by Ahto Lobjakas PARIS -- A meeting of foreign ministers from the European Union and Central Asia took place on September 18 in Paris, and the fact that it was the first time the two groups have ever met speaks volumes about the sensitive nature of the two regions’ relationship.
The EU is interested in Central Asia’s plentiful hydrocarbon resources, while the Central Asians are looking for international respect. Afghanistan and Russia loom large on both sides, adding further complexity and urgency to what is an evolving partnership.
The EU-Central Asia partnership is unlikely to ever be more than a marriage of convenience. Little links the two distant regions beyond commercial interests and a largely shared threat assessment.
The two sides’ interests converge at what can safely be described as the lowest common denominator. Both are overwhelmingly interested in the continued stability and security of Central Asia. Disorder and conflict in the region would post serious problems for Central Asian regimes and the EU alike.
After the conference, the host, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, listed the priorities on which the EU discussed cooperating with Central Asia.
"We discussed the trafficking of drugs and human beings, nonproliferation, the management of borders, the management of resources in the broader sense of the term, [and] terrorism," he said.
To be sure, the EU would benefit from a closer relationship with Central Asia, which has vast oil and gas reserves. To achieve this, the EU has to persuade the Central Asian countries to resist Moscow’s increasingly forceful overtures and build the necessary infrastructure to allow the transit of their hydrocarbons to Europe via the South Caucasus.
Between them, the EU’s security concerns and energy needs make up the lion’s share of the bloc’s Central Asian strategy, which was adopted in June 2007 under the German presidency.
Influence Of Afghanistan
The Central Asian countries with natural stores of hydrocarbons and other energy resources -- Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan -- are savvy enough to sell them to the highest bidder.
But regardless of their natural wealth, all five countries have a more fundamental concern that overrides all other considerations and calculations: Afghanistan. One Central Asian minister after another used the press conference after the meeting to underscore the degree to which developments in Afghanistan can determine their own countries’ fates.
Tajikistan is the most vulnerable, as the country’s Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi noted after the conference.
"Tajikistan, which has the longest border with Afghanistan, pursues its own policy of stabilization with regard to our closest neighbor, with whom we speak the same language and share the same history," he said. "For us, stability in Afghanistan is the same thing as stability in our own country."
The other Central Asian countries are also fundamentally vulnerable. Much of Afghanistan’s opium and heroin -- making up 93 percent of the entire world supply of the drug -- is transited through the region.
But the true nemesis of the region’s autocracies is Islamic radicalism, which has found a fertile breeding ground in Afghanistan. Not a single Central Asian representative mentioned radicalism at the summit, though many alluded to the Islamic character of their societies.
Repressions against fundamentalist Islam have become progressively harsher in recent years in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The relatively more liberal Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan cannot, however, consider themselves immune.
Containing the threats emanating from Afghanistan, therefore, is an increasingly urgent shared priority for both the EU and Central Asia.
Another topic conspicuous for its absence in the public part of the debate was "values."
The joint communique adopted by participants makes a nod to human rights, but says nothing about democracy, the rule of law, or strengthening civil society.
In their different ways, the Central Asian countries made it clear at the summit that they are not interested in sermons on any of these issues. All cited their challenging geography, lack of a liberal political tradition, and occasionally the "mentality" of their peoples as more or less insurmountable obstacles to immediate reforms.
’A Long Road’
Kouchner was also forced to concede that a convergence of values remains a remote prospect.
Reporters Without Borders occupied the Turkmen Embassy in Paris and put up posters highlighting press freedom issues in the country next to a portrait of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
"Human rights are a long road," he said. "We’re not at the same level, and we all aspire towards making human rights one of the great goals for the politicians of the Asia region -- the way [human rights] have been pursued for a long time, in an extremely varied manner, by the countries of the European Union."
Kouchner said the names of political prisoners in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were raised during the meetings. Possibly reacting to this, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov was the only Central Asian minister who failed to attend a joint press conference.
Meredov’s composure may also have been rocked by an invasion of the Turkmen Embassy in Paris by 20 members of Reporters Without Borders that morning, demanding information about jailed Turkmen journalists and an investigation into the death while in police custody in 2006 of RFE/RL reporter Ogulsapar Muradova.
In the end, most EU member states know that dialogue alone is not the same as influence.
Russia remains by far the most important outside power in Central Asia and for now at least, the most the EU can do is to keep the channels of communication open and hope there is room for other, minor suitors.