Germany intends to launch a new foreign policy initiative to build closer ties between the EU and the countries of Central Asia. But dealing with dictatorships in this key region poses a major challenge. Marcus Bensmann reports from Baku
Central Asia, located between the Pamir range and the Caspian Sea, has inspired the imaginations of intrepid explorers and conquerors for centuries. Nomadic riders from the steppes, Alexander the Great, czarist Russia and the British Empire during the Great Game all fought for control of this strategic land link between China and Europe.
Germany intends to use this year's EU Council Presidency to introduce a 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.
Enormous reserves of gas and oil
The reasons behind this strategy are clear. Under the steppe and deep beneath the Caspian Sea lie enormous reserves of oil and gas that could help secure Europe's long-term energy needs.
Up until now, 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 contender 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.
Central Asia represents a crucial zone right behind the frontlines of the increasingly risky European and American mission in Afghanistan. In the Uzbek provincial capital Termez, Germany has established an airbase to supply its armed forces in Afghanistan.
However, Berlin and Brussels face some uneasy dictatorship issues in the region. Primarily in countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, rich natural resources have fallen into the hands of the ruling elite. Every citizen of these countries stands at the total mercy of a ruthless state.
Up until his death, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov imposed a bizarre personality cult on the country. His repressive ruling style allowed him to fatten his foreign bank accounts while his people were left with a severe bread shortage.
Andijan massacre and sanctions
On 13 May 2005, Uzbek President Islam Karimov ordered government forces to open fire, without warning, on tens of thousands of protestors in Andijan. Estimates of those killed in the hail of bullets range from hundreds to thousands.
Karimov and his emissaries 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 the European Union.
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 spectre of Islamism helps Karimov to secure his hold on power, yet it is precisely his despotic style of rule that has prepared the ground for the lofty promises of extremist groups.
Dialogue with dictators
Germany's policy on Central Asia aims to promote change through dialogue with dictators. The Germans are working to ease or drop EU sanctions against Uzbekistan. Last 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. Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev keeps an iron grip on power with dubious 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 Kazakhstani 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 self-assured general public faces up to the ruling elite. Since the overthrow of President Askar Akayev in March 2005, the political process in the country has managed to grope its way from crisis to crisis. However, in contrast to the other countries of the region, Kyrgyzstani citizens have relatively little to fear when interacting with representatives of the state.
Even in Tajikistan, where President Emomali Rachmonov rules with impunity, there are at least some signs of an emerging open civil society compared to the repressive conditions in Uzbekistan.
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 disoriented Turkmen elite 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 bravely gives Karimov the cold shoulder and works instead to promote prospering countries along the border with Uzbekistan, the Uzbek political elite could put pressure on Karimov to introduce reforms, forcing him to soften his tone.
Uzbekistan and even Turkmenistan need a bridge to the West more than the West needs them. Without Europe, they would be forced to enter into a reluctant dependency on China and Russia. This is the trump that European foreign policy should play to the hilt.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen