BRUSSELS -- A delegation of European Parliament members (MEPs) is in Turkmenistan this week to assess the human rights situation in the country.
The visit could be pivotal in the bloc's decision on whether to upgrade its relationship with the Central Asian country.
The European Parliament is a co-decider together with EU member states on agreements struck with third countries.
Its Foreign Affairs Committee initially approved the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan in January, paving the way for the whole chamber to vote on its ratification in the next few months.
But a lack of human rights improvement in the country could now prompt the European Parliament to perform a U-turn.
Ana Gomes, a Portuguese MEP in the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL that the trip to Turkmenistan that she and five colleagues are undertaking will "make up their minds about the PCA."
She said, "It will very much depend on the perceptions and the information we will gather while we are there."Political Prisoners
Apart from meeting political leaders, including President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the delegation is also aiming to visit political prisoners, even though they harbor little hope of actually gaining access to the high security prisons.
The delegation will write a report after the trip to Turkmenistan that will serve as a basis for the Foreign Affairs Committee to decide on a possible deferral of the deal. The European Parliament would then likely vote on the issue in June.
Gomes is quick to point out, however, that a possible deferral of the agreement will not mean total isolation of the country.
"Nobody believes that disengagement, isolation will be a sensible recipe for any country, including those that are ruled by regimes that have any will to improve human rights and rule of law records," Gomes said.
A possible deferral of the partnership agreement will send the European Parliament on a collision course with the EU’s new diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS).
The EEAS has been keen to upgrade the current interim trade agreement that regulates contact between Brussels and Turkmenistan in the hope that it would give the EU more tools to influence the Turkmen regime.
The four other Central Asian republics have already signed a partnership agreement with the bloc and an EU source told RFE/RL that such an agreement would "engage the regime and strengthen the dialogue."
But there is also a split in the European Parliament about the future of the EU’s relationship with Turkmenistan -- one that surprisingly doesn’t run along party lines or the East-West axis that sometimes divides the EU parliament in foreign policy issues.
Instead it's "business vs. human rights," according to one source in the European Parliament.
The former group recognizes the potential of the country's gas reserves and its importance for future EU energy consumption. They also fear that a failure to engage Turkmenistan might push the country closer to Russia and China.
The European Parliament is split over the issue of Turkmenistan
MEPs from the other grouping might vote against the agreement because it lacks a monitoring mechanism to assess human rights improvement in the Central Asian republic. They will also point out that Turkmenistan has not reached any of the benchmarks necessary to be granted an upgrade in its EU relations.Benchmarks
The benchmarks include the release of political prisoners, a lift of travel restrictions for dissidents and activists, and access to the country by independent human rights monitors.
Among those hoping for a deferral is the New York-based campaign group Human Rights Watch. The organization's Veronika Szente Goldston says if the EU now concludes the deal or in any way upgrades its relations with Turkmenistan it "would be a travesty to the human rights principles that underpin the EU’s relations with third countries.”
Szente Goldston says she is surprised that the EU so far has not used the prospect of the partnership agreement to press for concrete human rights improvements, noting that Turkmenistan has expressed interest in closer relations with the EU.
"Promoting human rights and pursuing energy and other strategic interests are not mutually exclusive goals. The EU should be able to do both at the same time," Goldston said.
Exiled Turkmen human rights defenders agree the bloc can use the prospect of the partnership agreement more effectively to push for change.
Addressing the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Turkmen civil society activist Farid Tukhbatullin urged the EU to change its strategy in his country, pointing out that Brussels is aware of the dire political situation.
"I don’t understand why the European Union knows about it but why they don’t change strategy for Turkmenistan or for all Central Asian countries. It is just political dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue," Tukhbatullin said. "It has continued for 20 years [that] they have dialogue. Maybe in the future something will change. But people live and people die. For people 20 years is very long time."
His calls were also backed up Vyacheslav Mamedov, the head of the Turkmen Civil Democratic Union, who called on the EU to send a clear message to the regime in Ashgabat.
"All the human rights defenders from Turkmenistan want the EU to engage itself to protect civil society, human rights defenders and ask the authorities to free all the prisoners," Mamedov said.