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Uzbekistan: 'Channels Of Communication' Key In EU Sanctions Debate

  • Ahto Lobjakas

BRUSSELS, November 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Ambassadors from the 25 EU member states met today in Brussels to discuss the future of sanctions the bloc imposed on Uzbekistan after the May 2005 Andijon killings.

One EU diplomat told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that the debate is increasingly focusing on the issue of how to open channels of communication with Tashkent without giving the impression of caving in over the sanctions.

Although there is no consensus yet within the European Union on how to proceed with the sanctions on Uzbekistan, three points of agreement appear to be emerging.

First, it is clear that the yearlong sanctions imposed in October 2005 have not had the desired effect.

Uzbekistan's foreign minister, who visited Brussels on November 8-9, could afford to be publicly dismissive of the measures. Vladimir Norov told journalists he was not sure "whom the sanctions had hurt more," the EU or his own country. Minister Norov was in Brussels at the EU's invitation, the first top Uzbek official to visit EU headquarters in 15 months.

Second, although the next holder of the EU's rotating presidency, Germany, was initially keen to eliminate the sanctions altogether, that will not happen. There is enough resistance within the EU -- led by Britain, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries -- to prevent that. Also, the EU could suffer a loss of face and set a dangerous precedent dropping the sanctions for no obvious gain.

Third, that the main lesson for the EU in all this is the importance of keeping channels of communication open. It is now widely accepted within the EU that it cannot hope to affect the behavior of distant regimes whose dependence on the EU is either negligible or nonexistent with punitive measures alone. The EU diplomat briefing RFE/RL on the debate said "it is now clear that cutting communication was a mistake."

The EU debate in the run-up to the foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on November 13 at which the issue must be settled now focuses on two key details. First, some of the sanctions are likely to remain in place. The EU diplomat said the EU will probably retain its visa ban on the 12 Uzbek officials considered responsible for the crackdown in Andijon and its aftermath. Also, the EU weapons embargo will stay.

But the EU will have to drop its current partial suspension of its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan. The suspension affects the work of three committees involving relatively low-level officials. One of the committees deals with the field of Justice and Home Affairs and would need to be revived if the EU is to accept Tashkent's offer to resume a "human rights dialogue" with Brussels.

Tashkent is also offering expert-level talks on the Andijon events, but these could be held with the current sanctions remaining in effect.

The other issue is the future of the sanctions. Germany and its allies argue for a review in three months' time, saying this will provide Tashkent with a clear incentive to improve its record. Britain and its backers, on the other hand, want a longer term for the extended sanctions -- preferably another 12 months. They argue that shortening the term would be a "slippery slope," and might force the EU to return to essentially the same debate over and over again.

Regardless of the content or the duration of the new sanctions, their conditionality would remain the same. The EU will still demand that Tashkent allow an independent international inquiry into the Andijon events, allow free trials for people accused of involvement, stop persecuting human rights activists, and reverse its crackdown on civil society and nongovernmental groups.

Germany's emergence as the driving force behind the pressure within the EU for a sanctions review is linked to its ambitions to launch a new EU strategy for Central Asia when it assumes the bloc's rotating presidency in January. Attempts to isolate Uzbekistan would significantly weaken Berlin's hand in the region. Diplomats say Bonn argues that Uzbekistan is a key country in a region that is actively courted by Russia and China, warning the EU could "miss the train."