EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner has expressed confidence that the talks with the foreign ministers of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan will boost cooperation between the EU and Central Asia countries.
"There is a huge scope for cooperation, and our relations are growing rapidly now," she said. "We will take concrete and practical steps to develop initiatives in the area of education but also the rule of law."
Speaking to RFE/RL from Ashgabat, Ferrero-Waldner insisted that Central Asia is becoming an increasingly important energy partner for the European bloc.
"Central Asia is a key partner in the energy market and has a huge potential here," she said. "But we are also stepping up our cooperation on the renewable energies, which is another important topic between us. And, of course, [we are talking] about diversifying our supply routes and the diversification of export routes."
The region is key to Europe's ambitions to diversify its energy supplies, which are now dependent on Russia. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are home to some of the world's biggest oil and gas reserves. But human rights groups are urging the EU to seize the opportunity to press Central Asian governments on human rights.
Anna Matveeva, a researcher with the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics, believes this week's talks are "significant."
"First, this is the first [such] meeting in [Turkmenistan], which has been an isolated country under the previous president, [Saparmurat] Niyazov," Matveeva says. "This signifies an opening of a new country to the international community in general and to the European Union in particular. Secondly, the level of representation of the Central Asian [governments] at that kind of meetings is growing. So that also shows a growing importance of the European game in the region."
The EU troika is headed by Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel and includes Ferrero-Waldner and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who is representing the EU's next rotating presidency. Pierre Morel, the EU's special representative for Central Asia, is also attending. The talks will focus on the implementation of the EU Strategy Paper for assistance to Central Asia, adopted in June 2007.
The strategy advances goals for deepening EU engagement in a number of policy areas in Central Asia, including economy and trade, energy, education, environmental protection, and security, but also human rights and the rule of law.
Ahead of the Ashgabat meeting, Ferrero-Waldner was in Dushanbe for talks with President Emomali Rahmon and other Tajik officials. At an April 7 press conference following her meetings, she called on Tajikistan to implement reforms so the country can fully benefit from the EU's assistance -- a recommendation that could apply to all five Central Asian states.
"It is crucial that the necessary political and economic reforms are pursued and also are being implemented in order to ensure sufficient impact on the economic development and also on the poverty alleviation throughout the whole country of Tajikistan," she said.
The European Commission says its assistance to Central Asian nations will total 750 million euros ($1.18 billion) between 2007 and 2013, a 90 percent increase over the previous period.
Matveeva says it is difficult to predict to what extent the EU strategy will bear fruit, but she noted that dialogue has already been developing over the past year.
"It is quite positive that the European Union came up with a strategy at all," she says. "Before that, there was very little political thinking on the region. It is too early to really expect there will be major results, but there are some things which have been already developing. One thing is that there is more intense dialogue with Uzbekistan, and there have been some measures taken since the strategy has been adopted."
Positive Steps By Tashkent
In October 2007, EU member states lifted for six months a visa ban on a number of top Uzbek officials accused of complicity in the mass killings in Andijon in 2005. The decision, which is to be reviewed later this month, was conditional on improvement in the human rights situation in the country. EU officials cited a number of positive steps taken by Tashkent -- among them three rounds of talks with the EU on the Andijon violence and human rights, the conditional release of some political prisoners, and the abolition of the death penalty.
Ferrero-Waldner told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that those moves were encouraging and noted that Uzbekistan is the first Central Asian country with which the EU has formalized such a human-rights dialogue.
"Human rights are, indeed, a very important part for us [in] our external relations, and therefore we really want to see an even better commitment," she said. "Of course, we are aware of different historical and cultural contexts in Central Asia when compared to the European Union and that reforms in the area of democratization, rule of law, and human rights will take a certain time."
In a statement issued on April 9, however, Amnesty International urged the EU and the Central Asian governments to start honoring their commitment to implement the human rights component of the strategy. The London-based group said both sides must clearly demonstrate that human rights "are an integral part of these interactions -- and not a fig leaf behind which either side is free to privilege economic cooperation over the promotion and protection of fundamental rights."
In a 15-page briefing paper released on April 8, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the EU to establish human rights benchmarks for Central Asian governments and to clearly link progress on the goals with possible future benefits. Speaking to RFE/RL's Tajik Service from Dushanbe, HRW Central Asia researcher Andrea Berg also urged the EU to consult on a regular basis with civil society as it goes forward with the strategy.
"Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to have regular consultations with civil society about the goals and the implementation of this strategy, and also to report in a more transparent way about the implementation of this strategy," Berg said.
Serious Shortcomings Remain
The New York-based group said the past year has seen some improvements, such as the release of several political prisoners in Turkmenistan. But it also said serious shortcomings continue to mar the human rights records of the five Central Asian states.
According to the HRW paper, Turkmenistan remains "one of the most repressive" countries in the world. In Uzbekistan, government repression and harassment have made it "nearly impossible" for most local nongovernmental organizations to function. Kazakhstan has not held a single national election in accordance with Western election norms, while pluralism and freedom of assembly are at risk in Kyrgyzstan. In Tajikistan, the government continues to violate fundamental civic rights and torture is "rife" in the criminal justice system.
Ferrero-Waldner said the April 10 opening of a Europe House in Ashgabat would give the EU a chance to work with Turkmen civil society on issues such as education, health, and access to the Internet.
Ashyrguly Bayriev, an RFE/RL correspondent in Ashgabat, said the new information center will help improve human rights in Turkmenistan, which has signaled that it is seeking closer ties with the West and plans to introduce more reforms.
Matveeva insists, however, that the EU has limited leverage on Central Asian governments.
"Of course, diplomatic resources [can have] some impact, but we cannot really expect miracles," she says. "These countries are not really dependent on the European Union politically, or economically, or in terms of security. And they have other players to turn to in case the relationship with the EU comes to a low point -- like China or Russia."
RFE/RL's Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report