RFE/RL: What is the aim of your visit to Ashgabat, and what is on the agenda of the EU delegation's meetings with Central Asian foreign ministers?
Benita Ferrero-Waldner: Well, first of all it's the third time in one year that the European Union foreign ministers' troika has met with their counterparts from all five Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. And this of course reflects the strengthening of our relations between the European Union and Central Asia following the adoption in June last year of an EU strategy on Central Asia. That means there is an increased intensity, there is a huge scope for cooperation, and our relations are growing rapidly now.
We will take concrete and practical steps to develop initiatives in the area of education, but also the rule of law. And our efforts will, indeed, include an intensified dialogue at all levels, and resources from the European Union side to promote cooperation. So, for instance, with regard to education, we want to increase the number of Central Asian students coming [to] the European Union to study. In the area of rule of law, we will increase the support for judicial reform, including for instance the training of judges.
Then, poverty reduction remains of course a key issue. It's evident that the situation in some parts of the region asks for specific measures to guarantee energy supplies in the short term, as well as to deal with increasing food prices. Then, of course, we are also keen to support business development. And therefore we also will discuss the launch of an important new program called EU-Central Asia Invest. This is a 5 million euros aimed at promoting the private sector and small and medium enterprises. On the whole...we have nearly doubled our allocation to the region. Between 2007 and 2010, we have allocated 314 million euros for regional and bilateral cooperation in Central Asia, 70 percent of which will be used for direct bilateral assistance and [the] 30 remaining for the regional aspect.
And then, of course, there are two major issues here too. One is that Central Asia is a key partner in the energy market and has a huge potential. But we are also stepping up our cooperation on renewable energy, which is another important topic between us. And, of course, [we are talking] about diversifying our supply routes and the diversification of export routes. Finally, I would say there is also an environmental dialogue. And this is well-established, and its focus is presently on water issues. An EU-Central Asia water working group meets regularly and has agreed to begin a national water policy dialogue in Central Asia. And I think that will help the national water-management difficulties that are there.
RFE/RL: Regarding energy cooperation, what is the EU seeking from Central Asia?
Ferrero-Waldner: Well, first of all, I think it's important that we really diversify [not only] our energy resources but also the transit routes. I'm just coming back from a very interesting meeting with the president of Turkmenistan, and I must say in principle he is open to supply [energy resources] also to Europe. We talked particularly about gas. It all depends, of course, on the market prices. And it will certainly also help them develop their market, but on the other hand it will give us another supply source.
RFE/RL: What issues are you going to discuss with Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov?
Ferrero-Waldner: Well, with Minister Norov there will also be the question of human rights, because as you know, human rights are indeed a very important part of our external relations. And therefore we really want to see an even better commitment. Of course, we are aware of the different historical and cultural context 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. But at the same time these are committed members of the OSCE....
For us Uzbekistan is an important country in Central Asia, and, of course, we would like to see strong relations with them, but at the same time there were the Andijon events [in May 2005]. The European Council in October last year agreed to suspend the visa ban in light of the developments [regarding] Andijon, including the intensified dialogue in the human rights area. And that decision will be reviewed later this month. So for me it's not yet possible to say what the decision will be, but what we want to do is to re-engage with Uzbekistan, and part of this re-engagement is indeed a more intensive dialogue on human rights. In fact, Uzbekistan is the first Central Asian country with which we have formalized such a human rights dialogue. The release of a number of human rights defenders in Uzbekistan was a positive sign, and that encourages us for further moves in the future. And we think the next dialogue should be held in May.
RFE/RL: Will the EU's talks with the Uzbek minister affect the European Council's review of the sanctions later this month?
Ferrero-Waldner: No, certainly not. We think it's clear that engagement is the best way for us to encourage positive developments in countries like Uzbekistan, where we have concerns about human rights. We think it will be a very important discussion leading to [broader] discussions in Brussels during the foreign ministers' meeting.
RFE/RL: Turkmenistan is set to hold parliamentary elections at the end of the year. Will the EU put pressure on Turkmen authorities to ensure fair elections and introduce a multiparty system?
Ferrero-Waldner: Well, we are always in favor of free and fair elections. That's clear. At the same time...we know that the developments are progressive and steady. What we have been discussing already is a human rights dialogue that is taking place with Turkmenistan, where the president is also open, and where we can engage more with the Turkmens.... We did negotiate a partnership and cooperation agreement and an interim agreement.
Now, unfortunately, given the political situation over the past years, it has not been possible to move forward. But we hope that Turkmenistan will go on this path of modernization, opening up, and that the European Parliament will also [agree] to use the interim agreement. And by the way, I will be opening tomorrow [April 10] the Europe House here in Ashgabat. That is a clear signal of our interest in engaging more with Turkmenistan, and this will give us a chance to work with the Turkmen civil society on questions like education, health, and Internet access. And this will certainly be another important element in this strategy.
RFE/RL: How do you assess current EU-Kyrgyz relations following the "Tulip Revolution" of March 2005?
Ferrero-Waldner: I think with Kyrgyzstan it is also important that we will be upgrading our offices, and we will be working with them. We want to encourage the Kyrgyz government to reach an agreement with its Central Asian partners, for instance, to organize a water summit in Bishkek. And we will then consider the issue further. There is also a proposal from Kyrgyzstan for this water academy. And, of course, further thinking is needed with regard to this proposal in order to avoid overlapping with existing institutions in the region. But it is highly important that all the issues that I've mentioned are also issues that we will discuss in detail with Kyrgyzstan during the bilateral meetings.
RFE/RL: The International Monetary Fund recently accused Tajikistan of misreporting financial information in order to secure $48 million in loans. Did this scandal alert the EU to possible risks in its financial dealings with Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries?
Ferrero-Waldner: Well, first of all, we are always very, very meticulous with our financial aid, and we have a lot of auditing and control systems. Secondly, on Tajikistan, where I was yesterday [April 8], we have at length discussed the question of misreporting to the IMF with the president, the foreign minister, the minister of economy, and the special adviser of the president. Indeed, I think the Tajik government now is trying to do -- or ask for -- a special audit in order to know where the misreporting happened, how it happened...and if the right measures are being taken. The whole international community will then discuss this together, and only then we will go on, working with them on budget support. So we are very careful about this, but at the same time I see a constructive, political will of the president to immediately correct this difficult situation.
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