Brussels, 15 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- This week, European Union External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten tours Central Asia -- the first trip to the region by an EU commissioner in eight years.
"I would also like to note that Central Asia is important to the EU, that we see EU enlargement as an opportunity -- and the fact that many of the countries are joining the EU have had very close contacts with the former Soviet Union countries -- as an opportunity to strengthen ties between the EU and Central Asian countries."
The trip -- to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan -- is hoped to express the EU's interest in the region, but analysts say Patten faces a delicate balancing act. None of the four countries is regarded by the EU as a functioning democracy. Patten will be warning all four to respect human rights, freedom of expression, and the rule of law if ties are to improve. He will also press for market reforms.
At the same time, he will be careful to acknowledge whatever progress has been visible in the past few years in order to promote constructive dialogue, which the EU believes is the best way to bring about change. The countries' proximity to Afghanistan means they are increasingly given center stage by the EU in its efforts to combat terrorism, drugs trafficking, and illegal immigration.
Patten's spokesman Diego de Ojeda said on 12 March that the visit is intended to increase the "visibility" of the EU in the region. "There are a number of common elements, of course, to the visit," he said. "The commissioner will be discussing bilateral relations with each of the countries and a number of common elements such as drug trafficking, terrorism, and the need to pursue political and economic reforms, including human rights and the rule of law. I would also like to note that Central Asia is important to the EU, that we see EU enlargement as an opportunity -- and the fact that many of the countries are joining the EU have had very close contacts with the former Soviet Union countries -- as an opportunity to strengthen ties between the EU and Central Asian countries."
However, de Ojeda said, this is an offer that the countries in the region must themselves "take up." He said that above all, they will need to respect basic EU values, such as human rights.
EU officials acknowledge that for the foreseeable future, Russia will remain the region's most important outside partner. They noted Russia's growing military and political influence in many Central Asian countries.
However, Daniel Guyader, a senior external relations specialist at the commission, also noted the interest shown by the United States and China. He said the EU, too, is striving for a more substantial presence, albeit with "different objectives" -- meaning the bloc prioritizes development assistance over immediate security-political considerations.
Patten's tour will not include Turkmenistan, with which EU officials say "dialogue is difficult."
A background note issued by the commission says Patten will not be discussing the extension of the EU's "new neighborhood policy" to Central Asian countries. The document stresses the bloc's interest in the region stems from its "geo-strategic importance,” highlighted by recent "global events," including last week's railway bombings in Madrid.
Concerning Kazakhstan, Patten's first stop, officials in Brussels make no secret of the importance the EU attaches to energy cooperation. However, they warned on 12 March that Patten will use his visit to highlight a number of other concerns.
Milko van Gool is a Central Asia expert at the European Commission. Van Gool said Kazakhstan's conduct in the run-up to this year's elections will be a crucial consideration. "In the context of [the] Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, [its] implementation, [Patten] will emphasize the importance to the EU -- and Kazakhstan -- of shared values, and he will make clear that any enhancement of cooperation and dialogue with the EU will, of course, be conditional upon Kazakhstan's proven commitment to the shared values. In that respect, he will also refer to Kazakhstan's cooperation with the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and that especially in view of recent developments and new legislation," Van Gool said.
Kazakhstan recently brushed off OSCE attempts to amend laws imposing severe restrictions on independent media ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections.
A background note issued by the commission highlights Kazakhstan's aspirations for closer ties with the EU, saying two years ago the country applied for a "privileged partnership." This ambition, however, is now said not to be matched by any "significant or tangible" political commitments.
However, as part of what EU officials described on 12 March as a "balanced message," Patten will take positive note of Kazakhstan's moratorium on the death penalty, as well as ongoing judicial and prison reforms. Patten will also "balance" his assessment of Kazakhstan's economic reforms.
Van Gool said efforts to restructure the economy appear "on the whole" to be moving "in the right direction." However, he noted, EU investors have reported problems. Although Kazakhstan's energy sector has attracted huge volumes of investment, these are often made despite, not as a result of, measures taken by the government.
Van Gool said Kazakhstan appears to practice "economic nationalism," requiring investors to accept a "very heavy" local content component in goods, services, and labor. This, he said, would be in violation of World Trade Organization rules -- if and when Kazakhstan joins.
Kazakhstan received 135 million euros ($165 million) in EU aid between 1991-2001.
