Senior EU officials will arrive on Turkmenistan this week to promote cooperation with Central Asia – a vast energy-rich region key to Europe's ambitions to diversify energy supplies and reduce its dependence on Russia.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and the French and Slovenian foreign ministers will meet their Central Asian counterparts in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on April 9-10 for talks on issues ranging from fuel to democracy.
Home to some of the world's biggest oil and gas reserves, the region is prone to authoritarian rule and most of its states have been criticised in the West over their records on democracy and human rights.
The European Union sees it as a new source of untapped energy as it tries to ease dependence on Russia, which supplies the bloc with a quarter of its energy needs.
"Implementation (of EU strategy) is well under way and the EU is working with partners in the region on joint priorities papers detailing future action," the EU said in a statement ahead of the talks, likely to be held behind closed doors.
Some rights activists and opposition politicians have accused the West of putting energy above democracy in their Central Asia contacts, a charge Western governments have denied.
US-based Human Rights Watch urged the EU to make its main objective in regional policy the fulfilment of human rights standards by Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
"Central Asia is home to some of the most repressive states of the former Soviet Union, and the EU should seize the opportunity to achieve improvements," it said. "Setting concrete benchmarks will give the strategy a clear direction."
Kazakhstan, the region's biggest economy and with a stable investment climate, is the main focus of Western interest. It has attracted billions of dollars in investment but has never held an election judged free and fair by Western monitors.
Reclusive Turkmenistan, slowly opening up after decades of isolation, has also signalled it wants closer ties with the West and more reform. But analysts question its new president's commitment to genuine change.
Uzbekistan, dubbed by the United States one the world's "most systematic human rights violators" in 2007, won praise from the West this year after it pardoned six jailed activists and showed more willingness to discuss human rights issues.
"Some developments in the region merit recognition and are welcomed," said Human Rights Watch. "But they should not eclipse the overall abysmal state of human rights in individual Central Asian countries and in the region as a whole." (Reuters)
EU team to discuss energy supplies in Central Asia