The fate of Europe's last remaining sanction imposed against Uzbekistan in the wake of the 2005 Andijon massacre will soon be decided.
With a European Council meeting approaching on October 26-27, Brussels is debating whether to extend or drop an arms embargo intended to show the EU's anger over the mass killings that occurred on May 13, 2005, when Uzbek forces fired into a crowd of peaceful antigovernment protesters.
The internal debate is expected to continue on October 15, when EU special representative for Central Asia Pierre Morel is to brief EU member states on the latest developments, but no decision will be made until the European Council meeting.
In 2008, the EU lifted a travel ban on Uzbek officials, leaving the largely symbolic arms embargo as Brussels' last remaining lever of punishment relating to the bloody events in Andijon.
The Uzbek government says 187 people died during the unrest, and blames Islamic militants for the violence. Human rights activists, however, estimate that the number of innocent civilians killed runs well into the hundreds and possibly as high as 1,000 people -- including women and children.
Now, EU diplomats familiar with the current debate tell RFE/RL that a majority of member states support scrapping the embargo in the belief that they are ineffective, as there is no real arms trade with the country. They argue that dropping the embargo will do more to improve relations with Tashkent and the overall situation in the country.
That prospect has led to an outcry from human-rights activists in Europe and within Uzbekistan, who worry that Brussels would be sending the wrong message by dropping the arms embargo. One such rights defender is Umida Niyazova, an activist and independent journalist who was jailed following the Andijon crackdown, and who now lives in Berlin, where she heads the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
"The very existence of a restrictive measure, although ineffective, against the Uzbek regime firstly will induce discussions of the human rights situation in Uzbekistan during the [October 26-27] EU Council meeting and keep it in the spotlight,” Niyazova said. “The lifting of the embargo would signal to the Uzbek government that the EU is prepared to accept human rights abuses in the country."
In an effort to urge the EU to retain the arms embargo, Niyazova's organization has circulated a petition endorsed by more than a dozen respected German politicians and activists.
If not in letter, then in spirit, other groups are in agreement, and have expressed concerns that the arms embargo could be lifted as part of the recent rapprochement between Brussels and Tashkent.
When the EU effectively normalized ties and stressed a "broad, deep" relationship with Tashkent during a routine meeting of officials in September, comments by Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov drew the attention of those groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Open Society Institute.
During his visit to Brussels, Norov dismissed outstanding human rights concerns, saying "we are not here to account for our actions and the EU does not have the right to control the situation."
There are concerns that current EU President Sweden may also be retreating from the EU's once tough stance on the Uzbek regime.
Amid preliminary discussions among EU ambassadors that began on October 9, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service spoke to Jan Nyberg, director of the Swedish Foreign Ministry's Eastern Europe and Central Asian Department, about the EU president's approach.
"We will try to coordinate a common EU stance, EU position on this important question. And I can’t really say anything now before the discussions have started and we had our deliberation within the EU,” Nyberg said. “We are waiting for the assessment of the ambassadors in Tashkent and we are going to have discussions about the situation in the country.”
“Of course, things are not good in Uzbekistan when it comes to human rights,” he continued. “But whether it's bad, worse, or better, we have to discuss internally in the EU before we take our position."
EU diplomats tell RFE/RL that Germany and France, with support from the European Commission, head a group that believes that Tashkent's goodwill is essential if the EU is to establish itself among the major outside players vying for influence in the energy-rich region.
That group also argues, according to the diplomats, that the sanctions led to resentment from Tashkent while having no discernible effect on the Uzbek regime's actions.
During the preliminary debates on October 9, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, and the Czech Republic argued against lifting the sanctions regime. However, EU diplomats said that the representatives of those five countries indicated that they would be prepared to drop their opposition if EU foreign ministers adopted a toughly worded statement on October 27 alongside the decision to lift the sanctions.
No More Bargaining Chips
Despite Uzbekistan's failure to allow an independent and international inquiry into the 2005 bloodshed, the EU's strongest sanction, a travel ban against Uzbek officials, was suspended in 2008 in order to encourage Uzbek authorities to improve the rights situation in the country.
The ban was lifted entirely in October 2008, after Uzbekistan agreed to hold one or two human rights meetings a year, and to allow greater access to the United Nations, the OSCE, and nongovernmental organizations.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, a resident of the western Uzbekistan's Qashkadarya region expressed disappointment over the way the EU sanctions were handled, particularly the lifting of the travel ban.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for his safety, said the EU must not lift the arms embargo.
"I was very disappointed when the visa ban for government officials [responsible for Andijon] was lifted,” he said. “The sanctions did not come out of the blue; they were put in place after Andijon events. If [the EU] now lifts the arms embargo it will show its lack of will, and thus push Uzbekistan back from democracy. I want to say that the Uzbek government will continue to do the wrong thing."
Aside from the events Andijon, a number of other rights issues remain unresolved in Uzbekistan, according to Nadejda Atayeva, an Uzbek rights activist in exile who heads Paris-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia.
Atayeva says that if Europe wants to stay true to its values of human rights and democracy, "it must not ignore the fact that more than two dozen independent journalists and human rights activists are still kept in jails in Uzbekistan."
RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report.