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Uzbekistan: EU Likely To Drop Visa Ban

  • Ahto Lobjakas

BRUSSELS -- It is looking increasingly likely that the European Union will quietly abandon one of the key sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan in the wake of the bloody events in Andijon in May 2005, when security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators.

EU officials have indicated that the visa ban on eight top officials, currently suspended, is unlikely to be reinstated when EU foreign ministers review it in April.

Uzbekistan has yet to meet any of the conditions attached to the suspension, but there is a growing feeling within the EU that the visa ban is an obstacle to greater dialogue with Tashkent.

The ban has long caused controversy among EU member states. Some, led by Germany, feel it is a counterproductive affront to Tashkent in view of the EU's quest for "engagement" with Uzbekistan and Central Asia in general.

Others, led by Britain, say the human rights situation in Uzbekistan has worsened in recent months. Those responsible for the deaths at Andijon still go unpunished, there is no media freedom, political opposition is harshly persecuted, torture in prisons is commonplace, and there is a growing concern about the use of child slave labor in the cotton industry, which is critical to Uzbekistan's economy.

The EU countries that back engagement have been in the ascendancy in the union for some time. Germany, which authored the EU's Central Asia strategy adopted in June 2007, flexed its political muscles in October when it forced a six-month suspension of the EU visa ban on eight Uzbek officials considered complicit in the Andijon deaths and the event's aftermath.

Losing Link To Andijon?

The suspension of the ban came with a list of tough conditions attached to it, and human rights activists were initially not worried. But it now appears the conditions contain a carefully manufactured loophole that allows Berlin to end the visa ban on what is really a technicality.

Germany is backed in its quest for greater engagement with Uzbekistan by the EU's executive branch, the European Commission. Gunnar Wiegand, a senior commission official in charge of relations with the former Soviet Union, told a conference in Brussels on January 31 that it is the new conditions that make the visa ban problematic -- because they break the linkage with Andijon.

"We now may face a situation where sanctions are maintained because of the human rights situation," Wiegand said. "And then we are faced with a double-standards question in the region: 'Why do you have sanctions because of human rights against one country, but not against other countries?'"

When the EU's foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg on April 28 -- which is when the six-month suspension of the visa ban runs out -- they will have to evaluate Tashkent's recent record on a number of issues.

These include international access to Uzbek prisoners, access for UN special rapporteurs, the ability of nongovernmental organizations to operate freely, the releasing of jailed human rights defenders and an end to their harassment, as well as "engaging positively" with the EU on human rights issues.

International human rights bodies say Uzbekistan is likely to have failed on all counts in April. But, as Wiegand says, the EU may have no option but to discontinue the visa ban, because the crucial linkage with Andijon has been lost.

The linkage with Andijon existed in October 2005, when the visa ban was first imposed along with an arms embargo and a freeze on EU assistance programs. It was there in May 2007, when the names of four officials were taken off the visa-ban list, leaving eight. But the linkage is no longer there now.

It appears Germany carefully planned this in October 2007, when it caught proponents of the visa ban among EU member states by surprise by agreeing to the tough conditions.

EU officials then told RFE/RL the conditions appeared superfluous, as Germany and its supporters could have forced the EU to drop the visa ban altogether -- its 12-month term had come to an end and unanimity was needed to extend it. Wiegand's comments on January 31 suggest Berlin had already found a more elegant and less divisive way out of the deadlock.

Slapping visa bans on other repressive Central Asian regimes is not a serious option for the EU, as it seeks greater "engagement" with the region. The EU is attracted predominantly by Turkmen and Kazakh energy reserves, but also sees the region as a crucial geopolitical nexus that needs to be contested with Russia, China, and other outside rivals for influence.
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