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EU Drops Uzbek Visa Bans

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner opens the meeting in Luxembourg.
LUXEMBOURG -- In a bid to improve relations with Uzbekistan, the European Union has lifted visa bans on eight top officials held responsible for the mass killing of demonstrators in Andijon in May 2005.

Speaking for the current EU presidency, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner indicated that the lifting of the visa ban is "encouragement" for the future, rather than a reward for any real progress that has been achieved.

"We take note of positive developments in the course of the last months that we would like to encourage," Kouchner said. "We have therefore revoked the [visa bans], without lifting the arms embargo. But a lot remains to be done, and you will have noticed news about the recent sentencing of independent journalist Abdu Hakamov to 10 years in prison. We will therefore be very attentive [and hope] the situation will not worsen again."

Meeting in Luxembourg, the EU's foreign ministers adopted a declaration that welcomes the "progress achieved in Uzbekistan in the last year with regard to respect for the rule of law and the protection of human rights."

On the other hand, the EU expressed persisting concern over the imprisonment of human-rights defenders and the frequent denial of access to representatives of Western nongovernmental organizations.

EU officials privately say the EU's "human rights dialogue" with Tashkent, while it led to legislative advances, has not tangibly improved the country's human rights record in practice.

The EU's efforts to achieve a rapprochement with Uzbekistan appear to be part of a wider drive to secure greater influence in the former Soviet Union, sparked by Russia's August invasion of Georgia.

The bloc also suspended most of the visa bans it had slapped on top Belarusian officials for their alleged rights abuses and conducting of electoral fraud.