On April 9 and 10 the EU Troika met with Turkmen officials in Ashgabat to discuss potential cooperation in the energy sector. The meeting, according to Troika representatives, had a successful outcome, with Turkmenistan agreeing to export natural gas to Europe through the Nabco pipeline. Various sources have said that 10 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas will already be available for export to Europe in 2009.
The EU Troika was represented by Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, EU Special Representative for Central Asia Pierre Morel, and EU External Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was present as well. The Troika also met with officials of other Central Asian countries.
The EU high officials’ visit to the region was conducted within the framework of the EU Central Asia Strategy, which promotes the deepening of bilateral and multilateral ties between the EU and Central Asian countries. The strategy was introduced under the German presidency of the EU in 2007 and seeks to enhance the human rights situation in the region, democratization and, importantly, Europe’s energy security.
The strategy embraces Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s effort to change the disastrous educational system inherited from the regime of the late Saparmurat Niyazov. It acknowledges Berdymukhammedov’s release of political prisoners and some steps that have been taken towards liberalization of the economic system. The Turkmen government is, however, urged to allow the international community free access to promote human rights and democracy in the country. The Strategy also maintains that the international community is entitled to address growing problems of public health. The strategy refrains, however, from mentioning the importance of EU-Turkmen energy cooperation.
Turkmenistan still lacks a Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA), a ten-year bilateral agreement on the basis of political cooperation between the EU and an individual country. PCAs with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were signed and ratified in the 1990s. The strategy also notes the urgency of a PCA for Turkmenistan.
Of all the Central Asian states, Kazakhstan has been the most enthusiastic about increasing cooperation with the EU on the political level. Both sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding to deepen energy cooperation in December 2006. The EU’s direct investment in Kazakhstan exceeds all other countries’ investments. Despite that, a substantive political framework for cooperation was not introduced until 2006-2007.
According to a series of interviews conducted by the author with EU officials, inside the EU government most believe that Turkmenistan is making comparatively significant steps toward diversifying its international partners. Most EU representatives working with Central Asia see Turkmenistan’s domestic changes as substantive as well. The EU Central Asia Strategy for cooperation points out that changes in general are expected to be rather slow in the region; but Berdymukhammedov visited Brussels in November 2007 and promised Kouchner to visit France during the French presidency of the EU later this year. Both visits are a sign of his greater exposure to the West.
EU officials also view Turkmenistan as a country that is facing difficult choices in becoming an international player while trying to balance its foreign policy. Often Turkmenistan has been sending mixed messages to European Commission (EC) delegations, showing different degrees of motivation for cooperation. While some criticism might be pertinent only to Turkmenistan, most EU representatives complain about that each country prefers to act as a separate player without putting efforts into coordinating its actions with its regional neighbors. In particular border control and water resource management are difficult to coordinate on an inter-state level in Central Asia.
Several officials from the EC have told Jamestown that reaching an agreement with Turkey on its role in the Nabucco project is a far more challenging and pressing issue. On the contrary, most EC officials are optimistic about Russia’s role in EU cooperation with Central Asia. “The EU maintains a transparent approach with Russia and often seeks cooperation with the Kremlin in Central Asia,” according to one EC representative.
Russian officials are more skeptical about the Nabucco pipeline, often perceiving it as an “economically inadequate political project.” Russia is the major buyer of and transit for Turkmen gas today. Since the German presidency, there has been a deepening of relations between the EU and Central Asia against a background of constructive relations with Russia. To date, no EU member has complained about the EU Central Asia Strategy, nor has Russia openly criticized the EU’s increasing presence in the region.
Although the economic viability and political implications of Nabucco have been argued for a long time, more experts today are sure that developments around Nabucco will become clearer in the coming months (www.kipress.kg, www.newscentralasia.com, April 9-15).