Plans by the European Union to forge closer ties to energy-rich central Asia were set back on Wednesday when Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan said they would not be lectured on democracy and human rights.
Vladimir Norov, the Uzbek foreign minister, told a top-level EU delegation: “We are open for relations that help both sides but we don’t want a relationship between a teacher and pupil.”
Marat Tazhin, the Kazakh foreign minister, said the EU should be tolerant and not push for swift moves towards democracy.
The comments, following a meeting in Astana, the Kazakh capital, between EU representatives and five central Asian foreign ministers, suggested the European bloc will have difficulty tapping into the region’s vast oil and gas reserves if it stands firm on demands for better human rights and faster economic and social reforms.
Germany, which holds the EU presidency, is leading efforts to craft a new strategic relationship with the authoritarian regimes of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, covering energy, security, Islamic extremism and human rights and democracy.
Berlin plans to present a draft strategy at an EU summit in June. Despite the setback, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, said the talks “showed the time is right for a new, closer co-operation”.
The EU, he said, aimed to diversify its energy policy. “This is why it is necessary to increase our contacts with central Asia.” The EU wanted to reduce its dependence on Russia by diversifying suppliers to include central Asia.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner, said, however, that promises of political change were not enough: “Now we want to see these [democratic] reforms.”
Mr Norov countered that the EU should not interfere, saying: “Uzbekistan is an Asian country, about 6,000km from Brussels.”
The EU maintains sanctions on Uzbekistan since a 2005 massacre but the minister was reported to have refused the Red Cross access to prisons – a gesture requested by the EU as a catalyst to ease the sanctions.
Human rights groups had predicted the EU would face resistance on reforms. Amnesty International said the bloc should nevertheless send a “strong signal” that abuses must stop.
Mr Tazhin also damped hopes of a breakthrough on energy. Kazakhstan is studying a plan to build a gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan for onward transport in a recently completed pipeline to Turkey, but said legal and technical problems had to be resolved first.
Diplomats said the meeting, the first of its kind between the two regions, marked progress in promoting dialogue, not least within central Asia, where ties are often strained.
The presence of Turkmenistan, albeit at vice foreign minister level, was a big departure for the politically isolated country. Analysts said this could be a sign of greater openness on the part of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who succeeded Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December.