BRUSSELS -- With the European Union preparing to review its currently suspended visa ban and arms embargo on Uzbekistan in October, the country's foreign minister has said the bloc is guilty of "double standards" for penalizing the country for shortcomings that uniformly afflict the entire Central Asian region.
At the top of the Uzbek foreign minister's agenda were the sanctions the EU imposed on his country after the Andijon massacre.
An arms embargo is still in force as a result of the May 2005 killing of hundreds of civilians. And a visa ban, while temporarily suspended, officially remains in place against Uzbek officials held responsible for ordering troops to fire into a public square packed with demonstrators.
EU sources said Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov railed against the sanctions during his meeting with EU officials, calling them an example of "double standards" as rights violations in other Central Asian countries go unpunished. The Uzbek government maintains that the crackdown thwarted a plot to overthrow the government and establish Islamic rule.
"It is of cardinal importance that the relations of our regions are founded on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and noninterference in internal affairs, and a pragmatic approach that proceeds from the real interests of the parties," Norov said after the talks.
Initially, the sanctions were conditional on an international inquiry into Andijon. In 2007 the EU shifted its position and made the measures conditional on improvements in Tashkent's human rights record.
The sanctions are due to lapse on November 13. EU foreign ministers will discuss the issue in October. Diplomats in Brussels say that while the arms embargo will stay, the visa ban is likely to be abolished. The EU, they say, must act with unanimity to extend the sanctions, and France and Germany among others have argued that Uzbekistan has done enough to meet EU demands.
The French secretary of state for European affairs, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, who represented the EU at the meeting, said he visited Tashkent in July and saw "progress."
"What I have noted is the progress that has been made, and the commitments that have been entered into by Mr. Norov," Jouyet said. "There are still further steps to take and we're hoping the Uzbek authorities will do that."
Jouyet praised Tashkent for abolishing the death penalty, releasing some political prisoners, and instituting habeas corpus -- adding, however, that the EU and Uzbekistan "don't agree on everything" in their dialogue.
Norov, for his part, noted Uzbekistan is currently the only Central Asian country to conduct a regular "human rights dialogue" with the EU. He also said the EU must adjust its expectations to the "historico-cultural traditions" and "mentality" of the Central Asian nations.
The Uzbek minister warned that the EU's Central Asian strategy, adopted last year, will fail without the cooperation of Uzbekistan, which occupies a key strategic position in the region. The strategy is part of a renewed EU drive to establish itself in Central Asia as a major player alongside Russia, China, and the United States.