A high-profile European Union delegation held meetings with the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, on 9-10 April. The two-day talks focused on the implementation of the EU-Central Asia strategy adopted nearly a year ago and touched upon energy issues and human rights.
The EU troika visiting Central Asia was headed by Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel and included External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who is representing the EU's next presidency. Ferrero-Waldner expressed confidence that the talks with the foreign ministers of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan will boost cooperation between the EU and Central Asian countries.
"There is a huge scope for cooperation, and our relations are growing rapidly now," she said. "We will take concrete and practical steps to develop initiatives in the area of education but also the rule of law."
Speaking to RFE/RL from Ashgabat, Ferrero-Waldner insisted that Central Asia is becoming an increasingly important energy partner for the European bloc.
"Central Asia is a key partner in the energy market and [there is] a huge potential here," she said. "But we are also stepping up our cooperation on the renewable energies, which is another important topic between us. And, of course, [we are talking] about diversifying our supply routes and the diversification of export routes."
The region is key to Europe's ambition to diversify its energy supplies, which are currently heavily dependent on Russia. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are home to some of the world's biggest oil and gas reserves. But human rights groups are urging the EU to seize the opportunity to put pressure on Central Asian governments over human rights.
"Human rights are, indeed, a very important part for us [in] our external relations, and therefore we really want to see an even better commitment," Ferrero-Waldner said. "Of course, we are aware of different historical and cultural contexts in Central Asia when compared to the European Union and that reforms in the area of democratisation, rule of law, and human rights will take a certain time."