Germany, which currently holds the EU's chair, expressed cautious optimism today over what it believes may be signs that Uzbekistan may be willing to meet some of the bloc's human rights concerns.
Steinmeier, at today's monthly EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, told his colleagues that Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov has promised further talks on Andijon and the government's treatment of human rights activists.
After the meeting, Steinmeier told journalists he will now pursue "cautious" efforts to probe the limits of Uzbekistan's willingness to cooperate.
"This shows that their are openings that must developed, and it remains to be decided in May in what way we proceed with the EU's current policy towards Uzbekistan, [and] if any changes are possible," he said.
Steinmeier said the possible Uzbek concessions would involve granting the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons; holding a further round of talks with EU experts on the events that took place in Andijon in May 2005, where hundreds of protesters died after clashes with government troops; and launching a human rights dialogue allowing the EU to raise individual cases.
All three are key EU demands if the bloc is to ease its current sanctions against Uzbekistan. Those restrictive measures currently include an arms embargo and a travel ban on officials held directly responsible for the Andijon events, the prosecution of their alleged perpetrators, and the absence of a subsequent independent inquiry.
International Inquiry For Andijon
The EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said before today's meeting that the Uzbek concessions discussed thus far will not cause the EU to give up its call for an independent international inquiry into the Andijon events.
"Of course, this does not replace an international inquiry, but it shows a greater openness than we have seen before," she said.
It appears that the EU is prepared to reconsider the extent of the sanctions in May -- when the visa ban is set to expire. The arms embargo will then run for another six months.
An anonymous EU official told RFE/RL that Steinmeier told his EU colleagues in their meeting that he believes the concessions floated by Tashkent may be genuine, although Berlin will wait for written confirmation. The official said a few EU member states had intervened in the debate and of those, all had been supportive of Germany's pragmatic approach.
Signs Of 'Movement'
Ferrero-Waldner was also keen to emphasize a hopeful message today.
"Although we remain very worried, of course, by the human rights situation in the country, the Uzbeks have shown new signs of movement in the right direction."
Ferrero-Waldner's words echo a declaration adopted by the EU foreign ministers today that expresses "serious" concerns, but limits its calls to a human rights dialogue and a second round of expert-level talks on Andijon.
Uzbekistan's intentions will be tested in the last week of March, when Germany will hold a meeting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian countries in the Kazakh capital, Astana.
The meeting will give Germany the opportunity to acquaint the five capitals with the key precepts of the EU's first-ever strategy for Central Asia, which it is currently drafting. The strategy is expected to be adopted by the EU's heads of state and government at their June summit in Brussels.
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