Interview with Patricia Flor, European Union Special Representative for Central Asia

“I think the EU will not be able to achieve anything with our Central Asian partners if we do not engage long-term and with the necessary patience,” said Patricia Flor, European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for Central Asia. 

Ambassador Flor said the Central Asian governments have a long-term view of transformation. “They take their time, they have a slow pace of reform, and sometimes we would encourage them to actually move faster on some of these issues.”

She said the EUSR’s main task is to establish trust between EU and Central Asia. “The EU and its member states are coming from a different sphere in terms of how we organize governments and governance, our understanding of our basic principles and standards and values,” she said. “Therefore, one of the main tasks is to bridge the different mentalities and cultures in a partnership that looks at common interests and how we can establish trust between each other so that we can then engage in such difficult issues like rule of law or civil society.”

Ambassador Flor said the EU has established itself as a trusted interlocutor for mediation between the five Central Asian countries on issues such as water management, but that political will and the ownership of the Central Asian governments are key to solving these issues. Most of the regional issues are trans-boundary, she said, and require the involvement and coordination of neighboring states and regional and international organizations.

She said there is now EU representation in all Central Asian countries, and an EU-Central Asia high-level security dialogue is to take place for the first time this summer. The EU has committed itself to support three of the six confidence building measures of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan.

The interview was conducted by David Muckenhuber, a consultant based at the International Peace Institute’s Vienna office.

David Muckenhuber (DM): Our guest today in the Global Observatory is Patricia Flor, the European Union’s Special Representative (EUSR) for Central Asia. She coordinates EU action in Central Asia and oversees the implementation of the EU strategy for Central Asia. Her mandate, which runs from July 1, 2012 until June 30, 2013, is to promote good relations between the EU and Central Asian countries and to strengthen stability, cooperation, democracy, and respect for human rights in the region. She previously served in Kazakhstan, at the Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, and as German ambassador to Georgia. Ambassador Flor, thank you for joining us over the phone today in the Global Observatory.

One of the main tasks within your mandate is to oversee the implementation of the EU strategy for Central Asia, which was adopted for the period of 2007 to 2013. How would you evaluate the implementation and success of this strategy so far?

Patricia Flor (PF): First of all, let me clarify that the strategy will not expire. The strategy actually has been reviewed in 2012 and the Council of the EU Foreign Ministers then reaffirmed the validity of the strategy and its main objectives so that it will continue to be in force. The EU foreign ministers added an additional dimension by suggesting the start of a high-level security dialogue between the EU and Central Asia, which is scheduled to take place for the first time this summer. Therefore, no need to worry; the EU has a strategy, it will continue to function, and it does function well.

Let me highlight a few achievements: the EU is now well represented in the region; we have opened four EU-delegations, and we have a liaison office in Turkmenistan. The EU High Representative Catherine Ashton visited the region last November to chair the EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting. We have an institutionalized framework of dialogue and cooperation in place now with our Central Asian partners. We have a number of regional dialogue platforms on rule of law, on water, on education, and we also have human rights dialogues. I think a lot of progress has been made over these last six years.

DM: One of the bigger challenges of your job undoubtedly is balancing the EU’s strategic, geopolitical, and energy interests with your task to promote human rights and liberal-democratic forms of modernization and civil society. How do you manage this challenge?

PF: I think it is not a question of either pursuing energy and economic interests or human rights, rule of law, and democratization. It is about pursuing all of the EU’s objectives in parallel. That means while everyone from the EU side does raise human rights, rule of law, and democratization, at the same time we are also actively working towards projects like the trans-Caspian pipeline or towards increasing EU investment and economic ties with the region.

In addition, one of the regional platforms that were created with Central Asia is about rule of law, where we support the institution of ombudspeople and human rights oversight. Therefore, we are actively working on all of these areas. The EU’s experience is that there cannot be stability, peace, prosperity, and social justice if you do not ensure rule of law and respect for human rights in a country.

DM: So, you do not see the EU compromising its role in promoting the rule of law or fostering civil society in order to pursue its geopolitical or energy interests?

PF: No, I don’t. On the contrary, I would say we are very conscious, and we always point out to our Central Asian partners that EU foreign investment requires the right investment climate, and that includes the rule of law. The EU is also actively engaged in issues such as conflict prevention—for example, during the clashes in Kyrgyzstan 2010. If you want to overcome these kinds of conflicts and their roots, you need to make sure that human rights, the rule of law, and minority rights are respected. This is all closely interlinked, and there is not really a contradiction between the two.

