Last Summer my office prepared a visit to three countries of Central Asia. The problem was not the political program but logistics: There was a lack of direct flights from one capital of the region to the other. I was asked to make a choice: Either I accepted a detour to Moscow and back or to go by car. I decided to go by car but I thought: It is like in the old days – nothing has changed. Maybe that is right with regard to direct flights but not for all fields of policy. Central Asia has started to move. Let me begin with a short overview:
In Turkmenistan the death of President Niyazov may have opened a window of opportunity for change. It would certainly be premature to draw final conclusions so shortly before the presidential elections on 11 February, but we have nonetheless seen interesting developments. The Turkmen Government has invited an ODIHR assessment mission to monitor the elections, Niyazov has more or less completely lost his status as a cult figure and Acting President Berdymukhammedov has announced his intention to adopt a more liberal approach to Internet access.
In Kyrgyzstan things are in flux. The resignation of the popular Prime Minister Kulov and his defeat in Parliament show the important role played by MPs in constitutional practice. Now the goal is to give long-term political stability to the compromise constitution negotiated in November 2006. It is remarkable that Kyrgyzstan is going through all this political turmoil without witnessing violent clashes.
Uzbekistan is slowly moving closer to the EU. A recent EU ministerial meeting with the country produced a concrete outcome – the terrible Andijan events of May 2005 are to be evaluated in a second meeting of EU and Uzbek experts in Tashkent. The EU, together with Uzbekistan, is currently drafting the fundamentals for an institutionalized EU-Uzbekistan human rights dialogue.
Kazakhstan has emerged as an anchor of stability in the Central Asian region. It is eager to move even closer to the EU. If Kazakhstan wants to fulfil its ambition to become OSCE Chair in 2009, this year will be the litmus test of whether it can implement overdue reforms, such as electoral legislation, media law and party registration. The recent Government reshuffle and the nomination of Karim Masimov as MP could open up new prospects for an even more convincing reform process.
Tajikistan, meanwhile, is particularly crucial to the stabilization of Afghanistan. The presidential elections in November 2006 were, despite some improvements, neither free nor fair.
Europe, too, is increasingly recognizing the strategic importance of Central Asia. However, the EU is not yet perceived as an influential player in the region.
Foreign policy in both Germany and Europe is now taking account of this development. The Federal Government will use the German EU Presidency in the first half of 2007 to provide impetus for more intensive cooperation between the European Union and Central Asia. Our goal is that, by the end of our Presidency, political guidelines for closer cooperation between the EU and Central Asia in the form of an EU strategy for Central Asia should have been adopted, probably by the European Council in June 2007. The European Council gave us a mandate to do this in December 2006.
The aim is not to embark on a new Great Game or to start a competition for political influence with the major players in the region like the Russian Federation, China and the USA. Rather, we prefer a partnership approach with the region and we want to cooperate transparently with our partners. That is one of the reasons served by my trip to Washington.
Today I want to take the opportunity to share some of our considerations to date.
Developing an EU strategy for Central Asia must begin with the EU's interests in the region. Let me cite the three most important points:
- The goal of stability is at the top of the list. Stability in Central Asia is vital for peace and prosperity in the whole region around the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. Peace in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without stability in Central Asia.
- We know from experience that this goal can only be attained by gradually establishing democracy and the rule of law as well as guaranteeing the observance of minimum human rights standards in the societies affected. This must therefore be our second political priority.
- The countries of Central Asia are becoming increasingly important for German and EU energy security. Although the region has not been found to harbour more than 4% of global energy reserves, the demand pressure from economies experiencing dramatic growth, such as China and India, gives this 4% strategic significance. It also can play a role for the desired energy supply diversification.
Several things still stand in the way of this development.
Political reluctance to embrace reform, autocratic regimes, human rights abuse, corruption, the influence of organized crime and a lack of social perspective in many areas – all this hampers the emergence of integrally sound state structures, not everywhere, but sadly all too often. The distribution and utilization of water resources is often a matter of dispute. Closed and in some cases even mined borders prevent the movement of people and goods. Cross-border drug trafficking is increasingly becoming one of the main obstacles to modernizing the affected societies. A large proportion of the opiates grown in Afghanistan arrive in Western Europe via Central Asia. Environmental degradation and continuing salination in the Aral Sea basin – a real ecological tragedy – are directly affecting the population's quality of life. The problem of water supply in particular is becoming more and more urgent.
The predominantly secular states of Central Asia are seriously concerned about the threat of militant Islamic fundamentalism. This threat also gives us cause for concern. Some activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaida networks and Hizb ut-Tahrir can be observed, not only in the Ferghana Valley where the borders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet.
The countries of Central Asia need support to overcome these challenges. It is in European and German interests to promote the necessary reform processes as well as cross-border regional cooperation, which so far is still in its infancy.
To this end we intend to focus especially on the differences between the countries in the region. All five countries differ, in some cases dramatically. They are at different stages of political and economic transformation, and much of their cultural heritage varies. The EU must take these facts into consideration. In its strategy the EU must adopt both a country-specific, tailored bilateral approach and a broader, regional policy.
The common challenges for which a regional approach is the only sensible option include the fight against organized crime, drug and arms trafficking and Islamist extremism. Environmental protection, water and border management are other areas in which the EU and the Central Asian countries must join forces.
Other areas require a tailored bilateral approach with the EU:
- There is a demand for Training and education: the lack of qualified teachers and tutors is a serious problem in all five Central Asian countries, heightened by the fact that the majority of people in these societies is under the age of 26. The loss of knowledge due to the migration of the elite to Russia and Europe has exacerbated the situation still further.
Training and education therefore pose a particular challenge for the EU and there we are able to offer concrete programs.
- Regarding the rule of law: the Central Asian countries have hardly any democratic traditions. Their state structures are organized along post-Soviet lines and their societies are still predominantly structured according to families and clans. Against this backdrop the EU ought to focus on the rule of law and good governance.
- Or human rights: the observance of minimum human rights standards is a priority for the EU. The EU should therefore enter into regular structured dialogue on human rights with each one of the five Central Asian countries. We are currently in the process of drafting the fundamentals for this form of institutionalized dialogue with Uzbekistan.
these are the initial components of an EU strategy for Central Asia. It will also be important to maintain dialogue with Central Asia and involve the political level. The meeting of the EU Troika Foreign Ministers with the five Central Asian Foreign Ministers scheduled for 28 March in Astana is to mark the beginning of such a regular dialogue.
We want the proceedings to be characterized by transparency and a spirit of partnership, and above all to include our friends and allies. We are therefore very keen to coordinate our programs closely with the United States.