In a world whose energy needs will be 50 percent higher by 2030, Central Asia's massive gas -- and to a lesser extent oil -- reserves are a tantalizing prize. The competition is stiff; Russia, China, the United States, and Japan are all courting the governments in the region.
But Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are also among the world's most oppressive regimes. Their neighbors are not far behind. Only Kyrgyzstan qualifies as a "partially free" country in Freedom House's yearly ranking lists.
On the horns of a dilemma, the EU's first instinct is to have it both ways.
Addressing a November 13 high-level conference on EU-Central Asian economic cooperation in Berlin -- where several of the region's foreign ministers were in attendance -- EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the two sides' interests had become "closely intertwined." "To deepen our relationship is not one option among many -- it is a clear geopolitical imperative," she said.
The commissioner celebrated the sudden blossoming of political contacts, noting two foreign-minister level meetings had taken place this year already. She assured her audience that the meetings were a two-way street. "We attach an especially great importance to the fields of education, the rule of law, and a human rights dialogue," the commissioner noted.
Yet the agenda of the Berlin conference made no mention of any of these concerns, focusing exclusively on opportunities for trade and investment.
The Berlin conference took place under the aegis of the EU's new Central Asia Strategy, adopted in June at Germany's initiative Germany is determined to carve out a niche for itself in overseeing the EU's relations with its eastern neighbors -- and balance France's attempts to focus EU foreign policy on the Mediterranean. Sometimes called a new "Ostpolitik," Berlin's vision aims at elaborating a coherent and comprehensive set of EU policies for the former Soviet Union.
But although the Central Asia Strategy has what officials in Brussels call a "human rights component," the EU appears in a hurry to forge on with the other "components," foremost among them energy cooperation.
Thus, on November 15, the bloc's energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, arrived on his first-ever visit to Turkmenistan. His spokesman, Ferran Tarradellas, told RFE/RL a day earlier that the EU hoped Turkmenistan would become a major alternative energy supplier.
Tarradellas sought to put clear blue water between energy and the EU's human rights concerns. Piebalgs' visit, he said, was solely about the terms of the potential trade in gas. "We are talking about a commodity which we buy for money and we want to see the rules of the game [settled]. Human rights are not bought and not open to negotiation," he said.
What this means in concrete terms was not immediately clear. Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner's spokeswoman Christian Hohmann explained that progress in the field of human rights remained a precondition for a closer political relationship between the EU and Turkmenistan. She pointed to the stalled Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the two sides which the European Parliament refuses to endorse.
But pressed on whether the immensely lucrative prospect of energy trade is in any way conditional on human rights advances, Hohmann baulked. "I cannot give a clear answer," she said, adding, "In our policy, human rights concerns play a big role and will continue to do so. And we do think that dialogue and cooperation are the way to promote human rights [in Turkmenistan]."
The EU's optimism that closer links will automatically lead to improvements in rights standards has been bitterly contested by human rights organizations. The stakes were made very clear by Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, who warned in a statement issued on November 2 -- the eve of the visit to Brussels by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- that the EU had a "crucial opportunity" to influence developments in the country.
"Denial of freedom of expression, association, religion, and movement were egregious and longstanding aspects of [former President Saparmurat] Niyazov's tyranny, and we're just not seeing improvements in most of these areas," Cartner said. "The EU should stick to its own criteria for engagement and insist on progress before it deepens its relationship with Turkmenistan on specific reforms."
Talks, Not Sanctions
Yet EU officials privately concede that it is not likely current human rights concerns will affect the EU's pursuit of energy in the region.
In fact, the EU is quietly reviewing the premises of its foreign policy posture. Riina Kionka, the human rights representative of the bloc's foreign policy chief Javier Solana, has said the EU is reviewing its policies with regard to repressive regimes. She told a hearing of the European Parliament's human rights subcommittee on October 3 that the EU is currently involved in a "period of reflection" on the usefulness of sanctions against countries such as Uzbekistan.
In other words, the EU is coming round to the view that sanctions are counterproductive.
Recently, most EU states have supported Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009, in the face of determined opposition from the United States and a handful of other OSCE members.
At Germany's insistence, EU member states last month lifted a visa ban on a number of Uzbek top officials accused of complicity in the 2005 mass killings in Andijon. Uzbekistan is the most populous country in the region and its goodwill is vital for the success of the EU's Central Asia Strategy.
Similarly, officials in Brussels told RFE/RL there was strong pressure to relegate human rights to the margins of the agenda of a low-level EU-Uzbek cooperation meeting in Tashkent on November 14
There is a feeling in Brussels that the EU's hand is forced and the term "dialogue" has simply become a fig leaf for contacts whose agenda is largely dictated by the Central Asian governments. The EU simply has no leverage -- the resources of the countries attract other major players and the regimes there are apt to prefer the best deal.
Kazakhstan set the trend with its "multi-vector" policy of welcoming all suitors. Turkmenistan appears to be following suit. Its immense gas reserves have caught the eye of the EU, which is also mulling ways of cutting out the current middleman Russia by backing a trans-Caspian pipeline project.
The EU knows time is of the essence and realizes it is no position to dictate terms, least of all political conditions. Ashgabat is already under contract to supply Russia 80 billion cubic meters of gas annually. It has agreed to build a new pipeline to China capable of handling 30 billion cubic meters a year. The United States is sponsoring another 10 billion-cubic-meter gas transit link via Afghanistan to Pakistan where it will liquefy the fuel and ship it out.
To put this in perspective, the EU currently imports about 150 billion cubic meters of year of gas from Russia, or 25 per cent of its annual consumption.
Still, one industry insider told RFE/RL, the EU may be underplaying its hand. Both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the two countries with the biggest gas reserves in the region, are themselves keen to secure European business. "They know it is not a 'political market,' unlike Russia, and therefore it is more desirable for them," he said. Hence both countries' attempts to delay the finalization of a new transit deal with Russia, preliminarily agreed by their presidents in May this year. Both now appear amenable to EU-backed plans to build a trans- Caspian pipeline to Azerbaijan, which would eventually link them with European markets via Turkey.
However, both Ashgabat and Astana are aware that building direct links with Europe risks provoking Moscow's ire. Ashgabat especially is keen to secure guarantees from the EU that its income won't suddenly dry up if Russia should blockade its gas exports.
The EU is not a unitary actor when it comes to foreign policy, and major joint decisions need unanimity among the 27 member states. But Germany's size guarantees its views are heard. And Russia itself is increasingly becoming a factor in the bloc's Central Asia policy. Its increasingly authoritarian tendencies make it less dependable as an energy supplier, but also engender new worries in new member states who fear its growing power. Paradoxically, although loath to play into the hands of the repressive regimes in Central Asia, they feel that talking to them in order to try and undercut Russian influence in the region may be the lesser evil.