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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Seeks To Boost Central Asia Energy Ties

ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- The European Union tiptoed into the race for Central Asia's vast energy resources on Wednesday, but it faces tough competition in a region where both Moscow and Washington are already elbowing hard for control.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier brought a host of EU officials for a summit in Kazakhstan, aiming to bolster the EU's role in the strategic region, which sits on some of the world's biggest oil, natural gas and uranium reserves.

Speaking in the Kazakh capital Astana, Steinmeier said energy was a key element in the EU's strategy for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

"The EU aims to diversify its energy policy. This is why it is necessary to increase our contacts with Central Asia," he told reporters after talks with regional foreign ministers.

"The talks showed that the time is right for a new, closer cooperation."

The talks, heavy on rhetoric but thin on detail, were part of EU president Germany's plan to present a paper setting out its ideas for a first EU strategy for Central Asia. It intends to present the draft plan for approval at a June summit.

Rights groups had called on Steinmeier to use his trip to get tough on the often patchy human rights record in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, whose leaders are frequently criticized in the West for tolerating no dissent.

Germany has denied that the EU is putting energy interests before human rights in mapping out its strategy for the region.

"It's in our interest that the Central Asian countries take a path to be peaceful, democratic and prospering states," he said.

The United States, which has a military airbase in Kyrgyzstan, and Russia, the region's former imperial master, are the two main players in the vast Muslim region stretching from the borders of Russia in the north to Afghanistan and Iran in the south.

Oil-rich Kazakhstan sees itself as the region's most stable and economically strong country and aspires to become the first state from the ex-Soviet bloc to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.

Speaking alongside Steinmeier, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Kazakhstan, which has never held an election judged free and fair by Western monitors, needed to show more commitment to democratic reform.

"Now we want to see these reforms," she said, adding, however, that there still was "a very good chance to see the first Central Asian country in OSCE chairmanship."

Another regional power, Turkmenistan, is Central Asia's top natural gas producer. The EU is particularly keen to establish contacts with the nation's new leadership following the December death of its long-serving and reclusive leader.

But oddly, Turkmenistan's deputy foreign minister, who had been scheduled to speak at the conference, disappeared without warning after the talks.

Asked by a reporter where he was, Steinmeier said, jokingly: "I can't tell you where he is. I hope he did not get stuck in the lift."