BRUSSELS, September 1, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU delegation's visit to Tashkent earlier this week was the first of its kind since hundreds of protesters were killed in the eastern city of Andijon by Uzbek troops in May 2005.
Uzbek authorities refused to allow an independent, international inquiry into the killings, prompting the EU to impose sanctions on the country in October. The sanctions include a freeze on all political contacts, aid cuts, and visa bans on officials held responsible for the events in Andijon and their cover-up.
Acting On 'Suggestions'
RFE/RL spoke on September 1 with Antti Turunen, head of the Finnish Foreign Ministry's Eastern European and Central Asian unit. He led the EU delegation. Finland currently holds the EU's rotating presidency and its officials chair EU activities.
Turunen said the EU visit took place in response to "suggestions" that Uzbekistan is willing to resume contacts. The suggestion was made by and Uzbek deputy foreign minister on a visit to Helsinki in June -- just before Finland assumed the EU presidency.
"They indicated [then] that there would be possibilities to again resume ministerial level dialogue, that they might be willing to again discuss all aspects of EU-Uzbek relations, including the events in Andijon," he said.
Turunen's "fact-finding" mission was dispatched by the EU to see how far the Uzbek side is willing to go to address the concerns that led to the sanctions.
Turunen said that on a formal level, the visit went "smoothly." He said the Uzbek government offered a "warm reception," and that the delegation, despite its relatively lowly status, was received on August 29 by Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov.
Change In Attitude?
The EU delegation then held a series of meetings with officials at the Ministry of Justice, representatives of the Attorney General's office, and Uzbek parliament members. Overall, Turunen said, the atmosphere was "rather good."
But, Turunen, stressed, "the real issue" for the EU remains the Uzbek authorities' response to international concern over Andijon and the country's human rights record.
Turunen said Uzbekistan appears ready to offer certain concessions on Andijon -- which would, however, fall short of allowing the EU to conduct an inquiry.
"Well, it seems that at the moment the issue with the international inquiry is not on the agenda as such," he said. "They are to a certain extent open to discuss on expert level the events that took place in Andijon and we have to now see what this amounts to, what concrete steps towards that direction could be taken."
On the other hand, Turunen said, Uzbek officials appeared more amenable on resuming a more general human rights dialogue with the EU.
"The other issue is they are now willing to engage on human rights, to establish some kind of human rights dialogue or regular meetings on human rights issues which, in itself, is a positive signal," he said.
Japan, U.S., Also Make Visits
Turunen said it is not clear to the EU what has prompted the Uzbek government's apparent change of heart. He said the EU's assumption is that Uzbekistan is trying to overcome its isolation. Turunen noted the country, landlocked and far from the developed world, needs international partners for trade and investment.
Tashkent was also recently visited by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs Richard Boucher and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
EU officials have said before Uzbekistan's energy resources could be of interest to the EU. Turunen said the issue of Uzbek energy reserves was not "directly" raised during his visit. But, he added, "one might assume in the longer run they look forward to EU investment in this area."
Turunen stressed that Uzbekistan's human rights record remains the touchstone for the EU in its deliberations about whether to lift sanctions.
"But, of course, there are many, many open cases on human rights, and we have to now carefully look into what has really been done and what recommendations of [the] international community have been implemented," he said. "That will be part of the assessment of the sanctions regime and on the basis of that assessment a decision on the fate of the sanctions will be made by mid-November."
Turunen said that should the EU decide to lift the sanctions -- something that is far from certain at this stage -- a "Cooperation Council" meeting with Foreign Minister Norov could take place in Brussels later this autumn. Under the now mostly suspended EU-Uzbek Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the two sides held yearly ministerial-level meetings.
Although the EU has raised the issue of Uzbekistan in its contacts with Russia, Turunen said Uzbekistan's relations with Moscow were not discussed during this week's EU visit.