BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament has given its initial green light to a partnership agreement with gas-rich Turkmenistan, aimed at bringing the Central Asian country closer to the European Union.
But the draft agreement has been criticized for risking legitimatizing a repressive regime.
The European Union and Turkmenistan signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) back in 1998, although its entry into force has long been postponed due to the uncertain political situation in the country and human rights concerns.
PCAs are the standard cooperation formats used by the EU to deal with countries that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. They provide a legal framework for political and economic dialogue and are aimed at supporting democracy and the development of a functional market economy.
The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee today adopted a motion for a resolution and a recommendation backing the entry into force of the agreement. This should lead to a conclusive plenary vote in May after the visit of a parliamentary delegation to Turkmenistan. Ratifications from the French and British parliaments are also still pending.
The PCA could definitively close an embarrassing gap, which made Turkmenistan for over 10 years the only country in Central Asia not bound to any human rights or pro-democracy clauses in its relations with Brussels.
To address this serious shortcoming, the European Parliament is asking for the inclusion in the PCA of a mechanism to constantly review the democratization of Turkmenistan. This would be the first time that the EU assembly engages in such a monitoring exercise.
"The agreement would be suspended if the human rights and democratization clauses will not be respected," underlined the member of the European Parliament (MEP) who is in charge of the dossier, Norica Nicolai of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe bloc, during the debate before the vote on 25 January.
Will It Promote Human Rights?
But MEPs remain split over the impact of the agreement. 162 amendments have been submitted to the motion for a resolution, drafted last September.
"It is often said that promoting trade will open states and ease repression, but this is obviously not the case in Turkmenistan," MEP Bart Staes of the Greens/EFA bloc, vice president of the Parliament's delegation for relations with Central Asia, told RFE/RL. "Closer cooperation between the EU and Turkmenistan has so far not brought improvements to human rights and democracy in the country."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed Staes' concerns in its last world report issued on January 24. "In 2010 the Turkmenistan government continued a return to the repressive methods of a previous era," the document says.
The NGO concedes that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in his first two years in office put an end to some of the most ruinous social policies of his predecessor, long-ruling dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006.
"But then his course appeared to reverse," HRW concludes, reporting in the last two years increased repression of Turkmen political and human rights activists, bans on leaving the country for ordinary citizens, no access to prisons for foreign observers, and a complete lack of media freedom.
"The Partnership and Cooperation Agreement is the best way to foster a culture of human rights. If we engage economically with these countries, we can ask more in terms of basic rights," argued MEP Paolo Bartolozzi, who chairs the European Parliament's delegation for relations with Central Asia.
Many disagree. "Thinking that engaging with the regime will bring some results is shortsighted. President Berdymukhammedov is not a reliable partner," Michael Laubsch of the Eurasian Transition Group says. "On the contrary, a higher engagement will strengthen the regime and reduce opposition within the country."
The case of Uzbekistan could be seen as an uncomfortable precedent of the potential negative effects of the engagement policy. The country concluded its PCA with the EU in 1999 but this did not prevent the massacre in the city of Andijon in 2005, when numerous protesters were killed by the security forces of the regime.
The latest developments in EU-Turkmen relations can be included in the context of an emerging softer line by EU toward Central Asian regimes, triggered by increasing competition from China and Russia to access the resources of the region.
Earlier this week, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hosted Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Brussels, despite heavy criticism by rights groups.
Turkmenistan is even more important since its gas reserves are considered fundamental for the diversification of the EU's energy supplies, with the bloc still overly reliant on Russian gas.
Barroso went on an official visit to Ashgabat on January 15 where he met President Berdymukhammedov with the intention to obtain reassurances over Turkmenistan's interest in Nabucco, the EU's flagship project aimed at bringing gas directly to the EU from the Caspian region.
No deal has been signed since that visit, but the commission is still hoping that regular contacts and a cooperation agreement can convince Berdymukhammedov to give more weight to the European option in the sale of its gas.