DM: What do you envisage as the main challenges in cooperation with Central Asian governments and authorities? Is it sometimes difficult to engage with the governments and civil society at the same time?

PF: First of all, the EU and its member states are coming from a different sphere in terms of how we organize governments and governance, our understanding of our basic principles and standards and values. That said, the Central Asian countries have become independent a little more than 20 years ago, coming from the Soviet system. Therefore, one of the main tasks is to bridge the different mentalities and cultures in a partnership that looks at common interests and how we can establish trust between each other so that we can then engage in such difficult issues like rule of law, or development of civil society.

The Central Asian governments have a long-term view of transformation. They take their time, they have a slow pace of reform, and sometimes we would encourage them to actually move faster on some of these issues. But I think the EU will not be able to achieve anything with our Central Asian partners if we do not engage long-term and with the necessary patience.

One word on civil society: when I travel, I always meet representatives of civil society and NGOs, but of course it is true to say that in some of Central Asia, civil society in our broad sense is still being developed, and sometimes it is not easy to find interlocutors who have been active as NGOs or civil society representatives for a long time. Therefore, some of our work includes supporting the development of civil society in Central Asia.

DM: Given the multitude of projects and programs, I’d be interested how you assure coherence with EU-member states’ bilateral engagement in Central Asia? What about other European non-state actors?

PF: There are a number of coordination mechanisms within the EU working groups where all of the EU member states come together to discuss policies and programs on Central Asia. But I would like to highlight that the EU strategy for Central Asia from the start foresaw a specific role for member states. For instance, the regional platforms that I spoke about have member states as coordinators. To give you an example, recently I chaired the high-level ministerial conference on water and the environment in Bishkek together with the Italian State Secretary Marta Dassù. Our engagement is a shared responsibility, it is a very broad approach, and that is also what was intended from the start.

DM: We sometimes hear that it can take the EU quite some time to coordinate its position, and with bilateral approaches remaining, isn’t there a potential for overlapping efforts?

PF: We all try our best to make sure to always reach synergies in a positive sense. Despite the fact that the EU is a big donor, others are always welcome to complement our efforts. There are many member states with their own programs. The key is that we don’t duplicate, that we try not to do the same. But while one member states works on, for example, penal law reform, another one works on civil law reform or other aspects of judiciary reform, which I think makes absolute sense. There are of course also coordination mechanisms on the ground, meaning that the ambassadors and the heads of EU delegations come together in the capitals in order to ensure coherence between our different programs.

DM: You already mentioned water management, but there are other sources of tension like enclaves, border disputes, or ethnic cleavages—where can the EU successfully act as a mediator?

PF: There is a basic precondition for anyone to be really accepted as interlocutor in conflict resolution, and that is that this person or institution or state actually enjoys the trust and confidence of all sides. I think that the EU now is well established in Central Asia as a partner in regional frameworks and therefore we are able today to invite all of the five Central Asian states to discuss issues like water management and environment protection together.

Despite the fact that those are much disputed issues, nonetheless they agree to come to the table and discuss water cooperation with the EU. Therefore, I think the EU has already demonstrated its ability and also its will to bring the Central Asian states together on these issues, offering the EU expertise and examples of how we have tried to solve some of these issues. To give you an example, at the recent water conference we saw presentations of the river basin management commissions of the Rhine and Danube rivers. We are trying to give examples on that which the Central Asian governments can build solutions that fit for their region. But at the end of the day, the political will and the ownership of the governments are key to actually solving some of these issues. But I am hopeful that we can make further progress on this. 

DM: I’d like to move beyond the European Union and ask you how you coordinate your actions with other bi- and multilateral actors present in Central Asia?

PF: It is actually my pleasure to be tasked with coordinating with these different international actors and I am having regular consultations with them. To give you an example: recently I went to Vienna to participate in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Security Day, which looked at the linkage between Central Asia and Afghanistan. There, I also used the opportunity to link with its secretary-general and the head of its Conflict Prevention Center. But I also visit Washington, Ankara, and Moscow, and I am in a regular contact with the other international actors including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Many of our issues are trans-boundary, and having the big neighbors like the Russian Federation, China, or Turkey involved is key for finding bigger solutions.

