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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on February 7th, 2007
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

EU to beef up diplomatic corps in Central Asia, informs Andrew Rettman from Brussels, the EUobserver, February 6, 2007.

EU states are keen to open four new EU embassies in Central Asia by 2008 to help compete with Russian, Chinese and US influence in the energy-rich region, as upcoming Turkmen elections put Brussels’ new Central Asia policy to the test.

The embassy idea was put to member states in a 15-page document on 2 February by EU officials and the German EU presidency, with the German ambassador to Uzbekistan, Matthias Meyer, the same week calling for the fresh crop of diplomats to be in place by next year.

The European Commission already runs a 60-man delegation in Kazakhstan’s old capital in Almaty and three smaller offices with less than 10 officials each in the new Kazakh capital of Astana, as well as in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

The move would see full-scale missions in Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent in Uzbekistan, with no plans for Turkmenistan as yet and with Brussels warning the timetable could change as it is not proving easy to attract high-calibre staff to the far-flung posts.

The new strategy paper also sets out wider goals that could see multilateral meetings at EU-level to talk about a new gas pipeline under the Caspian Sea and encourage political reform, including education projects to stymie radical Islam.

It suggests extending the mandates of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank to help build basic infrastructure and provide alternatives to the heroin trade on the Afghan border.

EU states – including human rights advocates UK, Sweden, Denmark and Ireland – have broadly welcomed the draft as a “good balance” between energy and humanitarian interests, with national experts set to tweak the wording before it goes to EU leaders at the June summit.

“The actual content of the document is not so important. It’s designed to send a political signal to our partners, to the five states in question and to Russia, China and the US,” one EU diplomat said. “We are saying – look we want to be in there, we want to work there.”

Post “Tulip Revolution” Kyrgyzstan is currently the most progressive country in the region, with Kazakhstan also showing interest in reform. But Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are egregiously repressive while Tajikistan is seen as a “heroin-based economy.”

Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also claim to have massive gas reserves, but some experts say EU plans to compete for new pipelines with Russia and China are doomed to fail, as existing elites are more keen to get rich from the status quo than to get better EU gas prices with strings attached.

“In terms of the opacity of these regimes and the depth of Russian influence, if the EU thinks it can use Central Asia to improve its energy security it is being highly naive,” International Crisis Group director Bob Templar told EUobserver.


The Turkmenistan opening:

Meanwhile, the sudden death by heart failure of 66-year old Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov last December has seen some MEPs, as well as exiled Turkmen dissidents in Sweden and Vienna, call for the EU to use the “new opening” to step up pressure for reform.

EU capitals and the European Commission have so far decided to give free rein to an old guard of army men and civil servants fronted by ex-health minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to take power in pseudo-elections this coming Sunday.

“We have to find a way to get into dialogue with these countries in a way that they actually listen,” another EU diplomat said, amid worry that EU envoys could be frozen out by the new regime and that the exiled dissidents might create a “new kleptocracy” if they got in.

NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging Brussels to push for gas money to be used for rebuilding schools and hospitals in the post-election phase before unfreezing relations – most schooling stops at age 15 and clinics are often staffed by untrained soldiers.

“There is a danger that the new government will be given too much credit before any across-the-board reforms,” HRW analyst Ian Gorvin said. “Some EU diplomats out there have already started congratulating Berdymukhammedov simply for not being Niyazov.”

Brussels puts squeeze on MEPs:

A 25 January letter from external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner to pro-reform MEP, Dutch conservative Albert Jan Maat, urging the European Parliament to approve a new trade deal with Astana, casts light on the EU’s new Central Asia thinking.

“I strongly believe that engagement over time is likely to have a more positive impact than isolation…beginning with allowing the interim agreement to come into force as soon as possible,” she said, in a move seen as exerting undue pressure on MEPs by Mr Maat.

“This is saying there will be no EU reform effort until we allow the trade agreement,” the parliament’s Central Asia delegation vice-chair said. “If a member of parliament in the Netherlands received such a letter, you would soon have a big problem.”

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