Germany has been working for months to establish the EU as a major player in energy-rich Central Asia.
After meeting a Kazakh delegation in Brussels on February 13, German deputy foreign minister, Gernot Erler, said a draft of the new regional strategy will be presented to all five Central Asian foreign ministers in the Kazakh capital on March 28. After receiving feedback, Germany will then take the strategy to the EU's June summit for what it hopes is final endorsement by the bloc's leaders.
Developing Good Governance
Erler said the strategy will address issues ranging from democratic reforms to economic cooperation.
"[Our] point of departure is that we are attaching a growing importance to the whole region, in terms of security policy, economic opportunities for the EU that could arise from cooperation with the region, and, naturally, also when it comes to our values and principles, where we believe that support to democratization, the development of both good governance and [the] rule of law can also together contribute to the stability of the region," Erler said.
Erler said the strategy will not be a "philosophical" document, but will outline the EU's concrete interests.
He said Germany does not envisage the EU in competition with Russia, the United States, China, or Japan -- the established outside players in the region. Instead, the EU wants "transparent communication" with the Central Asian governments and other interested partners.
Kazakhstan And The OSCE
Berlin has identified Kazakhstan as key to the success of its new strategy. Germany is now working hard to drum up support within the bloc for Astana's ambition to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in 2009.
Erler said Berlin has secured the backing of most EU member states.
"An overwhelming majority within the EU supports [the Kazakh candidacy], as we believe that it could lead to a strengthening of the OSCE in its work not only in the region, but also outside," Erler said.
He declined to name the countries that oppose the Kazakh bid. Outside the EU, the United States has been one notable skeptic.
Within the EU, according to Erler, differences remain over "nuances" -- such as the extent to which Kazakhstan's enthusiasm for the OSCE chairmanship can be trusted to inspire democratic reforms.
Germany has already expressed its support. But Erler said on February 13 that Kazakhstan will still need to send a "signal" with further changes to electoral law, media freedom, and legislation on political parties and nongovernmental groups.
Commitment To Human Rights
Although economic and energy cooperation in particular figure prominently in Germany's thinking for the incipient Central Asian strategy, Erler said ulterior motives will not compromise the EU's commitment to human rights.
Kazakhstan's representative at the February 13 meeting, Agriculture Minister Akhmetzhan Yessimov, assured his hosts that years of EU pressure are producing results.
"Indeed, we hear out [criticism] with great attention," Yessimov said. "We might have our own views on and approaches to some questions, but on the whole, we take the opinions expressed very seriously. We study them. And in these fields, the field of democratization, with the participation of the EU, we have achieved substantial results over the past nine years, and the tone of the opinions expressed is indeed today changing."
Kazakh officials have argued in the past that the OSCE needs to reflect more adequately the diversity of its membership and would benefit from Central Asian leadership. Erler acknowledged that former Soviet countries would like to see more "balance" in the organization -- something that Germany appears to concede is necessary to ensure the continued relevance of the OSCE.
Looking At Kyrgyzstan
Looking for positives, Erler highlighted the relatively advanced state of reforms in Kyrgyzstan.
After talks with the Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov also on February 13, Erler said that country has a "special role" to play in the EU's Central Asia strategy owing to its vibrant civil society.
"We believe that Kyrgyzstan has a special role here, in its context and in comparison to other [Central Asian] countries, as there exists in Kyrgyzstan an unusually lively civil society, one that among other things contains many active women," Erler said.
Erler described Kyrgyzstan as an "active and constructive participant" in Germany's work so far to promote a new EU strategy.
Erler also offered mild criticism on Kyrgyzstan's reforms, saying constitutional and legislative changes must continue. He focused on the justice and legal sectors, and said future Kyrgyz stability hinges on respect for human rights and the rule of law, "fair" treatment of the opposition, and the modernization of its penal system.
He also warned that corruption and organized crime remain a "great challenge" for Kyrgyzstan.
Central Asia's proximity to Afghanistan and its problems might contribute further to the EU's acute interest in the region. Erler noted that "practically all" of Europe's heroin reaches the continent via Central Asia. International terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism are among Europe's other central concerns.
READY TO LEAD THE OSCE? Kazakhstan has been lobbying to be granted the rotating chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. In March, current OSCE head Karel De Gucht visited the country and said Kazakhstan is better prepared to head the OSCE than any other Central Asian country. But concerns about the state of democracy, the media, and ethnic relations make Kazakhstan's bid extremely controversial....(more)