Ambassador Peter Burian: «Central Asia now is more conducive to the open dialogue»
Early June this year, Ashgabat hosted the Central Asian International Environmental Forum, organized by CAREC in cooperation with the State Committee for Environmental Protection and Land Resources of Turkmenistan.
The event gathered more than 200 guests - representatives of state, scientific, public and international organizations. Within three days, leading experts in the field of environmental protection revisited the issues of rational water resources management, adaptation to climate change and sustainable development of both the region and each country separately.
We interviewed Ambassador Peter Burian, the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, to talk about the forum and his thoughts on environmental cooperation in the region.
- Dear Ambassador, please tell a bit about your first impression about the forum.
- First of all, I think that bringing people from the five countries of the region is very important for establishing contacts among them and for providing an opportunity also to establish personal contacts. But what I also see, since I have attended the first forum, is an improved regional atmosphere for a discussion on issues of environment. The forum, certainly, creates opportunities to strengthen the dialogue and understanding of solutions which are available based on a talk among countries and players in the region.
- Yes, it is a significant dialogue platform on the one hand, but on another there is still need for improvement in shifting from talks to action. What can you say to those observers, who are relatively sceptic about the success of the forum?
- I agree, every forum is only as good as the implementation of agreed principles. Practical things move the process forward. For example, I appreciate this new form of the dialogue involving parliamentarians, there is more openness and more forthcoming attitude to discuss even sensitive matters, and there is the political value of this forum. But again, we need to see together where practical experience is exchanged.
- You mentioned you were on the first forum and you see improvements in mutual understanding of the environmental agenda in the region. Can you name a few aspects where you still see obstacles for regional cooperation?
- Central Asia now is more conducive to open dialogue comparing to the previous forum. So, this is something which we should build on, as well as expand to include civil society and the private sector. Only in this kind of inclusive setup can you not only define the best solution, but find the best ways to implement them. For the future, possibly, it is up to you to decide if you want to involve more EU member states to and bring concrete experiences and solutions which can motivate countries of the region.
- What role do you see CAREC play in this process?
- CAREC has really created an important platform and is very much engaged in all Central Asian countries, trying to find new innovative approaches to the most difficult issues, developing into a very respected regional structure, which is also a prerequisite of regional leadership of all processes which are happening in the area addressing environmental issues.
For this purpose, you cannot have any success if all countries try to address those issues individually, you need to have regional cooperation. So, these are few points which I think I can mention based on the cooperation between the EU and Central Asian countries.
Also, the EU is really a source of interesting experience and solutions. Because of many historical contexts we had to work and cooperate together, and there is no major river in Europe, which would not be transboundary. It is possible to learn about the mistakes we did, and maybe do things more efficiently using this accumulative experience. However, we don’t want to push certain models – the countries need to choose the best kind of option, best kind of solution.
- Please, name some examples of such solutions, where the Central Asian countries can look at experience of the EU in your point of view.
- I am myself from Slovakia and we are connected with other countries through the Danube, so we decided to create certain mechanisms for conflict resolution, connected with sharing these water resources. This mechanism is called the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR).
The river was almost dead because of the pollution, because of misusing the water. Now it is not only a vibrant communication line among us, source of electrical energy, but also water for recreation and, what is very important, a source of drinking water. I believe this can happen also in Central Asia using this approach to the rivers like the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.
There are also some other examples like the transboundary waters between Spain and Portugal. These are also more or less facing the same kind of impact of climate change in the dry seasons, when really the sharing of water resources is so important to be based on really fair treatment of upstream and downstream.
- Well, then if I ask you to name three pillars, which fruitful regional cooperation in Central Asia could be based on, what would you say?
- First of all, I think Central Asia should identify itself as a region. It is already in this process, but still there are many things to address like building common infrastructure, sharing energy among themselves. These kinds of solutions are not only available for water and energy sharing, but also for working together to create a larger market for other countries to be more interested in coming and investing here. These things cannot be pushed from the outside, there should be mutual understanding that these are solutions beneficial for everybody.
Then, second prerequisite is a connectivity with the outside world, because through a better connectivity your economic development will be faster.
And finally, I think the cultural and historical togetherness from the past can provide this kind of conditions for increasing a regional cooperation.
- But let me ask a sensitive question, because you telling about raising mutual understanding that we are a single region, however some can say that the countries of Central Asia have just started to feel themselves somehow independent, what could be a buffer for this process. What would you say?
- Yes, it is a natural process to strengthen your national identity, but it doesn’t exclude that you also start developing a regional identity and regional integration. This was also the case of the countries of Central Europe or the Baltic countries which are coming more or less from a similar environment and similar kind of problems. I think it is clear that through this sub-regional cooperation the Baltic countries and the Central European countries go through this process of transformation to global economy much faster. Within the European Union, all countries are able to develop their national identity even within a larger integration too.
- At the same time, to date the EU mechanism of integration is the object of a lot of criticism, isn’t it?
- We have twenty-eight countries, so there are many different interests. Anyway, in spite of all our problems, we quite understand the benefits of working together and cooperating together rather than fighting against each other, which happened also not so long ago. Now we have such a stable period of prosperity and peace in Europe that nobody wants to replace it by something which we do not know nor where it would lead.
- And the last question, what would you suggest as further steps for the Central Asian International Environmental Forum?
- It is very important to have this kind of political segment where countries present their political statements and inform each other about the solutions to their problem individually. But I think it is even more important to create more space for very practical discussion on practical solutions involving the private sector, the civil society, the parliamentarians into real discussions seeking solutions. I think this forum is able to provide its vital usefulness literally for all stakeholders.
 The international conference held on 21 June 2016 on the occasion of CAREC’s 15th Anniversary