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Europe discovers Central Asia

MOSCOW. (Dosym Satpayev, member of the RIA Novosti Expert Council) –

In the 1990s, the only geopolitical players in Central Asia were Russia, the United States, China and some influential Muslim countries. Later on, the European Union came on the scene. Some EU members have been increasingly active in asserting their economic and political interests in the region. It is enough to mention the meeting of the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek foreign ministers with EU officials, which has just ended in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Indicatively, Germany initiated the meeting, and its foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, headed the EU3 delegation, consisting of European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner and EU Special Representative to Central Asia Pierre Morel.

Germany was the first European country to grasp the importance of Central Asia for security and energy supplies. Berlin has already announced that energy security will be high on the agenda during its EU presidency. It has been a key topic in EU relations with Kazakhstan. In December 2006, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and head of the European Commission JosÊ Manuel Barroso signed a memorandum of energy understanding in Brussels. The text acknowledged Kazakhstan’s key role as a producer of oil and natural gas in the Caspian region, as well as the two sides’ mutual interest in promoting energy cooperation.

Symbolically, Polish President Lech Kaczynski paid an official visit to Astana at almost the same time as the EU3’s meeting. He is trying to promote oil and gas contacts in two areas. First, he is trying to persuade Kazakhstan to take part in the Odessa-Brody-Plotsk pipeline, which is being actively lobbied for by Ukraine and Poland. Second, he wants Polish oil and gas companies to be more active in developing Kazakh deposits.

Energy tensions between Russia and the West are compelling the EU to look for new sources of oil and gas. Together with EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, Turkish, Austrian, Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian energy ministers have already endorsed a plan to build the Nabucco gas pipeline linking the EU with Central Asia while bypassing Russia. Its price tag is $5.8 billion. Kazakhstan has been given a major role in the project. The West has unmistakably sensed that despite its strategic partnership with Russia, Astana wants to have as many alternative energy transportation routes as possible. The project’s only problem is Turkmenistan, which was also supposed to take part in it. Because of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov’s death, however, it is not clear whether this unpredictable republic will be involved, although the EU is interested in both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as energy suppliers.

Apart from energy, Germany is close to Kazakhstan for another reason. At one time, Berlin actively supported the idea of granting Astana the rotating chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. This year, Kazakhstan’s candidacy will be reviewed for the second time, and Germany’s EU presidency gives Astana hope.

Uzbekistan may also stand to gain from it. After the tragic events in Andijan, where Uzbek troops fired into a crowd of protestors, Germany was more loyal to the government in Tashkent, the capital, than other EU countries, which demanded that tough sanctions be imposed on it. Germany was largely motivated by a desire to keep an air base on Uzbek territory for supplying its military in Afghanistan. As opposed to the Americans, who had to leave their base in Khanabad near Karshi (which was an independent military facility), the Germans are renting an airfield at a civilian airport in the town of Termez for their cargo aircraft. Today, Uzbek President Islam Karimov would very much like the EU to lift the sanctions, that were imposed on Tashkent for its refusal to allow an international inquiry into the Andijan events, an embargo on arms supplies to Uzbekistan in particular. In this context, Tashkent was encouraged by a statement by Hugues Mingarelli, EU director for Eastern Eur
ope, the Caucasus and Central Asia, to the effect that Brussels intends to resume dialogue with Tashkent, and may revise its decision on sanctions because isolating Uzbekistan had failed to produce the desired effect. Karimov hopes Germany will help speed up this process.

The EU has not been paying as much attention to Kyrgyzstan. European politicians are unsure of the prospects of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, especially now that former Prime Minister Felix Kulov has gone into opposition. Nor is it clear what policy the country will pursue. The Europeans are more interested in Tajikistan because it is close to Afghanistan, where NATO has its troops. Moreover, the country is a major conduit for drug trafficking. Helping to resolve this problem and counter religious extremism is the EU’s second priority in Central Asia after energy security.

At the same time, the EU should realize that the region represents five specific political and socio-economic systems, five different levels of integration into international relations, and five different levels of risk in Central Asia. Most probably, Germany will try to explain this to its EU partners. Hence, the EU should build its relations with each country individually. Central Asian republics have also abandoned a unilateral foreign orientation. Many of them have been maneuvering just like Kazakhstan has, and they will look at the EU through the prism of their economic and political interests, exploiting the geopolitical struggle in the region.

One of the aims of the EU3’s meeting with the five foreign ministers was to send out feelers for determining EU strategy in Central Asia, with its many unpredictable processes and rather high investment and political risks. -0-