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EU Focusing On Kyrgyzstan's Future As It Meets With Central Asian Ministers

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Protesters burn a portrait of ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev on the streets of Bishkek on April 8.

Protesters burn a portrait of ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev on the streets of Bishkek on April 8.

BRUSSELS -- The European Union is turning its yearly meeting with the five Central Asian countries into a regional forum on the future of Kyrgyzstan.

EU officials say Kyrgyzstan will dominate today's talks in Brussels, first in a regional roundtable format and later in EU "bilaterals" with each of the five countries.

Without overtly acting as a mediator, the EU is keen to smooth Kyrgyzstan's planned political transition in the wake of the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiev in an uprising earlier this month.

The meeting will be hosted by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, stepping in for the EU high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, who is in Japan. Spain currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency. Kyrgyzstan will be represented by acting Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior EU figure told RFE/RL in Brussels that the bloc's focus is on ensuring Kyrgyzstan's new constitution meets international standards.

"The constitution is the first priority," the official said. "When it is done, it's done," he said, meaning it will irreversibly shape the country's future.

The EU's lead role in constitutional and institutional reform is intended to complement what Brussels sees as the "broader" mandates of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, giving those two bodies more latitude for direct political intervention on the ground.

The EU is now "in the right spot at the right time -- and can't think of a better role," the EU source said, summing up the bloc's strategy.

Roza Otunbayea
Kyrgyzstan was plunged into chaos earlier this month as Bakiev was forced to flee the country after violent and deadly protests following tax hikes and a widespread perception of government corruption. An interim government, headed by Roza Otunbaeva, has taken charge and petitioned for international monitoring and assistance.

The EU official said the bloc has been working closely with the Council of Europe's advisory body, the Venice Commission -- which it funds -- providing guidance on the drafting of the new constitution and preparations for elections on October 10.

The bloc's foreign ministers, who met in Luxembourg on April 26, issued a statement saying they want to see a democratic government in Kyrgyzstan "that fully respects the rule of law and human rights."

Officials say the EU is fully sympathetic to the Kyrgyz provisional government's intention to sharply curtail the powers of the president. Bishkek's interim authorities this week presented a draft constitution -- to be put to a referendum on June 27 -- that would give more power to parliament.

The EU is preparing to provide direct humanitarian assistance to the victims of the recent disturbances, although international nongovernmental organizations are seen as having met the most immediate needs. In the longer term, the EU is also ready to dispatch experts to advise the new government on institutional reforms.

Speaking in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, Pierre Morel, the EU's representative to Central Asia -- and now special envoy to Kyrgyzstan -- said the bloc does not intend to formally recognize the country's interim government. Instead, he said, the EU is keen to stabilize the precarious situation on the ground.

However, diplomats suggest the EU is also unwilling to risk becoming embroiled in regional power games. Russia was highly critical of Bakiev's decision to extend the lease of a U.S. transit base at Manas airport -- a crucial link in NATO's Afghan resupply chain.

Pierre Morel
Morel -- who was appointed the first French ambassador to Kyrgyzstan in 1992 -- said EU officials have had long-standing contacts with most of the country's new leaders. He said the EU ministers' statement on April 26 constitutes a "clear message to prevent any sort of backsliding" in the country -- and one, he said, that has been "well understood in Bishkek."

The EU envoy said the bloc was now awaiting "concrete answers" from the Kyrgyz interim government.

Morel said the EU wanted the new constitution to eschew any federal solutions for the country's internal divisions. He argued for a national party system specifically designed to suppress clan rivalry, which remains one of the biggest threats to stability in the country.

Questioning the EU's current strategy, some members of the European Parliament on April 27 said it remained too general. A number of deputies also said the EU should have been more attentive earlier this year when Russian media launched what appeared to have been a carefully orchestrated campaign against Bakiev.

Morel said on April 27 that the events in Kyrgyzstan will lead to a reappraisal of the EU's Central Asia strategy, adopted in 2007, with a greater emphasis expected to be given to Afghanistan, Iran, the threat of Islamic extremism, and regional water and border management.

One weakness that Morel has identified in the EU's policy toward Kyrgyzstan is the thinness of its diplomatic presence on the ground. Like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan long lacked EU representation until an office was opened in February.