BRUSSELS -- The European Union's long-stuttering relationship with Central Asia seems finally to have taken off.
Participants in the second EU-Central Asia Ministerial Conference, which took place in Brussels on September 15, were unanimous in seeking to minimize their differences.
It is early yet for either side to speak of concrete dividends. But after the second meeting in 10 months between officials from the five Central Asian countries and the 27 EU member states, the improvement in atmosphere was palpable.
The EU dialogue with the region started in earnest in June 2007, when the bloc adopted its first-ever Central Asia "strategy."
The death in December 2006 of Turkmenistan's eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov had been one turning point.
Another was the EU decision in October 2007 to freeze the majority of the contentious sanctions it had imposed on Uzbekistan in the wake of the bloody 2005 Andijon crackdown.
A third key moment came when the EU threw its weight behind Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010.'Most Worthwhile Day'
Yet the first EU-Central Asian meeting in Paris in December 2008 was still a relatively awkward affair. Last night, however, Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, speaking for the current EU Presidency, was able to offer a gushing thumbs-up to the current state of the relationship, saying he had spent "a most worthwhile day."
"I think I can say from the European Union's point of view that we have found the dialogue that has been deepened by each [EU] Presidency to be most interesting, constructive, and fruitful," he said.
Bildt said the bloc's incoming Spanish presidency has promised to continue working closely with the Central Asian countries between January and July 2010.
The EU-Central Asia ministerial conference in Brussels
Central Asian representatives, in turn, expressed their contentment and gratitude at the current state of affairs.
At a press conference, foreign ministers Kadyrbek Sarbaev of Kyrgyzstan, Hamrokhon Zarifi of Tajikistan, and Vladimir Norov of Uzbekistan were joined by Kazakhstan's Deputy Foreign Minister Konstantin Zhigalov in their praise of the EU and the meeting.
Turkmenistan's Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Hajiev, although present at the meeting, continued his country's usual policy of not exposing its politicians and civil servants to public scrutiny, and did not attend the press conference.
Significantly, all Central Asian representatives delivered their remarks at the press conference in English, in contrast to the meeting in Paris in December 2008, where most had opted for Russian.Distance 'Very Great'
Uzbekistan's Norov acted as an informal spokesman for the region when he said that, for the first time, there was a sense among the Central Asian ministers that their views were understood by the EU.
"I join my colleagues, and I would like to emphasize that the Swedish Presidency was important not only for Sweden [but] for us too," Norov said, "because it allowed the Swedish side to understand Central Asian problems [more], to understand more the perspective of Central Asia, because the distance between Central Asia and Sweden is very [great]."
Norov said that in contrast to last December's Paris meeting, real discussion and attempts to secure a common approach were in evidence on September 15. Summing up his feelings, the Uzbek foreign minister said, "We can now be sure we can benefit from these meetings."
According to EU accounts, the four-hour meeting was dominated by the issue of Afghanistan, easily the most urgent international issue of intense interest for either side. Bildt noted that EU foreign ministers had spent much of their morning in a separate meeting discussing the tense situation in Afghanistan after the still-inconclusive August 20 presidential vote. He said the EU has great interest in the experience of the Central Asian countries, given their proximity to Afghanistan.
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbaev
Another hot topic was the global economic crisis, which has hit Central Asia hard. In an interview published on the website of the EU Council of Ministers ahead of the Brussels meeting, the EU special representative for the region, Pierre Morel, noted that the relatively open economy of Kazakhstan has been particularly hard hit.
Tajikistan is suffering from a serious drop in remittances sent home by workers in Russia and elsewhere. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with their closed economies, have fared "considerably better," Morel said. The EU is worried about the social effects of the economic squeeze on the volatile region, which is already rife with crime and drug use, and is susceptible to religious fundamentalism.
Energy remains a crucial EU interest, although concrete collaboration is held up by the absence of direct pipelines between Europe and the region. Morel in his interview noted that the EU has "memorandums of understanding" with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and "active contacts" with Uzbekistan. All three could pump significant gas volumes into the planned Nabucco pipeline -- which Morel says will be operational in five to seven years -- assuming a trans-Caspian link is also put in place.
The EU is keen to play a role in helping the Central Asian countries resolve their chronic tensions over access to water, and is drawing on the experience of the countries along the Danube River in Europe. Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister Norov indicated, however, that Tashkent prefers to put its faith in a UN convention on international water use, and called on his country's neighbors to respect international law.
Environmental issues, the fight against organized crime, and trafficking in drugs and human beings were also broached at the meeting. The Central Asian countries raised the topic of religious extremism, while the EU urged countries in the region to respect human rights and aspire toward rule of law.