(RFE/RL) -- In the wake of Uzbekistan's 2005 Andijon massacre, in which at least 187 people and perhaps hundreds more died when troops fired on crowds of protesters, the European Union introduced a two-pronged sanctions regime against the Uzbek government -- a strict visa ban that barred 12 high-ranking officials from traveling to the EU, and a softer arms embargo.
In October 2008, Brussels took a step toward normalizing relations by dropping the visa ban. Now, saying that cooperation with Uzbekistan has acquired "a new scope and quality," the EU has dropped the arms embargo as well.
The EU Council, at an external-relations council meeting in Luxembourg on October 27, issued a statement announcing the decision following "the positive steps taken by Uzbekistan over the last years."
Among those steps, the statement noted Tashkent's release of some rights activists, the resumption of prison visits by the Red Cross, the state's abolition of the death penalty, improvements at detention conditions, the introduction of habeas corpus, the ratification of conventions against child labor, and the consolidation of human rights dialogue between the EU and Uzbekistan.
The statement also stressed the readiness of the EU to strengthen its relations with Uzbekistan and encouraged its authorities "to continue its reforms in the fields of human rights and the rule of law."
But looking at the outcome of the 4 1/2 years of sanctions, political analysts and human rights defenders have a remarkably different assessment of their effectiveness in pushing the Uzbek government to improve its approach toward human rights.'Leaky' Sanctions
Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow with the Brussels-based think-tank Center for European Policy Studies, tells RFE/RL that the largely "symbolic" sanctions did not bring extensive improvements to the situation in Uzbekistan, but rather a few minor changes.
"It does not seem to have had direct impact on human rights or political situation in Uzbekistan, except there have been a few superficial gestures in the direction that the European Union would like, like the introduction of habeas corpus," Emerson says.
James Nixey, manager and research fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House in London, suggests that the EU sanctions did not force significant changes in the Uzbek regime's values or situation regarding political prisoners and basic freedoms.
Activists say hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed in Andijon.
He says that the sanctions generally proved to be an inefficient instrument of foreign policy, which he suggests many have been a primary reason for withdrawing them. Nixey says the sanctions were "leaky" from the start, pointing out a remarkable exemption made the very year the sanctions were introduced.
Shortly after the visa ban was imposed in 2005, Nixey notes, Uzbek Interior Minister Zokirjon Almatov was granted permission to undergo an operation in Germany on reportedly "humanitarian grounds" despite being on the list of officials barred from traveling to the EU.
This effectively undermined what some consider was the EU's most effective punitive measure against Uzbekistan.
Umida Niyazova, a rights activist from the German-Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, argues that the visa ban "was a sensitive sanction because it pointed the finger at particular individuals, who were held responsible for the Andijon events."
When the EU fully dropped its visa ban on top Uzbek officials in 2008, Tashkent agreed in exchange to hold some human rights meetings every year and to allow the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and selected nongovernmental organizations greater access to the country.Rights Situation 'No Better'
That left the arms embargo, symbolic because of the lack of an arms trade between Brussels and Tashkent, as the only EU sanction in place.
Niyazova, who was among the independent journalists imprisoned in Uzbekistan following the Andijon crackdown, says that no matter how symbolic, the arms embargo should not have been lifted either.
She says the human rights situation now "is worse than it used to be two years ago. It is true that a few human rights activists, including me, were released from prison. Yet, if you look at the general picture, approximately as many or even more" activists have been arrested.
Niyazova argues that the Uzbek government failed to fulfill any of the strictest EU demands made in the wake of the events of May 13, 2005, in Andijon.
Outside estimates have placed the number of those killed during the unrest as high as 600 to 1,000, but Tashkent never allowed an independent international inquiry that would help clarify what happened that day. And while Uzbekistan initially agreed to release at least 15 rights activists, Niyazova says, they in fact only released a few of them.
Niyazova also warns of other negative developments in Uzbekistan. She says a recent amendment to the law on licensing lawyers has added to their dependence on the judicial system, that "journalists are afraid to use their real names, and Human Rights Watch employees are denied access to Uzbekistan."Sending Wrong Message?
Human rights activists have widely decried the EU's decision to lift the sanctions on Uzbekistan, saying it sends the wrong message to Tashkent and other regimes in Central Asia.
Umida Niyazova says many activists are still in jail.
Nixey agrees that sending a wrong message to the leaders of Central Asian countries is a difficult consideration. But he believes that the message of the sanctions is not as important as the lesson of the diversification of foreign policy.
He says that some of the Central Asian states, considering their former dependence on Russia, are starting to see the benefits of multivectored foreign policies.
"They steer themselves from the Russian grasp -- to China and the European Union and that is the most important and promising improvement," he says.
In the end, Nixey says, cooperation is better than punishment when it comes to Uzbekistan. "I don't think Uzbekistan should be punished in any sense and I don't think it is for the West to do any punishing," Nixey argues.
"But I think the issue of sort of punishment -- except perhaps in very extreme cases and I might argue that [Andijon] might have been an extreme case -- punishment is not an effective response and it tends to have the opposite effect to that which was intended," Nixey says.
'Better Than The Alternative'
Emerson of the Center for European Policy Studies says that during his recent travels in Central Asia, he has been discussing the issue of whether the sanctions had had any effect on Uzbekistan.
He says that, among people who know the situation in Uzbekistan, speculation is rife that another Andijon is unlikely, or at least much less likely. He gives the sanctions some credit for this, saying the "sanctions hurt the international reputation and prestige of Uzbekistan and its president."
"Therefore one can expect police and security officers to be more professional, restrained and moderate in the event of some future Andijon," Emerson says.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defense analyst and columnist for "Novaya gazeta," points out that the Central Asian regimes are potentially unstable, and destabilization in the region will be catastrophic for everybody.
"All former Central Asian republics are authoritarian dictatorships. That's not good, but on the other hand they are all secular," Felgenhauer says.
"In other words, they oppose radical Islam and this is what matters most. Therefore these regimes are supported both by the East and the West."
He says that the leaders of Central Asian countries got the message that they will be supported by the West, whether they are liked or not, "because they are not Islamists and the alternative is worse."
RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah contributed to this report