When Catherine Ashton took office late last year as the European Union's high representative for foreign policy, she promised quiet diplomacy.
As far as Kyrgyzstan goes, EU diplomacy has gone one better. The EU has been virtually invisible.
EU diplomats say the bloc's focus is on gathering information and stabilizing the situation. The information gathering was done by Pierre Morel, the EU's veteran envoy to Central Asia, who was dispatched to Bishkek on April 9. Morel was back in Brussels on April 14 to report to EU ambassadors.
Ashton told the European Parliament today that the orderly resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiev had reduced tensions in Kyrgyzstan. But, she added, "we still have important work to do."
By "we," Ashton appears to mostly mean the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, chaired this year by regional heavyweight Kazakhstan. The only evidence of direct contact with events on the ground Ashton gave today (apart from Morel's information gathering) was a phone call she had made to Kazakh Foreign Minister Saudabaev on Monday.
The EU's deference to Kazakhstan is understandable, given the complexity of Kyrgyzstan's clan relations, the north-south divide, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, and fears of a regional spillover effect.
But the bloc is also hampered by the fact that Kyrgyzstan happens to be a focal point for big power politics. It is host to the U.S. Manas air base, whose lease was extended by Bakiev last year, to the annoyance of Russia. The base is a vital staging post for NATO's resupply effort in Afghanistan, where most EU member states have troops on the ground.
All of this puts meaningful action in Kyrgyzstan well out of the EU's collective reach. Foreign policy remains a jealously guarded member-state prerogative within the EU -- and it is in the nature of national interests to diverge.
"What we cannot speak about we must speak over in silence," Wittgenstein once said. Applied to the letter, this advice would be tantamount to an admission of irrelevance on the part of the EU. This is something its top officials feel they can ill afford.
So Ashton went on at length today in the European Parliament about scope for EU action, promising the interim government "the necessary political, financial, and technical support," provided "it genuinely wants to join the democratic family."
Experience suggests, however, that it is highly unlikely that any assistance the EU could offer would be sufficient to guarantee democracy, human rights, or the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan.
It is also questionable the bloc could do anything to ensure the more immediate priority identified by Ashton: that Kyrgyz citizens and businesses "be able to go about their daily life without fear for their lives or their physical integrity."
-- Ahto Lobjakas