EU-Central Asia cooperation gathers pace


Author: RFE/RL

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.

The EU dialogue with the region started in earnest in June 2007, when the bloc adopted its first-ever Central Asia "strategy.

Sweden's 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.

Central 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.

Significantly, 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 for Russian.

According 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.   

Another 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.

Energy 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.

The 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.

Environmental 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.