EU moves to secure Central Asia energy
Martin Sieff

The European Union`s moves over the last month indicate an increased desire to gain access to Central Asian energy resources, says analyst

Thursday, February 03, 2011 - The European Union`s energy concerns are shaping its dealings with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- the three energy-rich nations of Central Asia.

The 27-nation EU and its executive arm, the European Commission in Brussels, has started the New Year with legislative and diplomatic initiatives which point to a closer, more sustained and financially important energy relationship with Central Asia’s major hydrocarbon producers.

First, instead of treating Uzbek President Islam Karimov like a pariah for his record on democracy and human rights, EU leaders met with Karimov last month and immediately agreed to open an office in Tashkent.

Second, the European Parliament inched closer in January to a broader energy cooperation deal with Turkmenistan by giving initial approval to putting in motion a 1998 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan. The Euro-Parliament plans a plenary vote in May to solidify the agreement.

Parliament members gave a nod to the human rights issue in the agreement by proposing a provision that would allow monitoring of democratization in Turkmenistan.

“The agreement would be suspended if the human rights and democratization clauses will not be respected,” Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Norica Nicolai said in a debate on the issue on January 25.

But the concession to open a Tashkent office and efforts to expand its Turkmen energy relationship indicate that, while the EU isn’t turning a blind eye to human rights, it’s giving priority to boosting ties to the region.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are major natural gas producers and exporters. Turkmenistan is expected by European planners to be the main source of natural gas for the proposed $10.8 billion Nabucco pipeline project through pro-Western Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to supply gas to the energy-hungry economies of Western Europe.

As Central Asia Newswire (CAN) noted in the first part of this analysis, Germany`s respected former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has warned that the Europeans need to move fast to construct Nabucco before major East Asian and Southern Asian nations led by China and India lock up access to Central Asian hydrocarbons.

EU relations with Kazakhstan, the main oil-producing nation of Central Asia, are also moving forward. On Friday, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev held a successful visit to Brussels and pointed out that Kazakhstan’s trade volume with Europe has again exceeded the total combined turnover of the other four Central Asia nations and the three Trans-Caucasian states.

Saudabayev also negotiated a range of issues with EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and focused on establishing a new cooperation framework agreement.

The current agreement on partnership and cooperation was signed 19 years ago after Kazakhstan gained independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union. It has just been renewed and extended on an annual basis.

Saudabayev also raised the issue with Ashton of removing the remaining Kazakh airlines from the European Commission’s “black list” of companies whose planes are considered not safe to fly within European airspace. Last year, the EC removed nine Kazakh air companies from its list of banned airlines.

The subjects Saudabayev discussed in Brussels contrasted with those discussed with U.S. leaders and officials on a visit to Washington.

The United States and the European Union were both critical of moves to make Kazakhstan`s President Nursultan Nazarbayev the nation`s leader for life. But EU officials focused their meetings with Saudabayev on trade cooperation, energy issues and business deals.

This difference in focus is in part explained by the fact that Central Asia is a crucial source for Western Europe`s energy. But it also reflects the fact that European leaders, like their Chinese counterparts, see Central Asia in economic terms, whereas the United States sees it primarily in human rights and democratic terms.

Russia has also lagged behind Europe in focusing on business first issues in Central Asia. But Russia, reflecting the passionate priorities of its Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, recognizes that Central Asia`s oil and natural gas -- and the pipelines that pump them to the wider world -- are power. Russia takes these energy issues more seriously than does the United States.

January 2011 turned out to be the month of Central Asia in Brussels, the effective capital of the European Union. Energy is driving the relationship. Expect the EU`s courting of the three resource-rich Stans to heat up in the months ahead.