3rd Jun 2023

Berlin submits new Central Asia text to EU diplomats

The EU plans to use high-level political meetings, education, trade and a string of new EU institutes across Central Asia to nurture stability and diversify gas supplies, according to a draft German policy paper to be attached to the June EU summit conclusions, seen by EUobserver.

"The EU has a strong interest in a peaceful, democratic and economically prosperous Central Asia...Gas deliveries from the region are of special importance to the EU," says the 10-page document, written by the German foreign ministry in its EU presidency hat and sent to EU diplomats on 13 April.

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The Central Asia push is the first time in its 50 year history the EU has attempted to build a real presence in the isolated, post-Soviet states, which lie in Moscow's traditional sphere of influence but which are waking up to the fact their vast energy reserves could transform their international status.

The European policy is to see regular EU foreign minister meetings bringing together opposite numbers from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in a multilateral format, with an internal EU policy progress review in June 2008 and every two years after that.

At a lower political level, the EU wants to hold a regular "human rights dialogue" and "energy dialogue" with each of the five states on a bilateral basis. EU diplomacy is also to be given a visible boost by opening a new European Commission office in each of the local capitals.

In terms of greater EU visibility, a "specific EU presence" in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, is foreseen that will try to turn local conscript soldiers into professional customs officers on the dangerous Tajik-Afghan border. The EU also "stands ready to open European Studies Institutes in the region."

On top of this, Brussels aims to parachute in "judicial and administrative experts" to help clean up corrupt Central Asian bureaucracies and court systems, while seconding Central Asia officials and businessmen to EU administrations and corporations. Brussels' Erasmus Mundus programme will bring local students to Europe.

"Central Asia's future will be shaped by its young people," the German document states, noting that most of the region's 60-million strong population is currently below the age of 25.

On the financial side, the EU plans to spend part of its €750 million aid package on new roads and water management projects. But EU experts will also help draft new commercial legislation to steer the states toward WTO accession and improve their international financial ratings.

Natural gas and political prisoners

A lot of money and political activity will go into "support [of] the exploration of new oil and gas resources and the development of additional pipeline routes to enhance EU security of supply" as well as "developing a new Caspian Sea-Black Sea energy transport corridor."

The energy side of the EU policy comes in the context of mounting Russian unreliability as a European gas supplier and increased competition from China, Central Asia's eastern neighbour. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are believed to hold 5 percent of world energy resources.

The EU policy, which has been under discussion since last Summer, has already attracted fierce criticism from NGOs such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, who say Brussels is paying lip service to EU values on human rights, especially in Uzbekistan - one of the most repressive countries in the world.

The German document says future human rights dialogues will be "result-oriented," that the EU will help build "civil society and independent media" - including an "e-silk-highway" to boost internet access - and support the International Labour Organisation in creating trade unions.

Berlin even says that "lessons learnt from the political and economic transformation of central and eastern Europe can also be offered," in a risqué reference to western Cold War-era diplomacy, which ended in the EU hiving off eight former-Communist states into its club.

But for all the fine words on the importance of democracy and human rights - which take up far more space in the policy paper than the brief energy section - there are some elements that might ring alarm bells in the NGO community.

EU integrity at stake

The comment that the five countries have "safeguarded multi-ethnic understanding and inter-religious communication" bears some resemblance to the situation in Kazakhstan, but ignores the fact Uzbekistan is holding over 10,000 people in jail on religious grounds.

Tashkent last week postponed the trial of HRW activist Umida Niazova and extended the NGO's mandate to work in the country for another three months, with Berlin and the European Commission recently praising Uzbekistan for holding two meetings on the Andijan massacre of 2005.

But HRW directors fear Tashkent's clemency will end when the delicate EU policy-launch phase is over, while the EU's own experts have declined to hold a third Andijan meeting, saying the first two were useless in terms of shedding light on the shooting of 500 civilians two years ago.

Berlin's vision of EU civil society support is also undermined by the track record of its embassy in Uzbekistan, which occasionally makes private complaints about individual human rights cases, but prefers to give aid to safe, government-backed NGOs for cultural projects instead of helping real dissident groups.


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