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Good morning and thank all of you to be here in this final press point, after an intense and profitable visit to the region, which has combined meetings with all countries in the region in the framework of the Ministerial Meeting with Central Asia and [a] bilateral visit to the host country.
Allow me to try to debrief about what we have been doing here since Monday and how we have been reinforcing our relationship with Central Asia, our cooperation between the European Union and Central Asia. We call it Central Asia, but it is more than central to Asia, [it] is becoming central to the world because this region is becoming strategically important and for us [it is] an important partner. And we wish to develop the Central Asia region [as] a stronger, prosperous, and more closely interconnected economic and political space. Central Asia is in the middle of the way between Europe and [East] Asia. It is a space for connectivity, but also for cooperation, and we want cooperation more than rivalry. And we believe that we can make a strong contribution to the future of the region. The Central Asian states show determination in their commitment to regional cooperation among them, and to the reform of the democratic way inside before each one of them.
In this Joint Ministerial Meeting and [in] our bilateral talks with Foreign Ministers, and in the activities that my colleague [Commissioner Jutta] Urpilainen [of International Partnerships] has been developing, we have been looking at options to take our cooperation forward in a broad range of issues. We have focused on intensifying our joint actions to promote a green and sustainable post-corona recovery; and stepping up our cooperation in the context of the situation in Afghanistan. I think that there are the two to issues that have been determining the frame of our discussions: Afghanistan - big geo-political problem in the neighbourhood; and the post-corona recovery, following the lines of digitalisation and greening the economies and societies.
And this is a good moment to take advantage of these issues. For me personally, it is my second visit to Central Asia. This year [I] had the possibility of meeting the leaders of the region in the Tashkent Meeting on Connectivity, just some days before the fall of Kabul. And, many of the Presidents of the Central Asian countries, particularly Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, have visited, or will visit Brussels shortly. Additionally, to this increasing relationship between the European Union and Central Asia region, we have launched our first ever European Union - Central Asia Economic Forum that brought together high-level business representatives and decision makers from the two regions.
Allow me to have a look at each one of the countries of the region, because, as I said, we are combining bilateral visit with the regional engagement.
Starting with Kazakhstan. With Deputy Prime Minister and Minister [of Foreign Affairs, Mukhtar] Tileuberdi, we appreciated that our corporation is developing well. We are the first trade partner and the first foreign investor in Kazakhstan. And we fully support the green agenda and the efforts to diversify its economy. Certainly, they will have to diversify their economy because our Green Deal and the general fight against climate change will make a big change on the energy mix of the world. And we welcome Kazakhstan ambitious goal to reduce the house gas emissions by 50% in 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. I welcome the interest of Kazakhstan in stepping up cooperation with us on the low carbon and green technologies to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets. We also discussed the continued success of our high-level business platform. I expressed appreciation for the progress made in addressing concerns, shared by EU investors, with regard to the barriers to trade and investment and taxation and their recent discussion of the transition to low carbon green technologies and sustainable forestry and agriculture.
With the Kyrgyz Republic, with Minister [Ruslan] Kazakbayev [of Foreign Affairs], we discussed how to upgrade our bilateral relations. The developments in Afghanistan and the future cooperation in connectivity. We are very much engaged in supporting the Kyrgyz Republic politically and economically. The Minister and us, we agreed that the recovery from the crisis should be an opportunity to promote this partnership.
On Tajikistan, the host country, we focused very much on Afghanistan. As Tajikistan is one of the frontline states, 1,400 kilometres of border, [it is] a very difficult border to control, I had the opportunity to get to know it. [It] makes Tajikistan a country very much affected by the crisis in Afghanistan. And we have to thank for the active role Tajikistan has played in the region recently and I especially appreciate the positive role [that it] play[s] in promoting a positive and cooperative regional agenda on Afghanistan. We stand together to help the country to manage some of the most challenging repercussions of developments in Afghanistan, be it uncontrolled mass migration, and by the time being has not happened, radicalisation and terrorism, illicit drugs and trafficking of human beings. And we thank Tajikistan for its particular role in the context of the United Nations, in the case of water and reaffirm our support for the organisation of the Dushanbe Water Conference in 2022, co-organised with the Netherlands, that I hope will give us a new opportunity to visit this country. We considered also the border dispute with the Kyrgyz Republic. We enquired about the state of play of negotiations between the two countries and [the] demarcation. And we encourage all bilateral disputes in the region to be settled through peaceful means.
We discussed also with Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is an important partner and a strong champion of our regional cooperation with Central Asia. We expressed our gratitude for the role that they are playing getting humanitarian support to the Afghan people. We discussed the progress on reforms and also reviewed progress in our negotiations for a new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and Uzbekistan. And we will be in the Conference on Connectivity that is going to take place in Samarkand to look at the new routes and new corridors of the two regions in order to be very much present in the development of the region.
