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Central Asia: Spurred On By Events In Kyrgyzstan, EU Struggles For A Vision

The uprising in Kyrgyzstan partly renewed the EU's interest in Central Asia The overthrow of the regime of President Askar Akaev in Kyrgyzstan in March has rekindled EU interest in the entire Central Asian region. However, although most EU actors agree the region has great strategic importance, there appears to be no strategic vision of how to promote political and economic reforms in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg today, EU officials painted a bleak picture of the current situation in the region and said instability and turmoil are a real threat.

Strasbourg, 11 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Everyone in the European Union agrees that the bloc has an enormous stake in the stable and democratic future of Central Asia.

At a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg today, that case was made most incisively by Elmar Brok, chairman of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. In the debate, Brok also represented the most populous political family in the chamber, the conservatives.

"It is a region that today has great strategic significance. It has strategic significance when it comes to gas and oil and other such matters to do with energy provision -- [given the backdrop] of a growing Chinese interest in the region; rising Islamic fundamentalism; and also because of the drug-trafficking routes that pass through parts of these countries," Brok said.
"I believe that we must try and work out a common interest with these countries in which they are considered something more than just a short-term basis camp for Afghanistan." -- Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

Pointing to Kyrgyzstan, Brok warned that one of the greatest sources of instability from the point of view of EU interest is presented by repressive regimes. As long as these regimes persist, the threat of instability and large-scale unrest remains.

Brok urged EU member states and the European Commission -- both directly responsible for the bloc's foreign policy -- to develop a common vision for the region that goes beyond the currently prevalent short-term concerns related to the war in Afghanistan.

"I believe that we must try and work out a common interest with these countries in which they are considered something more than just a short-term basis camp for Afghanistan," Brok said.

Brok also stressed that democratic reforms and economic transformation in the region depend on Russia's cooperation.

Nicolas Schmit, deputy foreign minister of current EU president Luxembourg -- which currently holds the EU Presidency -- said the EU believes its relations with the region have great significance.

Schmit said the deteriorating political situation in most countries in the region, the lack of regional cooperation, increasing socioeconomic tensions, and ethnic divisions within and across borders mean there is "great potential" for conflict. He traced the roots of the problem to the war in Afghanistan, saying the resultant increase in terrorism, drug trafficking, and Islamic extremism have all contributed to instability in the region.

Although Kyrgyzstan has played a major role in galvanizing EU interest in Central Asia, officials had little to say about the country's prospects. It appears the EU has no information regarding the longer-term intentions of the new leadership of the country.

Schmit said the situation remains "critical." Public order remained a problem and the potential for interethnic conflict remains high. He said a multiparty democracy is far from becoming a reality in the country. This is because political affinities are based on allegiances to individuals and regions and parties play a very limited role.

Preparations for the 10 July presidential election are hampered by what Schmit described as "major security considerations in a difficult economic situation," which could create huge problems for campaigning.

He noted that as the elections appear to be turning into a two-way race between the two frontrunners, Feliks Kulov and Kurmanbek Bakiev, much will depend on the ability of both men to compromise and their willingness to respect the final result. Schmit suggested that the loser in the race should become the country's prime minister.

He noted that free and fair elections in Kyrgyzstan represent no automatic guarantee of democratization. Greater challenges remain -- constitutional reform, early parliamentary elections, freedom of the media, and the development of a political life based on parties.

The situation in the other four Central Asian states is even bleaker. Schmit noted that the 2004 parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan did not meet international standards. Opposition forces only won one seat despite their consistent popularity. Schmit said the opposition -- as well as the media and civil society -- are denied access to public life, while the human rights situation continues to deteriorate.

In Uzbekistan, there was no opposition participation in the 2004 elections. Schmit said there is a "real risk of Islamic fundamentalism" in the country."

In Turkmenistan, there is no freedom of expression, no public debate, no opposition, and no prospect of political or economic reforms.

Schmit said Tajikistan has two significant problems -- worsening disputes between provinces and a deepening economic crisis.

Schmit indicated the EU will continue with its largely passive policy of engaging the governments in the region through existing mechanisms of cooperation. There will be a meeting in Ashgabat in early June to promote human-rights dialogue. EU officials will meet in Tashkent with representatives of the five Central Asian states at end of June. Kyrgyzstan will hold a foreign-minister level cooperation council with the EU in Brussels in June and Kazakhstan will follow suit in July.