Kazakhstan: Officials from the European Union and ex-Soviet Central Asian nations agreed on 27 March that they would work jointly towards boosting ties as Europe tries to increase its clout in the strategic, energy-rich region.
EU is eager to tap extensive oil and gas reserves in the vast region bordering Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran. However, EU’s relations with Central Asian governments may be hindered by their records on democracy and human rights.
The adoption of a long-term Central Asia strategy has been one of priorities of Germany’s EU presidency. The EU has proposed more than $930 mn (Rs4,185 crore) for projects in the region over the next six years.
“(Central Asia’s) importance is growing because it processes 5% of the world’s energy resources and also because the challenges that it faces, like drugs and organized crime, have an impact on us in Europe,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier after talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana on 27 March.
The meeting was attended by EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and a deputy foreign minister of Turkmenistan.
EU strategy foresees expanding energy cooperation and tackling problems including the massive flow of drugs into the region from Afghanistan, rise of Islamic radicalism, poverty, infrastructure development and economic reforms. The strategy is expected to be formally adopted in June.
Central Asian oil and gas are also coveted by rising powers China and India.
Europe has been looking for ways to ensure its energy security amid concern that the continent is becoming too dependent on Russia for oil and gas.
Central Asia’s two main oil and gas producers - Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which now rely heavily on Russian export pipelines, have been seeking alternative routes and markets for their energy exports.
However, to avoid undermining its credibility while increasing commercial engagement with Central Asia, EU will have to demonstrate that it will also push for better human rights and democracy in the region.
The Uzbek government has recently shown signs that it wants to improve relations with the West, but the crackdown on dissent that increased after the Andijan violence has continued unabated.