BISHKEK -- The European Union's foreign policy chief says promoting democratic change in Central Asia can sometimes be a "painful process," but added that she sees signs of "encouragement," especially in Uzbekistan.
Federica Mogherini, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, also told RFE/RL in a wide-ranging interview on July 7 in the Krygyz capital that Central Asia should be free to cooperate with other powers as Europe, the United States, Russia, and China tussle for influence in the energy-rich region.
Mogherini's interview followed a day of meetings with the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries in Bishkek at the EU-Central Asia Forum.
Her meetings come amid a concern over a crackdown on anti-government protesters in Kazakhstan and political infighting in Krygyzstan.
Central Asia has significantly trailed other former nations of the Soviet bloc in carrying out democratic reforms -- such as holding free and fair elections, building an independent judiciary and allowing a free press -- since gaining their independence nearly three decades ago.
Mogherini said she raised these issues, and specific cases of activists behind bars, with her Central Asian counterparts during her meetings.
"They might not like everything that comes from us, especially the focus on human rights. Rule of law sometimes might be heavy for countries in transition," Mogherini said.
"It is sometimes a painful process. We don’t hide that there are differences and disagreements, but our approach is to encourage and support [these countries] and also to support single media representatives or single cases when it is needed," she said.
The last few weeks have again brought to the forefront the weak rule of law that pervades Central Asia.
Kazakh authorities have detained protesters around the country since hosting snap presidential elections last month.
Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, the hand-picked successor of former authoritarian ruler Nursultan Nasarbaev, easily won the election.
In Krygyzstan, authorities have brought corruption charges against former President Almazbek Atambaev, who calls the case against him politically motivated.
Mogherini said this year's meeting featured for the first time a civil society forum. The Central Asian ministers have agreed to host the forum at future meetings, something she called an "encouraging sign."
She highlighted Uzbekistan as one Central Asian country that has been making noticeable progress lately on human rights development.
"I have definitely seen a shift when it comes to the leadership of Uzbekistan in terms of willingness to, on one side, play a positive regional role and also in reforming the country quite deeply," she said.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has released hundreds of people imprisoned for their religious beliefs among other reforms he has enacted since taking power in 2016 following the death of authoritarian ruler Islam Karimov in 2016.
Prior to her meetings with foreign ministers in Bishkek, Mogherini stopped in Ashgabat on July 6 to open the EU's representative office in the Turkmen capital, the last of the five Central Asian nations without a full EU office.
The new EU office will have a full-fledged delegation status, an upgrade from the liaison office that the bloc has had in Turkmenistan for several years.
Mogherini told RFE/RL that having permanent ambassadors in the capitals of the five Central Asian countries helps the EU "to monitor progresses or problems on a daily basis."
Turkmenistan is one of the most tightly controlled countries in the world.
'Real Human Rights Changes'
Ahead of her trip to Ashgabat, activists urged Mogherini to focus on promoting human rights in Turkmenistan.
Rachel Denber, a top official with the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, called on Mogherini to tell the Turkmen government that the new EU office "will spare no efforts to press for real human rights changes in the country."
Human rights and rule of law were not the only issues on the agenda in Ashgabat and Bishkek. Mogherini said she has discussed "in general terms" with her Central Asian counterparts how energy projects can bring benefits to both Europe and the region.
Europe, the United States, Russia, and China have been jockeying for influence in the region, which holds significant oil and gas reserves needed to fuel Western and Asian economies.
Since the 1990s, Western nations have unsuccessfully pushed for the building of a gas pipeline under the Caspian Sea to deliver energy from Turkmenistan to Europe, thus avoiding Russia.
Turkmenistan holds some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world.
Mogherini said the ministers did not go into details of any single energy transport project to Europe.
She also said Europe's growing relations with Central Asia do not come at the expense of other powers seeking influence.
"We are not asking them to choose between the EU and partnership with others. We believe that countries of the region can be good partners with us and other powers," she said.