DM: The Central Asian states have so far managed quite well to balance the interests of foreign actors in the region; being either neutral or applying a multi-vector foreign policy. Do you feel that this could compromise the leverage of those actors, and, in your case, the EU?

PF: Actually, I think if you put yourself into the shoes of a government in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, or in any other Central Asian capital, then you have neighbors like China, Kazakhstan, or the Russian Federation, and you have Afghanistan a little bit to the south, which also has its own challenges. Thus, I think it is very easily understandable that, for these countries, it is especially important to diversify also their external ties; to have good neighborly relations to their direct neighbors, and also to the big ones, to the difficult ones. But it is equally important to have linkages with an actor like the EU that might be a little bit further away, but that certainly has to offer a lot of experience and expertise—and of course, the biggest united market on Earth, which is a very important consideration for them. I have found that the EU usually is very welcome to engage in all the different fields where the Central Asians have an interest, and that goes really from the international economic linkages down to small projects in many different areas within Central Asia.

DM: You already mentioned Afghanistan–what is the EU’s role in the CA-Afghanistan nexus?

PF: It has just been reaffirmed by the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius on behalf of Catherine Ashton in Almaty—where we had the latest Heart of Asia conference around and for Afghanistan trying to forge a regional understanding and regional action to stabilize the whole region—that the EU is long-term committed to work with Afghanistan and Central Asia and everyone else in the region to help develop the opportunities of this traditionally and historically very rich region, and to ward off the transnational threats which are still present.

The EU has committed itself to support three of the confidence building measures among the six that were agreed on in Kabul last year and reaffirmed now in Almaty: first, to create commercial opportunities and facilitate trade; second, to counter the trade in narcotics in the region; and third, to mitigate risks and consequences of natural disasters in the region. The EU itself has many programs and projects in both Central Asia and Afghanistan already in place, i.e., border management projects; police cooperation via EUPOL; or rural development projects. The main task is now to create the right synergies between all of these different programs in order to stabilize the overall region.

DM: Do you think the Istanbul Process is the right approach to create such synergies?

PF: I actually don’t see any other way. I think that regional cooperation is the key to make many of the dreams that exist in the region come true: linking Central Asia to South Asia in terms of energy and economy, people-to-people contacts, or cultural ties; energy provided by Central Asian states to Afghanistan; or the small cross-border trade. None of that can work without having regional cooperation, nor can you fight trans-boundary threats such as drug trafficking or terrorism without cooperation between the security institutions in the region. Therefore, the Istanbul Process, which is a platform for everyone to come together and look at the practical steps and institutions that need to be created, is the right approach.

DM: How would you evaluation other strategies like the US-lead “New Silk Road” initiative in this context?

PF: It fits perfectly well into this bigger picture. If you look at the Istanbul Process and also at the interests of the Central Asian states, then you will find that all of them mention the need to create the necessary infrastructure, the roads, the railways, the pipelines, the electricity lines in order to allow the commercial exchange, trade, and movement of people. It is our common interest and it fits with the overall idea to actually remember that this region in the old times of the Silk Road was a real bridge between Asia and Europe in terms of trade and culture that moved along these lines; and I think that is also the task that we face today to really recreate some of that potential and to make it flourish again.

DM: You clarified it in the outline that the EU’s “strategy for a new partnership” is continuing beyond this year, so what areas will the EU focus on in the future?

PF: You are right, it is not ending. Let me clarify a misunderstanding that I have encountered from time to time: what is being defined at the moment is the new multi-annual financial framework of the EU for 2014-2020. In the old multi-annual financial framework, there was a budget of 750 million Euro allocated to Central Asia, and also now we need a financial figure to sustain the cooperation with Central Asia during the upcoming multi-year framework. Of course, I am working, as you can imagine, towards ensuring that we can continue the EU-Central Asia strategy at the same level as we did in the past. 

DM: This already leads to my last question: will your mandate be extended?

PF: It is of course the responsibility of the High Representative Catherine Ashton to propose an extension of the mandate and to reappoint me, and then the Foreign Affairs Council Meeting of all EU member states actually decides. I am looking forward to their decision, and I am very confident in this regard.

DM: Then let me wish you all the best for that and thank you very much for sharing your insights today in the Global Observatory.

David Muckenhuber is a consultant based at the International Peace Institute’s office in Vienna.

Photo credit: The Körber Foundation