I want to stress to all countries, and in particular, to Uzbekistan. We discussed together and bilaterally the issue of the situation in Belarus and the artificial crisis, [which] is not a migration crisis, but it is a crisis that has been created using migrants in the Belarusian borders with the European Union. I asked all [Foreign] Ministers to take measures to prevent their airports and territories from being misused for potential migrants and trafficking movements. In some countries we have not perceived such moves, in others like in Uzbekistan, yes. There has been a clear and strong movement of people to Belarus, and from Belarus to the European borders. In all meetings, in all conversations with our colleagues, Ministers, they were very much concerned about that, and they ensured us that they were going to take all needed measures to prevent that their airports and territories [are] being misused for potential migrants and trafficking movements. So, we appreciate very much this response, especially from Uzbekistan - fast action in restricting the flights to Minsk. This is one of the [most] important deliveries of this meeting. The whole region, and in particular, Uzbekistan, expressed their strong commitment to stop the flow of migrants to Belarus, where they are going to be used against the European borders; they are cheated and they are being sent to nowhere. They were promised a way to Europe and they found themselves lost in the woods in a very dire humanitarian situation. Please, help us all the media to inform people that this promise of a free and easy way to go to Europe through Belarus is a trap. I count on you to disseminate this news.
With Uzbekistan we have a strong relationship, we expressed our appreciation for the role it plays in getting humanitarian support for the Afghan people.
And finally, with Turkmenistan, with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Hajiyev, I confirmed our readiness to strengthen relations. I reiterated that improvement in the field of democracy and human rights are required in order to unlock the potential in our relations. In particular, the ratification of the European Union-Turkmenistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. We also discussed the security situation in Afghanistan and the Turkmenistan-Afghan border. And we appreciated [that] the positive impact of Turkmenistan on the neutrality and status contributed to regional stability and their efforts to support stabilisation and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
I thank a lot to Tajikistan for the strong support they provided to Afghanistan by providing electricity. I put that as an example yesterday in an interview with the European press. When we talk about support to Afghan people, this is a good example of a country that does not recognise the Taliban regime, but in spite of that, provides an important support providing electricity, that by the time being is not being paid, and in spite of that it continues with the supply of critical resources to allow the Afghans to face the winter season. You can help people in Afghanistan, without a recognition of the regime. That is what Tajikistan is doing. And I certainly have to say that this is a good example for the international community to provide not only money, but a critical good, which is electricity, especially in these difficult circumstances. Other the countries are doing the same. Certainly, the approach to Afghanistan is not the same among the different countries of the region. We noticed it, but the will to continue cooperating on the issue of borders, on facing the crisis in Afghanistan, improving the democracy, stability, prosperity in the region is our strong commitment.
It has been a very interesting visit. Now [I] know much more about the region, and about Tajikistan. And on my behalf, and on behalf of Commissioner [for International Partnerships, Jutta] Urpilainen, [I want] to thank for the warm welcome and all kinds of attentions that Tajikistan’s authorities [have provided to us], the good organisation of the conference, and the good prospects for our future cooperation.
Q. It was a big surprise for me that you talked about hospitality, but not about human rights. I will ask my question in Russian. [rest of the question in Russian, no interpretation provided – question about freedom of expression, media and fundamental rights]
Allow me to say that in my presentation I said clearly that in some particular cases the improvements on the field of democracy and human rights are required in order to unlock the potential of our relations. I think it is a clear language. I am sure that it is one of the items that we have been talking about and we can develop longer, but you will notice that I have said clearly that in order to unlock the potential of our relations, improvements in the field of democracy and human rights are required.
Q. [question in Russian, no interpretation provided, question about cooperation on energy between the EU and Central Asia and specifically with Tajikistan]
Certainly, Jutta [Urpilainen], you know, we are on the way of electrification of the world energy consumption. That is the key word: electrification. From the movement, cars, electric cars, electricity and we have to produce electricity with low carbon sources. It would not be useful at all to use electric cars if the electricity was produced by carbon centrals. The green is not the car, the green is the source of the electricity the car is using. And from this point of view, this vision in particular, Tajikistan has an enormous potential. Not only for you, but for the region, and for the world. And these projects will be highly profitable, if the carbon has to become expensive, because it will become expensive, even through the emission trading mechanism. Electricity is the energy that has to supply the future. I visited in detail the Nurek plant, I went into the body, and it certainly required big improvements that it is on the way. It is a facility that was built many years ago during the Soviet times. And the visit showed me how much needed is resetting of the technology, which is on the way. With an important participation of the European Investment Bank. And also, for the […] project which will require an important amount of resources. I am sure that the European Investment Bank will take its share, because it is good for the human kind that you develop your electricity capacity. And there are not so many countries in the world that have your geological character that Tajikistan [has] in order to produce electricity without damaging the environment.
Q. [question in Russian, no interpretation provided, question about the situation on the borders with Belarus and EU sanctions]
Well, yesterday, the College – in our absence, but with our agreement - approved a Joint Communication by the Commission and the High Representative about the issue of Belarus and the way we are going to deal with this artificially created movement of people.
