BRUSSELS -- With immense natural-gas fields located within reach, Turkmenistan is in a prime position to provide the gas needed to make the EU's Nabucco gas-pipeline project a reality.
But to get Ashgabat to agree to ferry gas across the Caspian Sea, from where it would be pumped to the pipeline's starting point in Turkey, fears have arisen that the EU would have to sacrifice its tough stance on Turkmenistan's dismal human rights record.
Following last week's visit to Ashgabat by Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, he indicated that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov awaits clear signals and concrete offers of cooperation from Brussels.
One signal of this -- and a clear step toward closer relations -- would be the conclusion of an Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) with Turkmenistan. The ITA has been blocked by the European Parliament since 2006 because of concerns over Turkmenistan's failings in the human rights arena.
The European Parliament has set clear conditions for giving the green light for the ITA. Any agreements with Turkmenistan, the parliament has stated, "must be closely linked to clear evidence that a process of significant improvement" in the area of human rights is under way, "as well as genuine signs that it will continue."
In a resolution passed in February 2008, it outlined its demands on key areas of concern: allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross free access; releasing all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience; abolishing restrictions preventing Turkmen citizens from traveling abroad; and allowing NGOs and human rights organizations to operate in the country.Putting Principles Aside
But with the most recent energy dispute between Russia and Ukraine putting newfound emphasis on the EU's Nabucco project, and the urgent need to get Turkmenistan on board as a supplier, European External Relations Commissioner Benito Ferrero-Waldner has called for more active engagement with Ashgabat.
"Unless the EU engages more, including through upgrading contractual relations, we leave the field open to other actors in the region who care little about improving the human rights situation," Ferrero-Waldner wrote in a letter to European Parliament Trade Committee Chairman Helmuth Markov.
Unless the EU engages more, including through upgrading contractual relations, we leave the field open to other actors in the region who care little about improving the human rights situation.
According to the "EU Observer," the Czech EU presidency has sent similar letters to members of the European Parliament, referring to the need to diversify European energy supplies by building the Nabucco pipeline.
Markov, however, insists that Turkmenistan needs to show real progress before the European Parliament can go so far as to agree to the ITA. "Turkmenistan has, with its new president, made a new start," he says. "But we still think that with regard to the human rights situation it has not achieved the level that we can say, 'Yes, we can go the next step and conclude the agreement.'"
Signing the ITA, Markov says, could be taken as a sign that the EU is upgrading its relationship with Turkmenistan, even as the parliament's Trade Commission has "open questions" that remain unanswered.
The European Commission, however, sees evidence of good faith on the part of the country's leadership. Addressing the European Parliament in December, Ferrero-Waldner said: "President Berdymukhammedov has undertaken a series of social and economic reforms and demonstrated an intention to reshape Turkmenistan's foreign and domestic policies, moving away from the legacy of the late President [Saparmurat] Niyazov."No Improvement In Rights
For their part, human rights experts say there is no tangible evidence of significant improvement. Maria Lisitsyna, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, says that although the benchmarks set by the European Parliament are the minimum, they have not been met by Ashgabat.
Nabucco would go through Turkey to avoid Russian control of Caspian energy resources.
"We can see that while the new government tries to announce some policy reforms and tried to do some very minimum steps in 2007. Last year it even didn't do the same action," Lisitsyna says. "So unfortunately we cannot speak about progress. We already see some backsliding this year."
A plenary vote about the trade agreement originally planned for March 9 has not officially been placed on the Parliament's agenda, a possible indication that the body is not ready to concede the Turkmen government has made "significant improvement" on human rights, and that it therefore will not agree to the conclusion of the ITA.
This leaves the EU and its parliament members facing the dilemma of how to ensure its future energy security without harming its global image as promoter of human rights and democracy.
The attempts to redefine the relationship with Turkmenistan quite plainly reveals this dilemma, according to Trade Committee Chairman Markov.
"The European Union has a legitimate interest in diversifying energy supplies. And in so far, Turkmenistan is a very important partner for the European Union in the future. There is nothing wrong with it, not at all," Markov says.
"The only question is: Should legitimate economic interests trump other interests?"