Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
The recent meetings between European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the presidents of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan sparked outrage from human rights groups. But the discussions with both presidents did lead to some, albeit incremental, progress towards the EU's goals in both countries - energy in Turkmenistan and security in Uzbekistan.
Barroso's meeting with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Ashgabat on January 13-15 didn't result in any firm agreements from the gas-rich state on the EU's cherished Nabucco pipeline. However, there is hope that closer cooperation with Turkmenistan will produce more concrete results in future.
Later that month, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov arrived in Brussels for meetings with Barroso, Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger, none of whom have admitted to issuing the invitation to their embarrassing guest. Karimov has been an international pariah since 2005 when around 500 protesters were killed in the Andijan massacre. The most significant development to come out of Karimov's meetings was an agreement that the EU could open an embassy in Tashkent.
Both visits resulted in accusations of hypocrisy - that the EU was abandoning its values of human rights and democracy in the pursuit of its practical agenda in Central Asia. "The EU has a big interest in Turkmenistan's gas, though there are a number of problems including the question of how the gas could be transported to Europe - whether it is through Nabucco or across the Caspian to Baku - in addition to Turkmenistan's human rights record and complete lack of any form of democracy, and a lack of understanding on the part of the Turkmen president and government of how the EU actually works,"
says Jos Boonstra, a senior researcher at think-tank Fride.
Boonstra goes on that Uzbekistan also has oil and gas, but it is of no interest to Europe because the quantity is much smaller and it would be even more difficult to transport to Europe. "This relationship is more about security," he says.
Karimov's visit to Brussels is likely to have been from Nato, since the country is also a key transit point for the coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Soon after Barroso's visit to Ashgabat, the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee agreed to move forward with ratification of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the EU and Turkmenistan - the standard agreement governing relations between the EU and post-Soviet states. This was signed back in 1998, but ratification has been delayed mainly due to human rights concerns. "Most essential is for the EU to open an embassy in Ashgabat, and this is only possible if the agreement is signed and if Turkmenistan takes an interest in having an embassy," says Boonstra.
The PCA could now be approved by the parliament in May, probably following the insertion of a stronger human rights component. "It is usual procedure in all free trade agreements to of the new generation to have a human rights clause. So far none have been suspended because of the human rights situation, but of course they carry political weight," a spokesperson for the European parliament told bne.
Criticism from human rights groups was even stronger concerning the Karimov visit, his first since the lifting of EU sanctions imposed after the Andijan massacre, in November 2009. "The EU's 'constructive engagement' approach toward Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan has squandered precious time and leverage to press for concrete human rights improvements," wrote Human Rights Watch's advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, Veronika Szente Goldston, in an open letter to Barroso. She also argued there has been no progress within Uzbekistan since sanctions were lifted 15 months ago. "Uzbek government repression shows no signs of abating. If anything, human rights abuses have intensified."
Boonstra says the rationale for lifting the sanctions was that it keeps communications lines open and opens the way for more forms of cooperation. However, "what Karimov's visit highlighted was that since then nothing has happened between the EU and Uzbekistan. There is no more trade, no new agreements, relations between the EU and Uzbekistan remain at a very low level. The only positive development is that Karimov has agreed to let the EU open an embassy in Tashkent," he says.
There are hopes that greater engagement will lead to progress on both human rights and democratisation within Central Asia, and more trade with the EU. Yet despite more frequent talks between the EU and the five Central Asian republics on energy, security and human rights, there have been "limited concrete achievements to date," Boonstra writes in a report, "The EU's Interests in Central Asia: Integrating Energy, Security and Values Into Coherent Policy". He also highlights the conflict between the EU's energy and security aims in Central Asia, and its human rights values.
Distracted by issues such as the 2008 war in Georgia and the international economic crisis, Brussels still pays relatively little attention to Central Asia. For example, the EU pledged €118m to Kyrgyzstan after the 2010 revolution and ethnic violence of which just €12m was new money; Georgia was allocated $637m after the 2008 war with Russia. "This figure shows the importance Brussels attaches to its neighbourhood, which clearly does not include Central Asia," says the report.
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