Prague, 18 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten spent his five-day tour of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan urging political reforms.
In Kazakhstan at the beginning of the week, Patten said Europe views the oil-rich republic as the linchpin in its relations with Central Asia. But the commissioner also said Astana must ensure ties are not strained by corruption or human rights violations. "We recognize the very considerable progress that has been made in Kazakhstan over the last decade. We recognize the progress that has been made in, for example, inter-religious and interethnic solidarity," he said. "But we also know that there is a lively debate about political values."
After a meeting on 16 March with President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Patten noted that Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009 is more likely to succeed if the republic can demonstrate that it works closely with the OSCE on political issues. The OSCE has raised concerns that new and proposed laws in Kazakhstan could limit political and media freedoms. The Kazakh parliament today approved a bill critics say will impose restrictions on the media.
On the economic front, Patten said that the EU's eastward expansion, taking place in May, will strengthen Kazakhstan's economic relationship with Europe. Kazakhstan is the EU's biggest trade partner in the region, with bilateral trade worth 5.5 billion euros ($6.8 billion), most of it oil exports to Europe.
Moving on to Tajikistan, Patten yesterday urged President Imomali Rakhmonov to ensure the fairness of the 2005 parliamentary elections there. He also noted that Tajikistan has made progress on the road to democracy, human rights, and dealing with widespread poverty since emerging from a five-year civil war in the mid-1990s. He said the EU is pledging more assistance for the country.
"So far, over the last decade or so, we've provided in assistance about 350 million euros. The exact amount that we allocate for the future will depend on our discussions with the government, but we want to provide more assistance because we have confidence in the path that Tajikistan has taken," Patten said.
Patten pointed out that broader support should be expected following the signing later this year of a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement setting out the political, economic and trade relationship between the EU and Tajikistan. Similar agreements between the EU and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan entered into force in 1999.
Brussels has provided more than 1 billion euros in assistance to Central Asia since 1992 through technical assistance (Tacis), humanitarian assistance (ECHO), macroeconomic assistance and the Food Security Program.
"As I understand it, the president has said that he's not going to stand for re-election. That is, I think, an example of considerable transparency and of belief in the system."
In Kyrgyzstan, Patten called on the government to ensure transparency and fairness in that country's presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2005, saying they will be "a real test of commitment to move toward democracy."
He also praised President Askar Akaev's decision not to seek another term in office. "As I understand it, the president has said that he's not going to stand for re-election. That is, I think, an example of considerable transparency and of belief in the system," he said. "And I very much hope that this country will be able to show others in the region and beyond that it can manage, as an increasingly mature democracy, a change in leadership."
After today's talks with Akaev, Patten said the EU wants to help the republic build a strong democracy with proper protection of civil liberties and human rights. Patten and Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev also signed an agreement yesterday on the establishment of an EU representative office in the republic.
Patten is spending today and tomorrow in Uzbekistan, which has drawn repeated international criticism for its human rights record. Reporters Without Borders yesterday called on Patten to press for the release of five jailed journalists, whose convictions have been seen as persecution for their journalistic activity.
The Paris-based media watchdog stressed in particular the case of Ruslan Sharipov, a journalist and human rights activist sentenced last year to four years in jail for sodomy and having sex with minors. He denies the charges. Other journalists mentioned by the media rights group are Yusuf Ruzimuradov, Mohammad Bekjanov, Madjid Abduraimov, and Gayrat Mekhliboev. They are serving long jail terms on charges ranging from anticonstitutional activity to religious extremism.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Tajik, and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report.)