Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel -- representing the current rotating European Union presidency -- began a two-day tour of Central Asia today with a stop in Uzbekistan. Michel is in the region to discuss how the nations bordering Afghanistan can better contribute to the military and humanitarian operations of the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, and what the EU can do in return for the assistance.
Tashkent, 31 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union today failed to win an outright commitment from Uzbekistan to allow significant amounts of Afghanistan-bound humanitarian aid and personnel to cross its territory.
This became evident after Belgium's Foreign Minister Louis Michel -- touring Central Asia on behalf of the EU's current presidency -- emerged from talks with Uzbek President Islam Karimov without a clear commitment that Uzbekistan will allow barges carrying humanitarian aid to cross the Amu Darya river, which separates the country from Afghanistan.
Karimov did rule out opening an important bridge over the river for humanitarian aid convoys in the foreseeable future.
Michel said after today's meeting that, although progress was made on the issue, no definite conclusions could be drawn at this point. He added that he did not "detect any great desire" on Uzbekistan's part to open the bridge over the river.
Michel said he had received "valuable information" from his talks with Karimov concerning the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia. He also said the EU's and Karimov's assessments of the situation coincide on most points.
Michel said the unity of views is especially pronounced with regard to the political future of Afghanistan. Both the EU and Uzbekistan, he said, want a broad-based, ethnically representative government established in Afghanistan after the military strikes end. Both sides also consider it important for the United Nations to play a leading role in creating the structural backdrop against which the peace process and reconstruction efforts can unfold.
Michel stopped short of fully endorsing the Uzbek government's insistence that while representatives of the Pashtun tribe should have a significant contribution in Afghanistan's future government, the participation of Taliban representatives should be ruled out.
Later, a well-informed Belgian diplomatic source said the EU's Belgian presidency does share this view.
Addressing the U.S.-led military strikes, Michel said such action is legal and cannot stop before the antiterrorism coalition's objectives have been met. EU leaders, at their Ghent summit in mid-October, defined the objective as the destruction of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
However, the same unnamed Belgian diplomatic source says the Uzbek side repeatedly stressed the importance of ending the strikes soon and warned against the use of ground troops, saying this would adversely affect the stability of the entire Central Asian region.
Overall, Uzbekistan's reluctance to allow greater freedom for humanitarian aid crossing the Amu Darya to Afghanistan must be considered a setback for Michel and the EU.
Before the start of the tour, a Belgian official described the EU's immediate interests in Uzbekistan as two-fold. Uzbekistan is firstly seen as a "corridor" for military operations and secondly as a conduit for humanitarian aid bound for northern Afghanistan.
As the EU lacks direct military competence, the humanitarian aid efforts must remain its most pressing concern.
Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamylov said today that the bridge over the Amu Darya cannot be opened before the situation in northern Afghanistan stabilizes. Although he said nothing publicly about allowing humanitarian organizations access to barge traffic on the river, the unnamed Belgian diplomat quoted above said Uzbekistan is first demanding assurances from the United Nations that any aid using that route would not fall into the Taliban's hands.
Although the unnamed source says Uzbekistan has never linked facilitating humanitarian access to Afghanistan with demands of greater financial and economic support, he added that the Uzbek side has indicated that it would be politically difficult for the government to allow huge volumes of aid to travel through the country when many regions of Uzbekistan itself are in dire need of aid.
Uzbek officials also expressed frustration that the United States and the EU have largely ignored the country, despite making what these officials called many "courageous decisions."
In more concrete terms, the Uzbek officials were referring to the decision to allow the antiterrorist coalition access to the country's military facilities -- as Pakistan has done, but with far less international attention.
The unnamed Belgian diplomat said Michel will relay Uzbek discontent to the 15 EU member governments, who will then have to decide whether more can be done to support Uzbekistan. He said that Belgium -- holder of the current EU presidency -- supports the new strategy for Central Asia proposed on 29 October by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, which recognizes the region's key geopolitical role and suggests the EU commit greater resources to the region.
This, the diplomat added, is especially important considering that a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan would inevitably erode support for Uzbekistan's government within its largely impoverished and increasingly radicalized Muslim population.
The diplomat says Michel also raised the issue of human rights today, but added the Uzbek side had limited its response to the observation that with the current instability, it would be "difficult" to pursue substantial reforms.