The European Union's urgent search for new sources of oil and gas is leading it to make new overtures to the five states of Central Asia.
By Stephen Mulvey
EU reporter, BBC News
A new Central Asia strategy, currently in preparation, is expected to call for more EU missions in the region, more development aid, and more engagement.
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Earlier policies, which focused on human rights and little else, are regarded as having flopped.
"The stakes are very high for the future of EU relations with Central Asia," says an internal European Commission paper, leaked to a Brussels newspaper earlier this year.
It describes the region's energy reserves as being of "permanent strategic importance" and notes that the US, Russia and China have seized opportunities in Central Asia, which the EU has missed.
"EU policies of limiting engagement have not had the desired impact," it adds.
Human rights goals
A top-level EU delegation meets the five Central Asian foreign ministers in Kazakhstan on Wednesday to present them with a first draft of the new strategy, which the EU aims to adopt in June.
The delegation is headed by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, and has been drafting the strategy.
Germany has long been lobbying for a relaxation of EU sanctions against Uzbekistan - imposed after a massacre in the town of Andijan two years ago - and human rights groups worry that the new strategy could result in the EU turning a blind eye to abuses.
"Human rights achievements need to be at the centre of this policy, and so far they are not," says Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.
Drafts that she has seen envisage "structured human rights dialogues", and training and education programmes, but do not specify goals in the human rights area, or benchmarks that would indicate progress towards these goals.
"The EU is planning to put a lot of euros into Central Asia - enough investment that it can link some of that to achievements in benchmark areas," she says.
Germany's Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler told journalists last month that the EU's interest in energy did not mean it would pay less attention to human rights.
It's by engaging with the region that the EU would enable its voice to be heard, Germany argues.
European diplomats also point out that the strategy will also cover many other areas - including good governance, the fight against drugs and terrorism, and the promotion of stability in Afghanistan.
However, to the extent that energy is at the heart of the new strategy, Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group (ICG) detects a big dose of wishful thinking.
The EU summit earlier this month called for an intensification of the relationship with Central Asia and the Caspian region, "with a view to further diversifying sources and routes" and avoiding over-dependence on Russia.
But Central Asia is not a "silver bullet" solution to this problem, says Mr Stroehlein.
For now, the only way of getting Central Asian gas to Europe is via Russian pipelines, he points out. And even if a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline were to be built, it would not carry enough gas to make any difference.
Mr Stroehlein's colleague, ICG energy analyst Charles Esser, says the EU could count on at most 20bn cubic metres of gas per year from a Caspian pipeline - equivalent to a mere 4% of EU consumption in 2004.
That is not enough, he says, to prompt the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom, to lower its prices or change its ways.
According to the ICG, the best thing the EU could do with its Central Asian strategy is to prepare for possible chaos arising from what Mr Stroehlein calls the "incredibly brittle and brutal dictatorships" in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
"Whether they can stop the eventual collapse of Uzbekistan is unknown, but they can work with neighbouring countries to ensure the chaos does not spread," he says.
He adds: "We are certainly not anti-engagement, but it has to be for a clear purpose... The EU should not sell out for what really amounts to very little."