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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on March 29th, 2007
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

EU launches new Central Asia policy in Kazakhstan, writes Andrew Rettman for EUobserver, March 28, 2007, from Brussels.

The EU has said “the time is right” for new engagement in Central Asia after a high-level meeting in Kazakhstan saw joint agreement to hold more such talks in future, with the German EU presidency hoping the dialogue will lead to political reform but with human rights groups on alert over Europe’s real agenda in the energy-rich region.

“The talks showed that the time is right for a new, closer cooperation,” German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Astana on Wednesday (28 March). “The EU aims to diversify its energy policy. This is why it is necessary to increase our contacts with Central Asia,” he explained, AFP reports, on a region believed to hold 5 percent of the world’s energy resources.

“It’s in our interest that the Central Asian countries take a path to be peaceful, democratic and prospering states,” Mr Steinmeier added, with external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner saying Kazakhstan should chair Europe’s pro-democracy club, the OSCE, in 2009 if it upholds promises on human rights. “Now we want to see these reforms,” she said.

The EU aims to spend €750 million on the five states in question between 2007 and 2013, with the talks raising Mr Steinmeier’s hopes of one day building a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline to Europe, getting the EU involved in counter-terrorism and border monitoring, getting people talking about democratic reform and setting up new education and student exchange schemes.

Mr Steinmeier privately raised the issue of a Deutsche Welle correspondent, Natalia Bushuyeva, who has reportedly fled Uzbekistan after facing criminal charges of tax evasion. But the reaction of the region’s two most repressive states – Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – did not bode well for any future change in political climate.

Uzbek foreign minister Vladimir Norov said publicly the EU should not “interfere in domestic affairs…we don’t have to justify ourselves.” Turkmenistan’s deputy foreign minister Yolbors Kepbanov, due to attend the press conference, simply vanished. “I hope he did not get stuck in the lift,” Mr Steinmeier quipped, Reuters reports.

Wednesday’s meeting will now be digested by EU diplomats in Brussels, who will decide in May whether or not to renew sanctions against Uzbekistan. Brussels and Berlin will also use the talks to shape a final draft of a new EU strategy paper on Central Asia for the June EU summit. If all goes well, up to 200 EU officials could ship out to new embassies in the region in 2008.

No laughing matter: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are no laughing matter, however. Both states practice torture and extra-judicial executions of political prisoners. In one example in 2005 documented by Amnesty International, Uzbek activist Ahkrorkhudzha Tolipkhozhaev was shot in the back of the head three weeks before Uzbek diplomats told the UN he was alive and well.

In May 2005 Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s soldiers machine-gunned around 500 unruly civilians in the eastern town of Andijan, which led to the small-scale EU sanctions being imposed. The government has never admitted the massacre or allowed an international enquiry, simply restating its official position at an EU experts’ meeting on the case last December.

When a delegation of MEPs briefly visited the town of Andijan on 22 March, two plain clothes policemen visibly followed British conservative deputy Martin Callanan as he walked through the marketplace, making local people too scared to speak. “There’s a sinister atmosphere,” he told EUobserver. “It would run Turkmenistan a close second in terms of repression.”

Uzbekistan – which has almost half the region’s whole 60 million-strong population and its biggest army – is seen by Germany as a cornerstone of future EU engagement. Berlin has in the past bent over backwards to fly Uzbek officials to Europe for medical treatment and got the EU to scale back its sanctions against Tashkent last November on the back of vague commitments to human rights dialogues.

Germany’s willingness to drive EU policy on the face value of Uzbekistan’s statements has rung alarm bells among the world’s NGO community. A January draft of the classified EU strategy paper – seen by EUobserver – states “In some cases, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, concerns about human rights have proved a set-back and prevented relations from developing.”

The draft paper also says on Kyrgyzstan in 2006 that “the issue of the Uzbek refugees following events in Andijan was handled appropriately” even though the refugees in question were forcibly repatriated, arrested by Uzbek authorities as “terrorists” and face an uncertain future today.

NGO’s contend that EU integrity is at stake: The integrity of EU statements on human rights in Central Asia is also put in doubt by the funding model for the €750 million aid pile, which will be spent on projects officially sanctioned by the local regimes, meaning that the cash will enrich “approved” NGOs instead of helping the underground pamphleteers or campaigners who put their neck on the line for reforms.

“Russia is a big player in Central Asia,” Amnesty analyst Maisy Weicherding – who has travelled extensively in the region – said. “We don’t want the EU to say, ‘look at Russia, if we want to have a big impact in Central Asia we need to be more like Russia and so human rights should not be a big priority for us’.”

The NGO wants the EU to focus aid on Kyrgyzstan, where authorities show more tolerance for real NGOs such as Justice to circulate samizdat-type free press publications and where a new US university in Bishkek is helping disseminate “revolutionary” ideas – like the notion it is wrong for police to extort money and beat innocent people – across the border to Uzbekistan.

It remains to be seen how Germany together with the more human rights-oriented EU states such as the UK, Sweden or the Czech Republic will shape the EU’s future activities in Central Asia. But away from the grand rhetoric of the high-level Astana event on Wednesday, the attitudes of some EU politicians are not encouraging.

The MEPs’ visit last week – which was treated to the sight of Uzbek president Karimov doing a folk jig with a child held aloft in his arms during a Spring festival – was marked by some of the three German MEPs preferring to meet with local businessmen rather than dissidents invited by the German embassy in Tashkent.

Come to splendid Samarkand: German socialist MEP Vural Oger spent a large part of the visit seeking new contacts to help his company, Oger Tours, bring more Turkish tourists to cultural sites like Samarkand or Bukhara. Mr Vural declined to comment on the issue.

German conservative MEP Daniel Caspary, who says he met with “other” activists – such as the local head of the Konrad Adenauer foundation – instead, was on-message with Berlin. “If we only talk about human rights nobody will listen to us,” he said. “We have to also talk about economics and other issues. We have to talk about all the topics, the same as we do with the Chinese.”

The MEPs’ brief tour of the country also shed extra light on the primary motivation of the German EU ambassador to Tashkent, Martin Hekker, who is among the most influential EU diplomats stationed in the region today. “When we met the German ambassador, he made it very clear that they are keen on lifting the [EU] sanctions and normalising relations,” the UK’s Mr Callanan said.

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