Opinion: EU Quest for Central Asian Oil and Democracy Is Risky | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.02.2007
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Opinion: EU Quest for Central Asian Oil and Democracy Is Risky

Germany wants a new foreign policy to build closer ties between the EU and the countries of Central Asia. But dealing with dictatorships in the region poses major challenges, writes journalist Marcus Bensmann in Baku.


Central Asia, located between the Pamir Mountains and the Caspian Sea, forms a strategic land link between China and Europe, and this year, Germany intends to use its EU Council Presidency to introduce a new Central Asia strategy that will forge closer ties between the region and Europe. As part of this initiative, in late 2006, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited all five former Soviet republics in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The reasons behind this strategy are clear. Under the steppes and deep beneath the Caspian Sea lie enormous reserves of oil and gas that could help secure Europe's long-term energy needs.

So far, the Soviet-era pipeline network has had a virtual monopoly on the transport of oil and gas deposits. The newly completed oil pipeline that runs from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean coast and the gas pipeline that follows this route up to the Turkish-Georgian border represent a challenge to Russia's pipeline dominance over Central Asia's natural resources. However, Russia's Gasprom continues to rule the market in Central Asia.

In addition to Russia, the US, and Europe, China has emerged as a major competitor for these rich natural resources. Beijing is considering investing billions of dollars to develop the exploitation of energy reserves and build pipelines. China and Russia have secured their influence on the region through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an intergovernmental body that includes all Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan.

Ruthless dictatorships

Central Asia represents a crucial zone on the frontlines of the troubled European and American mission in Afghanistan. Germany has established an airbase to supply its armed forces in Afghanistan in the Uzbek provincial capital of Termez.

However, Berlin and Brussels face some uneasy conflicts in the region. Particularly in countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, rich natural resources have fallen into the hands of the ruling dictatorships, and citizens of these countries live under autocratic regimes.

Until his death in December, Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov imposed a bizarre personality cult on the country. Repressive rule helped him to fill his foreign bank accounts, but people were left with severe food shortages.

Andijan massacre and sanctions

In May 2005, Uzbek President Islam Karimov ordered government forces to open fire on tens of thousands of democracy protestors in the city of Andijan. Estimates of those killed in the hail of bullets range from hundreds to thousands. Karimov and his government justified the brutal crackdown as a necessary measure to put down an alleged Islamic coup -- and opposed EU and US calls for an international inquiry into the killings. As a result, the EU has imposed sanctions against Uzbekistan since October 2005, issued an arms embargo and refused to allow high-ranking members of the Uzbek government to enter their territory.

It is not clear what exactly happened in Andijan, but there remains no doubt that the uprising was sparked by protests against the despotic rule of the state. The external threat of Islamism helps Karimov to retain his hold on power, yet it is also his despotic rule that has laid the foundations for extremist groups making extravagant promises.

Dialogue with dictators

Germany's policy on Central Asia aims to promote change through dialogue with dictators and the government is working to ease or drop EU sanctions against Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, in November, the EU voted to extend the measures for another three months. The EU would be well advised to take a differentiated approach to the countries in Central Asia.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev keeps an iron grip on power with doubtful elections and repressive measures, yet in contrast to Uzbekistan, he has allowed the population to benefit from the wealth generated by the country's rapidly growing economy. Kazakhstan even has a minor political opposition and a free press that is slowly beginning to flourish.

An economic perspective

Take a walk through the Kazakh economic boomtown Almaty and the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and the difference is immediately obvious. Tashkent is shrouded in an atmosphere of dejection and lethargy, whereas Almaty is full of bustling activity.

In the economically backward country of Kyrgyzstan, a confident public is challenging the ruling elite. Since the overthrow of President Askar Akayev in March 2005, the political process in the country has fumbled from crisis to crisis. In contrast to the other countries of the region, however, Kyrgyz citizens have relatively little to fear when confronting representatives of the state.

Promoting development

The EU should pursue a strategy that focuses on these countries and promotes their development, and above all, gives Kyrgyzstan's impoverished economy a helping hand. The death of Niyazov opens up a window of opportunity to encourage the unsettled Turkmen leaders to institute reforms.

Friendly handshakes and smiles, however, will do little to convince Karimov to initiate reforms. The Uzbek president interprets every concession as a sign of weakness.

That is a lesson that the Americans learned the hard way after they established a military base in Uzbekistan in 2001. Four years later, the Andijan massacre cooled relations between the two countries, and the US had to abandon the base.

German foreign policymakers seem to be making the same mistake by openly flirting with the dictator in Tashkent. However, if Europe is resolute in isolating Karimov and works instead to promote prospering countries along the border with Uzbekistan, the Uzbek political leadership may in turn out pressure on Karimov to introduce reforms, forcing him to soften his attitude.

Uzbekistan and even Turkmenistan need a bridge to the West even more than the West needs them. Without Europe, they would be forced to enter into a reluctant dependency on China and Russia. This is an opportunity that European foreign policy should take full advantage of.

Marcus Bensmann is a freelance journalist who has reported on Central Asia for many years. (emw)

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