Patten's next stop will be the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
Commission official Guyader said on 12 March that Tajikistan is in a slightly different situation from the other countries due to its civil war between 1992 -97, the effects of which are still felt. As a consequence, relations with the EU lag behind the others. A formal partnership and cooperation agreement with the country was tentatively agreed last December, but it now awaits signatures and ratification.
Tajikistan is seen by the EU as one of the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the area. Guyader noted that Tajikistan's common border with Afghanistan contributes to heightened risk of destabilization, adding nonetheless that the country plays a key role in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.
Criticism of Tajikistan's political record is likely to be relatively muted. The commission's background document says Tajikistan will be advised to "move the peace process forward," as well as demonstrate continued commitment to consolidating democracy and establishing a market economy.
The document also says the EU will "carefully follow" parliamentary elections in February 2005, and expects the OSCE to send monitors. The EU will also push for reforms of the agriculture and banking sectors to help modernize the Tajik economy and curb poverty.
Tajikistan's trade with the EU remains negligible, amounting to 100 million euros ($122 million) in 2002. Its main export is textiles. On the other hand, Tajikistan is the region's largest recipient of EU aid, having received 330 million euros ($404 million) between 1991-2001.
Kyrgyzstan, like Tajikistan, in the view of the European Union, displays a high potential for destabilization. Milko van Gool, a Central Asia expert at the European Commission, said stability remains the EU's foremost concern in bilateral relations.
He said improving regional cooperation is particularly important in this respect, in view of its contribution to establishing sound economic fundamentals. "What the commissioner [Patten] is going to do when he goes to Kyrgyzstan is again to broach the issue of regional cooperation,” Van Gool said. “Kyrgyzstan, together with Tajikistan, is probably the country suffering most from the lack of proper cooperation between the countries in Central Asia. The problems range from borders being blocked for cross-border trade to problems with the transit of products and labor on their way to Russia, which is where many, many contract workers both from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan go, and this contributes significantly to their own economies."
In terms of its economy, Kyrgyzstan -- although the smallest country in the region -- is said to be "ahead of the pack" with reforms. Although the commission describes the reforms as "not necessarily effective," they are seen as worthy of EU support.
Kyrgyzstan's trade with the EU was worth 110 million euros in 2002, while the country received 100 million euros in EU grants between 1991-2001.
Van Gool said Patten will recognize a number of positive political developments, such as the moratorium on the death penalty in place since 1998, complemented by plans to abolish it completely by 2006. He also noted the existence of an active and independent indigenous "ombudsman" monitoring prison conditions and human rights in the country.
On the other hand, the EU will also convey a "message of concern," urging free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005. Patten will also bring up the need to improve dialogue with opposition and civil society.
The commission's background paper says Kyrgyzstan can expect praise as a "reliable partner" in the war against terrorism, having made its Manas air base available to EU member states in the international fight against terrorism.
Patten will finish his tour in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Officials say Uzbekistan is seen as a key country in improving regional cooperation, noting, however, that its present record has many shortcomings when it comes to democratization, the rule of law and human rights.
Commission official Guyader said: "The visit to Uzbekistan is important because it's a country that has to face up to numerous problems, in particular in the spheres of human rights and democratization. These are issues the commissioner will raise in his meetings with Uzbek authorities, and for him these are essential elements in the dialogue within the framework of the [EU-Uzbek] partnership and cooperation agreement, and in particular the political dialogue."
Officials say the EU condemns Uzbekistan's practice of carrying out death sentences. Uzbekistan will also be urged to address the serious criticisms contained in a recent United Nations report on the use of torture. However, Guyader said that despite the difficulties, the EU prefers dialogue to isolation. He also noted that engagement with Uzbekistan remains "easier" than that with Turkmenistan, and has already yielded certain advances.
He went on to note that Uzbekistan has suffered more than its Central Asian neighbors from terrorism, while remaining a strong supporter of the international coalition in Afghanistan.
On the economic front, the EU has welcomed Uzbekistan's decision last October to allow for full external convertibility of its currency. However, Patten will ask Tashkent to do more to open its economy to private investment.
EU-Uzbek trade totaled 805 million euros ($985 million) in 2002, consisting mostly in Uzbek textile exports, of which most was made up by cotton yarn and gold. Uzbekistan received 118 million euros worth of EU aid between 1991-2001.