The president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, has come out swinging in a heated battle over an official visit next week by the autocratic leader of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov.
Zeman took less than a day to issue a blunt response to an open letter signed by 31 rights organizations calling on him to reconsider the invitation, citing Karimov's well-documented use of torture
and forced labor in its cotton trade
The presidential rejoinder
, published on February 11 at the same time as the activists' open letter
, accuses the rights community of misinformation and "hypocrisy" in calling for the visit to be canceled.
Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch, one of the signatories
to the open letter, says he's surprised by both the speed and rancor of Zeman's response.
"It was very fast, so we have to give him credit for that, but the content was extremely disappointing," Stroehlein says. "His reply to us demonstrates a really strange lack of awareness of the entire situation and everything that's been going on around Uzbekistan in the international community for years."
Officials close to the Czech president have defended the February 20-22 visit as routine reciprocity for a visit by Zeman's predecessor, Vaclav Klaus, to Uzbekistan in 2004.
But activists have dismissed that argument, noting that Klaus's visit came a year before the 2005 massacre by security forces of hundreds of Uzbek civilians in Andijon. That earned Karimov pariah status in the West, with the European Union imposing a sanctions regime and reducing hospitality to a bare minimum.
Karimov has traveled to the EU only twice since Andijon -- to Latvia in 2013 for talks on the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, in which Uzbekistan is playing a logistical role, and to Brussels in 2011, where only European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen agreed to meet with him.
Hynek Kmonicek, Zeman's foreign-policy adviser, says the Czech president has been briefed on Uzbekistan's human rights record and may use the visit to raise concerns. He dismisses concerns that Zeman has crossed a moral line in agreeing to uphold the 10-year-old obligation.
"President Karimov is the president of Uzbekistan. Presidents speak to presidents. Simply, we must be able to speak to the people [even when] we would be of absolutely different approach [on certain issues]," Kmonicek says. "But how can you solve the question if you don't speak to the person? If you don't ask, you cannot get answers."
Economic Interests Paramount
The European rights community has shuddered at the notion of Karimov being welcomed into an EU country and the homeland of Vaclav Havel, one of the Cold War's leading crusaders against communist oppression.
Standing invitations for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov have come under similar scrutiny.
Uzbek activists living in Europe are equally distressed by the impending visit. Mutabar Tadjibaeva, a rights worker who endured years of abuse in the Uzbek prison system before seeking asylum in France, says dozens of Uzbeks are planning to travel to Prague to protest the Czechs' hosting of Karimov.
"After the Andijon events, when the European Union demanded sanctions, the Czech Republic was among the countries to sign the agreement. And the Czech Republic knows perfectly well that Uzbekistan didn't fulfill a single demand laid out in the sanctions," Tadjibaeva says. "The fact that they're now looking at [Uzbekistan] as a partner is very surprising."
Officially, Zeman and Karimov are scheduled to discuss a number of procedural issues, including airline and visa agreements to accommodate a growing number of Uzbek students in the Czech Republic. But business negotiations are expected to dominate talks, with Zeman likely looking to strengthen ties with energy-rich Uzbekistan.
Current trade volume between the two countries is relatively modest, with Tashkent importing $57 million in Czech tires, medicine, and machinery in 2011 and exporting $10 million in its controversial cotton textiles to Prague. Czech business newspapers suggest Zeman will be looking to seal a $5 million to $10 million deal during Karimov's trip.
Zeman, who has openly courted eastern partners since his election last year, has prompted some critics to refer to the Czech Republic's "new diplomacy," where economic interests take precedence over human rights concerns.
But Jaroslav Plesl, a political journalist in Prague, says Zeman's controversial guest list isn't likely to upset those Czechs who support his efforts to gain an economic foothold in the post-Soviet neighborhood. "It is not a secret that Zeman has focused his policy towards the East, and he will go on with that as long as he's in office. Zeman was very open about his future policies, especially foreign policy, in the campaign," he says.
"He was openly saying we need to pay more attention to Eastern European countries and towards Russia and new markets in the East. And he got elected."
And former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that while Prague had "quite considerable interests" in the region, nothing prevented Czech authorities from discussing human rights issues with Karimov when he comes to Prague.