Europe has belatedly discovered Central Asia as an energy supplier. But with its focus on human rights, the EU is likely to have a tougher time wooing the region's nations than Russia and China.
Europe wants to lower its reliance on Russian oil and explore new energy sources
The EU foreign ministers' meeting on Wednesday, April 9, in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat is well overdue. China, Russia and other former Soviet states already staked their claim there long ago.
China has negotiated a gas pipeline project with Turkmenistan that, starting in 2009, is to deliver 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually to the People's Republic. India and Iran have also discovered the "Stans" in Central Asia as both suppliers of energy and a profitable new market.
Over a year ago, the EU joined in the race for energy reserves and market potential in Central Asia. In June 2007, the Council of Europe adopted the Strategy for a New Partnership with Central Asia in an effort to strengthen ties with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the neighboring countries.
More than just political good intentions are at stake: Turkmenistan is one of the world's most important gas suppliers and Kazakhstan has one of the 10 largest oil and gas reserves.
The Council of Europe adopted the Strategy for a New Partnership with Central Asia last summer
EU can't afford to compromise on rights issues
The focus of Wednesday's meeting between the EU ministers and their Central Asian counterparts, led by Slovenian head diplomat Dimitrij Rupel, is to determine what shape a partnership should take.
One thing is already clear: The negotiations won't be easy. While countries like Russia and China are exclusively concerned with business matters, the Europeans want to help improve the human rights situation in the region, said Cem Oezdemir, the European Parliament's rapporteur on Central Asia.
"We have to make it clear that we can't allow ourselves to become dependent at any price and throw our standards overboard," said Oezdemir, a European parliamentarian for the Green party.
If the EU were to avoid taking a clear stance against human rights abuses in countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, it would jeopardize its own credibility, he added, since restricting press freedom, getting rid of the opposition and holding bogus elections run contrary to what Europe stands for.
"We have to have the courage to address [human rights violations], even if the other competitors aren't interested in that."
Appeals for improvement aren't likely to go over well with the new strategic partners in Central Asia.
Trade and values don't go hand in hand
As part of the Soviet Union, the region was subject to Moscow's rule for decades, and political advice can easily be taken as indoctrination, said Andrea Schmitz from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
The EU would lose its credibility if it didn't stand up for rights
"A transfer of values would mean that the values would have to materialize in the form of institutions that represent them, but the elites in these countries simply seem to be lacking the political will," said Schmitz.
Despite the problems, there is interest among Central Asian nations to cooperate more closely with Europe and seek new trade partners and European investors, in part to minimize their reliance on China and Russia, Schmitz said.
"Because of Russia's and China's dominance and the resources they use to exercise power in Central Asia, the countries want to establish counterweights."
Some Central Asian countries have already succeeded in doing just that. Kazakhstan for instance has already attracted numerous German mid-sized companies.
"Growth rates are enormous," said Gerd Herx, director of the German Office for Foreign Trade. "We have deliveries to Kazakhstan with a trade volume of about 5 billion euros ($7.9 billion)." Herx said he sees strong chances for European enterprisers in Uzbekistan as well.
While trade improves between the EU and Central Asia, many European entrepreneurs are hesitant about investing directly in the region, Schmitz said, because of huge legal uncertainties.
No direct pipelines to Europe
It's likely to be even more difficult for the EU to push through its interests regarding energy policy. Europe wants to become more independent of Russian gas and has had its eye on Turkmenistan's plentiful gas resources for several years.
Russia is a transit country for gas deliveries to Europe
The problem is that until now Turkmenistan's gas exports have to flow through Russia to reach Europe -- there are simply no other gas pipelines.
Europe wants to support the construction of new pipelines that circumvent Russia, but Schmitz questioned the
viability the proposal.
"It remains to be seen whether Turkmenistan will ever be able to transport gas directly to Europe," she said.
What's more, Turkmenistan is still focusing more strongly on Russia than on the EU, said Oezdemir, who expressed doubts that Europe could do much to change that.
"As long as the EU doesn't have a common energy policy itself, we won't have a chance to compete with Russia as far as Central Asia and the energy corridor go," he said.