BRUSSELS -- The European Union and Uzbekistan appear to have normalized their relationship a year after the EU dropped its sanctions against Tashkent, imposed in the wake of the mass killing of protesters in Andijon in May 2005.
After a routine meeting of senior officials in Brussels on September 14, both sides sought to downplay differences and focus on pragmatic cooperation.
Frank Belfrage, secretary of state at the Swedish Foreign Ministry, who chaired a meeting of officials from both sides, opened a joint press conference by recounting in detail the bloc's priorities in what he called a "broad and deep relationship" with Uzbekistan.
He said "fruitful discussions" had taken place on issues ranging from regional cooperation, the situation in Afghanistan, and energy cooperation to the fight against drugs trafficking, as well as investment opportunities.
Belfrage also addressed democratization and human rights issues, but only as a matter for discussions between officials, without offering any assessment of Tashkent's recent rights record.
"We've been able to exchange views on the regional initiative on education and the rule of law and democratization," Belfrage said. "And also to continue the dialogue on human rights, which had been started in a very efficient manner in the subcommittee of justice and home affairs."Sanctions Lifted
The EU lifted the better part of its sanctions regime against Tashkent, imposed in 2005, in October 2008. In exchange, Uzbekistan agreed to hold one or two human rights meetings a year and allow greater access to the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and selected nongovernmental organizations.
The decision to lift the sanctions reflected a growing consensus within the EU at the time that the measures were having no effect other than closing down all communication with Tashkent. Also, the EU had in June 2007 adopted a German-sponsored Central Asia strategy, which risked becoming an irrelevant embarrassment without the support of Uzbekistan as the most populous country in the region.
An EU U-turn resulted, with officials now pinning their hopes on plentiful contacts to change Tashkent's policies. Privately, EU officials have expressed hope that, over time, a middle class might emerge in Uzbekistan, creating pressure on the government to carry out democratic reforms.
These hopes appear to remain a once-sided affair at this stage.
Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov took issue with suggestions that EU demands may play a role in determining Uzbek policy.
"I would like to remind [everyone] once again that Uzbekistan, the Uzbek delegation, did not come here to account for anything," Norov said. "That is, the European Union has no right to oversee the situation. We are sides in a dialogue between equal partners -- that is, in a dialogue in which we have a common interest."Extensive Access
Norov went on to say that democratization, respect for human rights, and strengthening civil society are ensured by the 1992 Uzbek Constitution. But, he said, difficulties created by seven decades of Soviet rule cannot be expected to be resolved in a few years.
The foreign minister also claimed that UN and OSCE officials have been given extensive access, and that their recommendations on penal and electoral reforms, respectively, have been taken on board by Tashkent.
Norov said Uzbekistan will only interact with the bloc in the spirit of equality, mutual respect, and pragmatism.
He said the EU must allow for the different history of the region, its cultural traditions, and "the mentality of people" in crafting its policies toward Uzbekistan.
Norov also attacked what he described as "Islamophobia" in the EU, highlighting the Danish controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad and what he said was a tendency to equate Islam with terrorism.
The EU side sidestepped questions asking for an assessment of the recent Uzbek rights record -- said by observers to have worsened over the summer, with torture allegedly rampant in prisons and activists again imprisoned. No mention was made of the impact of the now-lapsed sanctions or possible plans to reinstitute them.
Instead, the EU special representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morel, praised the accumulating experience of three years of dialogue with Uzbekistan, which he said has led to substantial results, even if certain areas remain "sensitive and controversial."
But, Morel insisted, it is well within the EU's ability to overcome the "difficulties" with Uzbekistan.
"At the point where we find ourselves," he said, "we know well our difficulties and we also know the means for tackling this situation."
The meeting took place at a relatively low level. Norov is not thought to be a top figure in the regime of President Islam Karimov. The three people leading the EU delegation were all civil servants and as such exempt from any political responsibility for EU decisions, which belongs with member state governments.