German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier today told the Central Asian foreign-ministry officials that the EU wants to build stronger energy ties with the region.
Energy cooperation between resource-rich Central Asia and the energy-hungry European Union was the focus of the delegation's visit to the Kazakh capital, Astana.
EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner spoke about the EU energy hopes for Central Asia ahead of today's meeting.
"We will also speak about the corridors," she said. "I've said that we want to link up Kazakhstan with the Caspian Sea region, with the Black Sea region, with Ukraine toward the European Union. This is indeed a cooperation that will be there for many, many years to come."
What Ferrero-Waldner said about Kazakhstan is more generally true about Central Asia, where Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan both have substantial oil and natural gas resources.
Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohkhon Zaripov acknowledged the EU interest in energy resources but hinted there is room for other cooperation.
"We realize that Central Asia can be the object of serious interest for the whole world in the economic and other areas only as one whole [region], therefore I think meetings of this format will help us join our efforts in the future in uniting Central Asian countries and reaching the international arena," he said.
Zaripov added that security is a topic of interest for both the EU and Central Asia. The Central Asian states are now on the front lines of the battle against international terrorism and international narcotics trafficking.
Terrorism has hit Central Asia several times already and groups operating in the region have long-established ties with international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.
Narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan through Central Asia has become a common event. Annual narcotics seizures by governments in the region are measured in tons. Most of these drugs are intended for sale in Europe.
At the press conference following today's meeting it was unclear what progress was made toward bringing Central Asian natural gas and oil to markets in the EU.
Turkmenistan, which has some of the largest supplies of natural gas in the world, was the only Central Asian country not to send its foreign minister. Turkmen Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Khajiev attended instead but was not at the press conference.
That may be due to the second focus of the EU delegation's visit: human rights. There have been accusations that the EU is ignoring rights violations in Central Asia in order to improve its chances of receiving energy exports.
This issue was obviously raised at the meeting between EU and Central Asian representatives, but in the case of Uzbekistan it appears the message was not well received.
Our Kind Of Democracy
"As for our cooperation in developing democracy and strengthening civil society, we have also agreed that it is necessary to take into consideration the countries' national traditions, history, and the mentality of our peoples," Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov said at the press conference. "Hastiness in this matter, of course, can cause harm."
The EU still has sanctions on Uzbekistan because of the government's crackdown on protesters in May 2005. The Uzbek government still claims the protest turned into a coup attempt and the harsh measures employed by government troops were necessary.
Witnesses and rights groups say Uzbek security forces fired indiscriminately on the crowd of demonstrators, killing hundreds of them.
Norov implied that the EU does not know enough about Central Asia to comment on how the region should be governed.
"Unfortunately, in assessing the situation in Central Asia, it is still believed [in Europe] -- wrongly, in our opinion -- that the development of the state and law in the countries of the [Central Asian] region requires special efforts supposedly because of the absence of a tradition of the rule of law," Norov said. "It is widely known that civilizations flourished on the territory of Uzbekistan and other regional countries for thousands of years that were based on law, reason, and moral norms."
In the case of Kazakhstan, the EU has more leverage. Kazakhstan hopes to receive the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. Ferrero-Waldner noted this and said the implementation of democratic reforms was the key for Kazakhstan's hopes.
Kazakhstan And OSCE Chairmanship
"President [Nursultan Nazarbaev], in his speech recently, has mentioned that a lot of reforms will take place, but now we want to see those reforms and I think this would be a very important step forward and then I think there is a very good chance to see also the first Central Asian country in the chairmanship of the OSCE," she said.
Rustam Khaidarov, a political analyst from the Friedrich Ebert Fund in Tajikistan, said the EU is perhaps the best partner for Central Asian states and he gave reasons for this.
"The European Union is the only force -- the only geopolitical force -- that does not have economic, geopolitical, or geostrategic interests in the region," he said. "Russia and China come [to Central Asia] to protect their geopolitical interests and at any time they can look at what is happening and change their stance no matter what the situation is in the region."
He continued: "But the European Union cannot simply defend the interests of an individual country, therefore every government that is a member of the EU tries to base its cooperation in the direction of economics, security, and the fight against terrorism. They work with the countries of Central Asia. As concerns Tajikistan, this government should work with these [European] states that do not have geopolitical interests."
Ferrero-Waldner said there are more, albeit lower-level, EU-Central Asian meetings coming, some as soon as next month.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Normahmad Kholov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)