Uzbek security force's bloody crackdown on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005 prompted the EU to impose a visa ban on some top officials and an arms embargo later that year.
Some EU member states want to ease the sanctions in hope of coaxing more cooperation from Uzbekistan, while others vehemently oppose any such move before there is evidence of improvement in the country's human-rights situation. At stake are the EU's ties with Central Asia's most populous country. Equally important is the future shape of the bloc's policy on sanctions.
Uzbekistan is quickly turning into a test case. The country is important strategically, located as it is in the heart of the energy-rich region, where the EU is looking for an alternative to Russia for its energy needs. Uzbekistan is, on the other hand, largely unrepentant in its rejection of EU human- rights standards.
Strategy For Central Asia
Following Tashkent's acceptance in late 2006 to hold expert-level talks on human rights and on the events in Andijon, the EU rolled back its sanctions slightly and shortened the review period. That move coincided with the adoption of the EU's first-ever "Strategy For Central Asia" in June under the then-EU Presidency of Germany.
Germany, which has taken the lead in shaping the EU's Central Asian policy, has teamed up with current EU chair Portugal to lead a coalition of member states supporting a six-month "freeze" on the EU visa ban. According to internal EU documents seen by RFE/RL, this group of countries also includes France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Hungary, and Poland. Collectively, they present a series of arguments in support of a goodwill gesture on the part of the EU.
They point to the bloc's broader strategic aims in Central Asia, to Uzbekistan's central location, its energy reserves, and to its 25 million people. They also note that to build up energy cooperation with Central Asia, the EU needs to stave off competition from others, mainly Russia and China. To do that, Uzbekistan's cooperation as a regional leader is vital.
'An Opening Up Of Sorts'
More specifically, Germany, Portugal, and their allies point to Tashkent's apparent willingness to address human-rights issues, as well as to the recent releases of some political prisoners. As one EU official told RFE/RL, these countries argue that "an opening up of sorts" is in progress in Uzbekistan, and that an easing of the sanctions is needed for the limited contacts with Tashkent to continue.
The supporters of a harsh EU line...also fear that by backing down on sanctions, the EU would set a dangerous precedent for other countries in the region, and beyond.
This group is vehemently opposed by a hardcore group comprising Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Ireland. They argue that the human-rights situation in Uzbekistan has not improved and that sporadic meetings of low-level Uzbek officials with EU counterparts do not constitute evidence of any serious intent on the part of Tashkent to improve its behavior.
They also note that political prisoners are selectively pardoned without their convictions being removed. The one round of talks on Andijon earlier this year also was the last, and Tashkent is trying to limit the "human-rights dialogue" with the EU to one low-level meeting a year.
The supporters of a harsh EU line also note that the visa ban is viewed by Tashkent as particularly irksome, and forms one of the most powerful levers in the EU's otherwise anemic arsenal of sanctions. They also fear that by backing down on sanctions, the EU would set a dangerous precedent for other countries in the region, and beyond.
Attempts At Compromise
Even the backers of more lenient EU sanctions admit that if there was another Andijon-style backlash in Uzbekistan -- during the presidential election in December, for example -- the EU would have no choice but to introduce even harsher sanctions. These may then come to include the freezing of assets.
An EU diplomat told RFE/RL this week that no one within the bloc expects the election to result in anything but a victory for incumbent Islam Karimov. The official noted that "the maximum we can hope for is that nothing [bad] will happen." He added that "there are many different ways of not allowing free and fair elections to take place."
Attempts at finding a compromise have thus far failed. The issue has been discussed by three sets of EU officials in Brussels this week. It will be raised again by the bloc's top foreign policy-making ambassadors in Luxembourg on October 15. Officials say it is very likely that EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on the same day will have to try to hammer out a deal among themselves. Some do not rule out that the meeting will end in an impasse.
The EU must decide by November 14 whether to extend, drop, or modify the sanctions, and it is theoretically possible on October 15 that the matter will be referred back to the ambassadors. Although there is no EU foreign ministers' meeting scheduled for the period between October 15 and November 14, other ministerial meetings are also empowered to rubber-stamp ambassadorial decisions in exceptional circumstances.