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Energy Or Values? EU's Central Asia Dilemma Discussed At Polish Forum

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov being welcomed to Brussels by the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso. Do energy or human rights concerns come first?
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov being welcomed to Brussels by the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso. Do energy or human rights concerns come first?
KRYNICA, Poland -- Experts meeting at the 19th Economic Forum in the Polish ski resort of Krynica have reached two conclusions about the future of relations between the European Union and Central Asia.

One was that, with its vast oil and natural-gas resources, Central Asia is emerging as an important region for the EU, which is dependent on energy imports.

The other was that the EU, its energy needs notwithstanding, must uphold democratic standards in Central Asia, which has been criticized for plodding reforms and disregard for human rights.

This is the first year the four-day Krynica forum -- which focuses largely on pan-European issues -- had dedicated discussion time to Central Asian issues.

Two seminars held on September 10 heard opinions from officials and energy experts from the EU, United States, and Russia, as well as the Central Asian states.

Import Diversification

Many panelists noted that the EU's complicated relationship with Russia, which serves as Europe's main energy supplier, makes it imperative that Europe diversify its energy sources.

Energy experts pointed out Central Asia's potential as an alternative source of oil and gas for the West.

Some of the Russian panelists, however, suggested it is unlikely Central Asian oil and gas will reach Europe anytime soon.

Konstantin Simonov, the head of Russia's National Energy Security Fund, said that in any case, there should be no competition between Russia and the EU over Central Asian energy resources -- and that Moscow and Brussels have shared interests in the region.

"The very interesting point is that today the same amount of gas that is extracted in Central Asia is already being supplied to the European Union and Ukraine. Here, lots of people consider Ukraine as a European country," Simonov said.

"That means that when we speak about who is more important there, Russia or Europe -- Europe thinks that control of Central Asia will solve Europe's energy resource problem, but here we somehow forget that all these energy resources are already in Europe," he continued.

"So the question is really about creating new routes for supplying energy to European consumers."

Simonov said Russia has already quit a number of its energy projects in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But he suggested that Europe wouldn't automatically "take Russia's place" in the energy-rich region.

"If anyone else is entering the Central Asian energy market as the next major partner, it will be China," he said. He added that China, unlike Russia, would use the energy for its domestic market rather than passing it on to another consumer.

Delicate Topics

Several participants focused on the dilemma Europe faces as it weighs its need for energy against its commitment to democratic values in its dealing with repressive regimes in Central Asia.

They said the EU should find a balance between addressing its own energy security and its principles.

Human rights activists and opposition politicians in Central Asia have in the past accused the West of turning a blind eye to unfair elections and appalling human rights situations in the region.

Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, said Europe gives off the impression that "Central Asia is all about oil and gas."

"We all know that the EU two years ago adopted a new strategy for Central Asia that has four main points -- energy security, the fight against extremism and terrorism, economy and trade, and human rights and democratization," Kabiri said.

Kabiri said that "in discussions about this new strategy" with representatives of other Central Asian countries and the EU, "we noted several concerns" related to the new strategy. "It seemed to us then that the main point of this strategy was energy security, and that the region was important to Europe only as a reserve fuel tank."

In what may be a sign of Europe's delicate relationship with Central Asia, the Krynica forum cancelled a scheduled seminar on authoritarianism and religious extremism in Central Asia.

One of forum organizers, who asked not to be named, said the seminar was cancelled because of the Uzbek delegation's displeasure with the topic of authoritarianism.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.