The foreign ministers of all five Central Asian republics and other senior officials are expected to be on hand in Astana today for meetings that culminate on March 28 when Steinmeier -- representing the current EU Presidency -- will unveil the first draft of the EU's first-ever combined strategy for the energy-rich region.
The new EU strategy for Central Asia will primarily focus on energy cooperation, but will also offer significant increases in aid money and enhanced political contacts.
The German Foreign Ministry also announced that the delegation will raise the issue of human rights while in Astana.
Berlin has long indicated it wants the EU to upgrade its ties with Central Asia, which it regards as strategically vital.
The EU currently imports half of its energy needs, and the bloc's dependence on external sources is expected to climb to 70 percent by 2030. It is estimated in Brussels that the Caspian Sea region -- which encompasses Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and Iran -- could provide up to one-quarter of total EU energy needs.
However, Central Asia with its huge gas and oil reserves has so far languished in relative obscurity in EU foreign policy.
Germany, the EU's biggest member state, clearly thinks the time has come to change that approach.
Speaking in Brussels on December 19, Steinmeier tacitly acknowledged the EU fears being sidelined in the region by its big neighbors -- Russia and China.
"Despite its location in the immediate vicinity of Russia and on the Chinese border, a monopolization by both big neighbors is not desired [there]," Steinmeier said. "There are many in the region who are looking toward Europe with the expectation that Europe will take an interest in this Central Asian region."
Apart from energy cooperation, the new EU strategy will also hold out the prospect of closer political contacts with the five Central Asian countries, as well as increased development aid. EU contributions are expected to total some 700 million euros ($929 million) from 2007-13.
The EU's bid to develop direct energy links with the Central Asian countries is likely to be seen in Moscow as an unfriendly step.
Keith Smith, a former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania and currently a senior associate in the Europe Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told RFE/RL that the stakes are high for Russia, too. Smith said Russia needs its current near-total dominance in transiting Central Asian gas to meet its own delivery obligations to the EU.
"Unless they [that is, Russia] can control the Central Asians, they're going to have a hard time supplying themselves -- I mean supplying their contracts with Western Europe -- this is of course one of the reasons why they control Central Asia," Smith said.
Smith said that without being able to buy up Central Asian gas relatively cheaply Russia would be forced to raise domestic prices, and open up and reform its energy sector to attract Western investment.
The EU delegation to Astana includes EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and the EU's special representative to Central Asia, Pierre Morel.
The timing of the meeting appears auspicious for the EU.
Turkmenistan recently lost its eccentric strongman president, Saparmurat Niyazov. And the new leadership in Ashgabat is now mulling its options. Turkmenistan's gas exports are under contract to Russia's Gazprom until 2009.
Kazakhstan has been courting the EU for support for its bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. It is the second leading gas exporter in the region and has recently indicated it wants to diversify its export routes to the West, currently monopolized by Russia.
Uzbekistan, the third country in the region with significant gas reserves, is currently subject to EU sanctions owing to alleged human rights violations. However, the EU is due to review those sanctions in May, and Tashkent indicated recently that it may be prepared to meet some of the bloc's central demands.
Meanwhile, the EU's relations with Russia are on ice. Moscow refuses to ratify an existing multilateral energy treaty that would compel it to open its infrastructure to Western companies. Talks on a new EU-Russia strategic partnership are being blocked by Poland over a farm-trade dispute between Warsaw and Moscow. Russia currently supplies one-quarter of the EU's gas consumption -- 40 percent of the bloc's total gas imports.
EU-Azerbaijani Energy Cooperation
Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Azimov recently told European parliamentarians in Brussels that his country -- a key transit country and a potentially significant gas exporter in its own right -- is asking the EU to clearly declare its interest in an alternative transit corridor bypassing Russia.
"We signed last year a memorandum on energy partnership with the EU," Azimov said earlier in March. "But I'm talking now about the further extension of this. It is not only between Azerbaijan and [the] EU. It is between Azerbaijan, [the] European really interested consuming nations, [the] European transit nations, and Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan -- [the] trans-Caspian link."
Central to efforts to diversify EU gas imports is the projected Nabucco pipeline, running from Turkey to Austria. Scheduled to become operational in 2011, its capacity could rival that of the Russian-German Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea. However, Nabucco's commercial viability is in doubt after Hungary signed a separate pipeline deal with Russia in March.
There is little unity within the EU on external energy policy. But the dividing lines are less clear-cut than they initially appear. Germany, one of Russia's closest backers, is now spearheading the Central Asian initiative with its focus on diversifying energy-import sources and routes. France and Italy, also considered close to Moscow, are less dependent on Russian imports due to their proximity to North Africa with its huge gas reserves.
It is Russia's fiercest critics in Eastern Europe, paradoxically, that remain the most dependent on its energy supplies.