Look, the first thing to do is cooperation with the countries of origin and transit. If nobody was moving to Belarus, there wold be no crisis. The first thing to do is to stop the inflow. And this has to be done through persuasion, diplomatic activity, agreements of good will and also on the interest of the citizens affected. And I have to say that, here, in the region, in particular in Uzbekistan, this diplomatic outreach had already been very much fruitful. We do not need to think about any other action, because the Uzbek authorities strongly committed to stopping this flow of people.
Today or tomorrow my colleague Vice-President [Margaritis] Schinas will also visit to reaffirm this commitment, but the agreement is already done. They agreed. In exchange of what? In exchange of nothing, nothing more than the well-being of their own citizens. It is their own citizens who they have to protect, not our borders. They have to protect their people. If they see that their people are being cheated and paying quite an important amount of money to travel and then to finalise in front of a border which is closed and have to go back, it is certainly in their own interest not doing that. It is to protect their people. Not our borders, their people. And that is what the Uzbek authorities have already done and they will not allow flights to Minsk and they will not allow people flying to Minsk without a clear proof that they are permanent residents in Belarus. If they are permanent residents in Belarus, they have the right to go back to their residences. But I cannot believe that, suddenly, thousands of people could claim that they are permanent residents in Belarus. They are not.
So, I have to thank them for this cooperation, but they understood very well that it is in their own interest, in the interest of their people. And they will do it. So, mission accomplished. From Central Asia, there will not be more flow of people going to Belarus.
Apart from that, we decided sanctions against the Belarusian authorities, personalities, entities, and we also established regulations in order not to sanction in the strict sense of the word ‘sanction’, which is something that has to be adopted by the Council, but a Regulation that allows to protect people, to enhance the security of the airlines and to create conditions that will dissuade airlines from participating in this trafficking.
So, I think that all the measures that could be taken diplomatically in order to avoid the inflow have already been taken. Now, we have to take care of the people who are already there. Because they are there irregularly if you want, but they are still human beings. They have to be protected. And that is what we are helping to do. They will have to go back home. That is what the Iraqi authorities are currently doing, but I thank Central Asian people for their strong commitment to stop this flow and their understanding that they were doing that on behalf of the protection of their citizens.
Q. [question in local language, no interpretation provided]
I think Commissioner Urpilainen has already answered this question: human rights, democracy, rule of law, independence of the judiciary, fight against corruption, on our commitments to develop in the world. And as I said clearly, in a specific case, to increase the developments of freedom and respect to the human rights, there is a precondition for unlocking the potential of our relationship. And this issue has been present. But you know, we do not practice the ‘megaphone diplomacy’. Megaphone diplomacy means to do big declarations. I think this is a work that has to be done, explaining our concerns to our partners. And trying to work and build in a positive way. It is the best way of advancing on what is our interest and certainly the condition for example for […] plus, are related to the fulfilment of our serious conditions on human rights, on women rights. If these
are not fulfilled it will not be […] in our partnerships. It is clear, it is a tough and on that we are working. But the best way of working is through diplomatic reach out and conditionality in our partnership.
Q. [question in local language, no interpretation provided, question on EU assistance to the region regarding Afghanistan]
Yes, as I said, not all members in the region share the same approach to Afghanistan. There are some members of this region who are even willing and asking for recognition [of Taliban]. And others, like Uzbekistan, are really ready to improve the relationship and offer the Taliban a kind of understanding in order to push for an evolution of their political attitude - if we can say.
On that, there is a certain conversion with the European Union, because we are not talking about recognition, but we have a series of benchmarks in order to calibrate the activity of the Taliban regime, which has been adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council. We will engage with the Taliban as much as they fulfil certain conditions. Among them, the respect of human rights, girls, women, not to be hosting terrorist activities, open borders, inclusive government. We will be calibrating our approach according with how the behaviour of the Taliban will be.
And this is something that some countries in the region share more than others. Certainly, Tajikistan is the country that has the most difficult relationship with Afghanistan – you know the reasons better than I do. There has been a civil war, there is a strong Tajik minority in Afghanistan, who have been suffering a lot from the Taliban activities and attitudes. They have been – if I can say - more victims than other ethnic groups. This makes the relationship with the Taliban regime more difficult for Tajikistan. In spite of that, Tajikistan is offering electricity for free, not being paid, which shows certainly the generous attitude on behalf of the well-being of the Afghan people.
And no, the European Union is not going to support any kind of military activity in Afghanistan. That is clear. We are going to participate in the building of the economy, as Commissioner Urpilainen said. Our main concern is to avoid the collapse of the Afghan economy, of the Afghan society and of the banking system.
The news coming from Afghanistan are very much worrisome, the situation is dire. We have to increase our efforts on the humanitarian side. We are not going to participate in any kind of military activity in Afghanistan and we are going to support Tajikistan, especially, because it is the country who has the longest border and the most difficult relationship with Afghanistan, due to these specific circumstances of the big amount of population who are from Tajik origin.