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Last Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006, 11:56 GMT
Europe's Uzbekistan dilemma
By Penny Spiller
BBC News

Bodies in Andijan. File photo
Events in Andijan shocked the world

EU foreign ministers have agreed to extend the sanctions they imposed on Uzbekistan following the violent suppression of a demonstration in the eastern city of Andijan, in May 2005.

They kept an arms and visa ban in place, but lifted a freeze on bilateral talks to enable what one EU official said would "test out what Uzbekistan tells us about their willingness to talk about human rights and rule of law".

Germany and some other EU states had been calling for the sanctions to be eased. They said the measures had not worked, and greater dialogue with the resource-rich Central Asian nation was needed.

Other states and human rights groups said it was precisely because Uzbekistan had failed to address concerns over Andijan and other human rights abuses that sanctions should not only remain, but in fact be broadened.

Uzbekistan map
Most populous central Asian former Soviet republic, home to 26m people
Ruled since 1991 independence by autocrat Islam Karimov
Accused by human rights groups of serious abuses, including torture
Government says radical Islamic groups behind violence in Tashkent in 2004, Andijan in 2005

Uzbek officials went some way last week to acknowledge human rights concerns by offering to organise a meeting of EU and Uzbek experts in Tashkent to look at events in Andijan.

They also agreed to "strengthen without delay a bilateral dialogue on human rights" following the talks with European Union officials in Brussels.

While these moves were welcomed by the EU, analysts say they are unlikely to bring democracy any time soon to the tightly-controlled former Soviet republic.

"What we need now from Uzbekistan are not nice words, but deeds," says Alain Deletroz, the International Crisis Group's vice-president for Europe.

'Routine torture'

The EU has agreed to extend the arms embargo for another 12 months, while a visa ban for 12 top officials will remain in place for six months. The measures will be reviewed in three months.

The sanctions were imposed last November in response to what ministers called the "excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force" by government troops on mostly unarmed civilians in Andijan on 13 May.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov (left) with Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Tashkent on 1 November 2006
Germany has led calls for a softer stance on Uzbekistan

Human rights groups said several hundred people were killed in what they called the worst atrocity by a government against demonstrators since the killings at China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov put the death toll at less than 200, and said his troops had been confronted by a gang of what he called dangerous Islamic militants.

He has continually rejected calls for an international inquiry into Andijan, and observers say that in fact human rights in Uzbekistan have worsened since that time.

Journalists and human rights activists who investigated the massacre were harassed, imprisoned or expelled, and the fairness of trials of those accused of instigating the Andijan uprising were called into question.

Dissenters face routine harassment, arrest, torture and lengthy prison sentences, human rights groups say.

One of hundreds of political prisoners said to be in Uzbekistan's jails is opposition leader Sanjar Umarov.

His son, Gulambek, said that since his father was detained in October 2005 his family has been able to see him only twice.

"We are deeply concerned for his welfare. My brother was the last to see him, in June. He looked physically different. It was noticeable," Gulambek said.

Strategically important

Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on a visit to Tashkent at the start of the month, raised the possibility of easing sanctions if Uzbekistan took "concrete steps" on human rights issues, particularly over Andijan.

Berlin has supported the view of some analysts that freezing talks has done nothing to advance human rights, and simply served to push Uzbekistan closer to Russia and China.

Defendants charged with terrorism sit in the supreme court of Uzbekistan in Tashkent, 20 September 2005
Dozens were jailed over the Andijan protests

France was said to favour keeping sanctions but opening a dialogue with Tashkent, while the UK and several Scandinavian countries - along with the US - had taken a firmer line.

At the heart of the dilemma is Uzbekistan's strategic importance in the region, Dr Roy Allison, a specialist in Central Asia at the London School of Economics, says.

As well as having key energy resources that could lessen Europe's dependence on Russia, Uzbekistan is also an important base for the war in neighbouring Afghanistan and for keeping good relations with the rest of Central Asia.

Both the EU and US are torn between wanting to register their disapproval over the events in Andijan and its aftermath, while at the same time trying to stop Uzbekistan moving even closer to Russia.

Dr Allison says it is unsurprising that Germany led calls for a softer stance on Uzbekistan.

"Germany as an individual state has some significant trade ties as well as a large diplomatic presence in Central Asia," he says.

"Whether Germany can carry out a shift of policy in the EU is another story because human rights issues remain a high priority for some countries."

The Belgium-based International Crisis Group had called on the EU to not only renew sanctions against Uzbekistan, but extend the visa ban to cover President Karimov and his family.

"When the EU introduced sanctions last year, it had a set of demands. To allow an independent investigation into Andijan, to demand fair trials for those suspected of involvement, and a softer hand over human rights. What we have seen has been exactly to the contrary," said Alain Deletroz.

"Either Islam Karimov drives the European Union agenda or we do."

Gulambek Umarov said that whatever the EU foreign ministers agreed to, "it is essential to make sure the government backs its words by actual actions".

How the Andijan killings unfolded
17 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Outlook bleak in wake of Andijan
11 May 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Uzbek opposition leader on trial
30 Jan 06 |  Asia-Pacific
West urged to punish Uzbekistan
11 May 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Uzbeks allow Germany to keep base
11 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific
US calls for Uzbek killings probe
13 May 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Uzbekistan
29 Oct 06 |  Country profiles


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