Central Asia: German Foreign Minister Seeks EU-Wide Policy
By Breffni O'Rourke
3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is nearing
the end of a tour that should take him to all five Central Asian republics --
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and
German officials say
Steinmeier expected to be discussing topics that include Central Asia's growing
importance as a source of energy. But Steinmeier's main aim is to investigate
firsthand the prospects for forging a unified European Union policy toward the
region as Berlin prepares to assume the EU Presidency in January.
Germany has said it wants to make development of EU relations with Central
Asia a priority of Germany's EU Presidency.
With this in mind, Steinmeier is in Central
Asia to gather impressions on how a common EU policy on the region might be
formulated. The German Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL that Steinmeier's trip is
"exploratory" and that this is the first time a foreign minister has visited all
five republics in a row.
Regional expert Matthew
Clements of Jane's analytical organization says European interest in Central
Asia has two strands. One is the desire to secure a share in the region's oil
and gas resources, particularly in view of the Europeans' fear of overdependence
on Russia. The other is to promote democratic government and stability in the
But Clements says Europe is not alone in turning its
attention to Central Asia.
"There is a lot of competition in
Central Asia at the moment, from Russia, from China, [and] from countries like
Japan, Korea, and India," Clements says. "I think we will see that Europe does
not want to be left out, it wants to have some say in those areas where its
energy is produced."
Clements says a clear common policy is
needed in place of the present "pretty weak" bilateral links between European
countries and Central Asian states.
Steinmeier started his trip in Kazakhstan, where on
October 31 he appealed for comprehensive reform throughout the whole region. He
said German investment --- and by implication other European investment in the
area -- depends on strengthening the rule of law.
After talks with
Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov and others, Steinmeier called Kazakhstan one of
the most politically open countries of Central Asia. He said that openness has
contributed to the "adventuresome" economic growth that resource-rich Kazakhstan
is experiencing. The timing of his comments appears to represent an oblique
recommendation of Kazakhstan's path to the other Central Asian
On the next leg of his trip, in Uzbekistan, Steinmeier
said the European Union is willing to lift limited sanctions it imposed in the
wake of the Andijon incident in May 2005, when protesters were shot down by
Uzbek security forces.
But in exchange for such a move, the EU wants a clear
commitment from President Islam Karimov that Uzbekistan's human rights situation
will be improved. The two sides hold talks in Brussels on November 8, and
Uzbekistan is being encouraged to present definite proposals at that meeting.
There is plenty of scope for improvement in Uzbekistan's
performance, according to Angelika Graf, a prominent rights activist in the
lower house of the German legislature, the Bundestag. Graf, who has just visited
Tashkent with a parliamentary delegation, tells RFE/RL that she regards that
country as a "police state."
"In my view, Uzbekistan is a police
state, and this is reflected in the human rights situation there," Graf says.
"We talked with [local] activists, and their descriptions were depressing. Some
of them had been in prisons or psychiatric institutions because they said things
the authorities did not like. From that alone, I conclude that the rights
situation in Uzbekistan is not good."
The willingness of the EU to remain engaged with
Uzbekistan -- and even more so with Turkmenistan and its oppressive regime of
President Saparmurat Niyazov -- illustrates the EU's policy of projecting "soft
power." The approach centers on persuasion rather than punishment.
In pursuit of this policy, Steinmeier visited Turkmenistan on November 2. He
held three hours of talks with Niyazov but admitted to journalists afterward
that they were unable to overcome "differences."
"The reason for
my trip to the Central Asian countries and my trip [to Turkmenistan] is
something you may have heard about," Steinmeier told reporters. "In the EU, I am
trying, with a view to Germany's half-year leadership of the [European] Council
[of the European Union] next year, to seek a new joint EU approach to Central
Steinmeier also managed to win permission for Graf's
Bundestag delegation to visit. The parliamentarians tried to gain entry to
Turkmenistan on their last trip to the region, but were unable to obtain visas.
Graf says she has low expectations of the situation they will
find there. "From everything I know, the [rights] situation is still
considerably worse in Turkmenistan than in Uzbekistan."
Steinmeier's itinerary includes a visit on November 4 to Kyrgyzstan. That
visit comes as protesters on the streets of the capital, Bishkek, and elsewhere
are calling for President Kurmanbek Bakiev and his team to resign if he does not
implement constitutional and other reforms.
The renewed political
tension in Kyrgyzstan illustrates the dangers to stability in Central Asia, and
arguably underlines why the EU wants a common policy to exercise its influence
Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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