EU-Central Asia cooperation
DUSHANBE, September 17, 2009, Asia-Plus – The European
Union's long-stuttering relationship with Central Asia
seems finally to have taken off. Participants in the second EU-Central
Asia Ministerial Conference, which took place in Brussels on September 15, were unanimous in
seeking to minimize their differences, Radio Liberty reported on September 16.
EU dialogue with the region started in earnest in June 2007, when the bloc
adopted its first-ever Central Asia
Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, speaking for the current
EU Presidency, said, "I think I can say from the European Union's point of
view that we have found the dialogue that has been deepened by each [EU]
Presidency to be most interesting, constructive, and fruitful," he
said. Bildt said the bloc's incoming Spanish
presidency has promised to continue working closely with the Central Asian
countries between January and July 2010.
Asian representatives, in turn, expressed their contentment and gratitude at
the current state of affairs. At a press conference, foreign ministers Kadyrbek Sarbaev of Kyrgyzstan, Hamrokhon Zarifi of Tajikistan,
and Vladimir Norov of Uzbekistan
were joined by Kazakhstan's
Deputy Foreign Minister Konstantin Zhigalov in their praise of the EU and the meeting. Turkmenistan's
Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Hajiev,
although present at the meeting, continued his
country's usual policy of not exposing its politicians and civil servants to
public scrutiny, and did not attend the press conference.
all Central Asian representatives delivered their remarks at the press
conference in English, in contrast to the meeting in Paris in December 2008, where most had opted
to EU accounts, the four-hour meeting was dominated by the issue of Afghanistan,
easily the most urgent international issue of intense interest for either side.
hot topic was the global economic crisis, which has hit Central
Asia hard. In an interview published on the website of the EU
Council of Ministers ahead of the Brussels
meeting, the EU special representative for the region, Pierre Morel, noted that
the relatively open economy of Kazakhstan
has been particularly hard hit. Tajikistan
is suffering from a serious drop in remittances sent home by workers in Russia and
elsewhere. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan,
with their closed economies, have fared "considerably better," Morel
said. The EU is worried about the social effects of the economic squeeze
on the volatile region, which is already rife with crime and drug use, and is
susceptible to religious fundamentalism.
remains a crucial EU interest, although concrete collaboration is held up by
the absence of direct pipelines between Europe
and the region. Morel in his interview noted that the EU has "memorandums
of understanding" with Kazakhstan
and Turkmenistan and
"active contacts" with Uzbekistan. All three could
pump significant gas volumes into the planned Nabucco
pipeline -- which Morel says will be operational in five to seven years --
assuming a trans-Caspian link is also put in place.
EU is keen to play a role in helping the Central Asian countries resolve their
chronic tensions over access to water, and is drawing on the experience of the
countries along the Danube River in Europe. Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister Norov indicated, however, that Tashkent prefers to put its faith in a UN
convention on international water use, and called on his country's neighbors to
respect international law.
issues, the fight against organized crime, and trafficking in drugs and human
beings were also broached at the meeting. The Central Asian countries raised
the topic of religious extremism, while the EU urged countries in the region to
respect human rights and aspire toward rule of law.