EU officials offered further evidence that the bloc is preparing to lift or ease its sanctions against Uzbekistan.
Pertti Torstila, secretary of state at the Finnish Foreign Ministry, said after meeting Uzbekistan's foreign minister, Vladimir Norov, today that such a decision is "possible."
A 'Good Beginning'
Speaking on behalf of the EU's current Finnish presidency, Torstila said Uzbekistan's offer of low-level contacts on Andijon is a "good beginning."
"This gesture, this commitment from the Uzbek side, deserves an appropriate answer from the EU," Torstila said.
Torstila told RFE/RL there is no consensus yet within the EU on the future of the sanctions. Ambassadors of the 25 EU member states will discuss the issue in Brussels on November 9, and the bloc's foreign ministers will make a decision when they meet in Brussels on November 13.
Quoting the results of what he said have been thousands of separate investigations, expert submissions, and witness statements, Uzbek Foreign Minister Norov said Tashkent views the events in Andijon as a terrorist attack.
The sanctions were imposed in October 2006 for one year, and comprise a visa ban on 12 Uzbek officials, a suspension of all non-political contacts, and an arms embargo.
Speaking privately, EU officials say it is highly likely that some of these sanctions will be abandoned -- although which ones and to what extent remains unclear.
Germany is said to spearhead efforts to revive contacts with Uzbekistan. Berlin argues the sanctions have failed and now hinder dialogue with Uzbekistan. Germany, which will take over the EU Presidency from Finland in January, has already launched preparations for a new and comprehensive EU strategy for Central Asia.
Germany also maintains a military air base at Termez in southern Uzbekistan.
Britain, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries are said to oppose the lifting of the sanctions.
After their meeting with the Uzbek foreign minister, EU officials said they believe Tashkent is ready to launch a "critical dialogue." Apart from expert-level talks on Andijan, Uzbekistan has also offered to hold a human rights dialogue with the EU and abolish the death penalty in 2007.
Pierre Morel, the EU's special representative for Central Asia, said the EU will maintain a critical stance in these contacts.
"We studied very thoroughly the ways of conducting a critical dialogue," Morel said. "And I believe that the Uzbek side can have no doubts whatsoever about how gravely we view these events [in Andijon] and our intention to study the results [of the work of the expert commission] very closely."
He also made clear the EU was keeping its options open.
The Uzbek offer for expert talks falls short of the EU's initial demand in 2005 of a full and independent inquiry into the Andijon events. Torstila today said the launch of expert-level talks does not mean the EU is retreating on that demand.
Torstila also noted the EU expressed concerns at today's meeting about continued repression against human rights defenders in Uzbekistan and increasing restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations. The EU demanded improvements in both fields when it announced the sanctions in late-2005.
However, EU officials privately conceded today that the bloc could uphold its initial demands and still agree on a shorter list of sanctions.
The Take In Tashkent
Uzbek Foreign Minister Norov today gave no indication that his government plans to back down. Quoting the results of what he said have been thousands of separate investigations, expert submissions, and witness statements, Norov said Tashkent views the events in Andijon as a terrorist attack.
"In May 2005, offenses were committed in Andijon which, according to Uzbek legislation and international norms, were premeditated terrorist acts directed against the foundations of the constitutional order and the life, health, and safety of people. These are the results of the analysis of these events conducted by the Uzbek law enforcement agencies."
Norov said the purpose of the as-yet-unscheduled expert meeting in Tashkent is to explain this view to the EU representatives.
Torstila said he has seen other reports that appear to "conflict" with the official Uzbek version of the events in Andijon. He and other EU officials said today they expect the expert meeting to be a venue for further discussion.
Norov today explicitly ruled out any international inquiry into Andijon, saying Uzbekistan as a sovereign country is fully capable of conducting its own investigations.
He also said that while Uzbekistan is interested in closer ties with the EU, the relationship must be based on the principle of "noninterference."
Norov also said that it "remains unclear whom the sanctions hurt more," pointing out that Uzbekistan has continued to build closer links with Russia, China, the Arab world, and its regional neighbors.