation to fight the ongoing sanitary crisis, and launching a unitary system for the recognition of vaccination certificates. In the meeting, the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyovev re-emphasized the need for the adoption of the Agreement on the General Directions for Regional Trade and Economic Cooperation, in addition to proposing the enhancing of the role and activities of the Electric Power Coordination Council of Central Asia. Furthermore, Shavkat Mirziyovev brought into discussion the need for further cooperation on the Aral Sea environmental issues and proposed the development of a regional program “Green Agenda for Central Asia”. Another proposal forwarded by the President of Uzbekistan was the launching of a Central Asian Youth Forum, which would bridge the gap and further encourage dialogue between youth and policy-makers. The President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov stated that “being based on United Nations documents, we go by the way of formation in Central Asian favourable political-legal and economic conditions for safe, and steady power partnership focused both on satisfaction in regional demand for energy carriers, and on an access to the world markets through the international transit corridors”.  The meeting concluded with the adoption of a Joint Statement placing emphasis on cooperation in the areas such as trade, connectivity and energy. 

Furthermore, at the forum organized by UNDP Uzbekistan in March 2021, which addressed a post-Covid green recovery for Uzbekistan, Peter Burian applauded Uzbekistan’s progress in pushing through its reforms, as well as the country’s initiatives in promoting sustainable development in spite of the ongoing pandemic. At the end of his mandate, Peter Burian congratulated the Central Asian countries on the occasion of the anniversary of their 30 years of independence, in consideration of their achievements and considerable efforts to become integrated into the global trading system.

In consideration of the increasing strategic importance of the Central Asian region for the European Union, as well as the ambitious aims of the 2019 EU Strategy on Central Asia on partnering for prosperity, for resilience, as well as the target of strengthening the architecture of the partnership, the new EU Special Representative for Central Asia will have a paramount role in the development of relations between the EU and Central Asia. Furthermore, in line with the Strategy’s cross-cutting issue of supporting regional cooperation between the Central Asian states, EU-Central Asia relations throughout the mandate of the new EU Special Representative can build upon significant developments in order to further support the enhancing of regional cooperation in Central Asia. While cooperation between Central Asia states was hampered throughout the years following their independence by aspects such as border disputes and water distribution, the new visible and increasing desire of Central Asian leaders to enhance regional cooperation between their countries offers an encouraging perspective regarding the EU’s efforts for the support of regional cooperation. Furthermore, in consideration of the resilience focus in the EU’s Strategy on Central Asia, the EU will continue to play an important role in the region throughout the upcoming years, both regarding newly arisen opportunities, as well as regarding the challenges that are likely to continue to pose significant threats for the region, such as climate change and environmental issues. In line with the 2019 EU Central Asia Strategy, such challenges and how the EU can support Central Asian states in addressing them are extensively covered within the document. For instance, under the Strategy’s aim of partnering for resilience, the EU’s support for the enhancing of climate, environmental and water resilience is covered in detail and highlights in detail how the EU and the newly appointed EUSR can contribute to transforming these challenges into opportunities. 

Author: Roxana Chiriac, EIAS Visiting Fellow

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons