Brussels, 27 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union and Uzbekistan today affirmed the need for stronger relations in view of the bloc's enlargement in May.
Eneko Landaburu, a top official of the European Commission, met Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadiq Safaev in Brussels this morning. Afterward, Landaburu said the EU is taking an increasing interest in the region.
"I would like to say that the enlargement of the European Union to the east brings us somewhat closer to Central Asia. For that reason, and taking account of the political reality in that region, the Commission has a particular interest in developing within the framework of the cooperation treaty strong relations with Central Asia in general and with Uzbekistan in particular," Landaburu said.
Besides seeking a more active political role in Uzbekistan, the EU said it will continue providing assistance to help the country's transition toward democracy and a market economy. The EU has for some time recognized Uzbekistan as the only country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), other than Russia, with ambitions of becoming a serious regional power.
Safaev welcomed EU enlargement and the bloc's increasing interest in Central Asia. "Uzbekistan [has] from the beginning supported the expansion of the EU," he said. "We still think and we continue to think that the expansion of the EU is the expansion of democracy and cooperation. We welcome the fact of the EU getting closer to Uzbekistan. We expressed the hope that sometime in the future it will come even closer to Uzbekistan, and we will even be able to think of joining the EU sometime in the future. However, it's not viable now, but we think that definitely we will support this expansion. And we mean to speak with our close partners who are about to become members of the EU soon and discuss with them how we might benefit from their joining."
EU officials say they expect Uzbekistan to automatically extend its existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU to the 10 new member states.
A joint statement adopted by the EU and Uzbekistan today also welcomed Uzbekistan's pledge to eliminate torture in its prisons, and recognized the importance of respect for human rights in the fight against terrorism. An Irish representative present at the meeting said the human rights discussions had been "lengthy, open and frank."
The statement said Uzbekistan reaffirmed that it will implement the recommendations that the UN special rapporteur for torture, Theo van Boven, made after his recent visit to the country. In November, Uzbek President Islam Karimov reportedly refused to make that commitment. After visiting Uzbekistan last year, van Boven reported, among other things, that the use of torture in Uzbek jails was "systematic." Today, Safaev rejected that charge, saying the Uzbek government is "serious" in trying to eradicate torture. He also said Uzbekistan is the only country in the CIS to have invited van Boven to inspect its jails.
Safaev said he also expects greater EU assistance to combat drug trafficking, adding he believes fighting drug use in Europe is as important as measures against drug production in Afghanistan or drug trafficking via countries such as Uzbekistan.
Safaev also said he asked EU member states to refrain from contacts with radical Islamist movements in the region. Many of Uzbekistan's political prisoners are accused of religious extremism.
The EU-Uzbek joint statement says that apart from fighting terrorism and combating drug trafficking, the two sides will examine ways in which to improve cooperation in preventing illegal immigration, money laundering, corruption, and human trafficking.