BRUSSELS -- Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov has arrived in Brussels on an official visit to the European Union and NATO that rights groups are decrying as an unfitting welcome for a brutal dictator.
Karimov is holding talks with EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, as well as with EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger. The two sides are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding on energy cooperation and to discuss the opening of an EU representative office in Tashkent.
At NATO headquarters, the Uzbek president is to meet Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to discuss cooperation on the war effort in Afghanistan.
But questions about the Karimov administration's dismal human rights record are casting a shadow over the visit, even before its start. Advocacy groups are protesting the red-carpet treatment being planned for the Uzbek leader, whose government consistently ranks near the bottom of international rights surveys.
"Quite frankly it is an absolute scandal and a disgrace that Barroso has decided to meet with one of the worst dictators in the world," says Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group, a prominent Brussels-based think tank.
"Engagement with this kind of regime will not work, it will not bring any benefits to the peoples of Europe and it will not bring any benefits to the people of Uzbekistan."
EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who usually meet heads of state when they come to Brussels, will not see Karimov during his stay in the Belgian capital. A source close to Van Rompuy tells RFE/RL that the decision to snub Karimov reflects Van Rompuy's "moral, personal view."
The controversial visit has been downplayed by the European Commission, with both Barroso's and Oettinger's spokespeople refusing to talk about it on the record. It is also likely that no press conference will take place, something that is usually customary when a head of state visits the European Commission.
However, a commission official told RFE/RL that a press conference had not been "completely ruled out." The source also revealed that Barroso would use the opportunity "to raise a number of serious concerns regarding the human rights situation in Uzbekistan," but he ducked the question of whether the topic of the 2005 Andijon massacre
would be raised.'Conditional Engagement'
The EU imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan -- including a visa ban on 12 Uzbek officials and an arms embargo -- after Karimov's regime refused to allow an international investigation into the killing of hundreds of people by security forces in the eastern city of Andijon.
The sanctions were lifted in 2009 after what was reported to be strong German pressure. Germany uses parts of a military base in the Uzbek city of Termez to help supply its forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly said on January 21 in Brussels that "the entire EU" had decided not to follow a policy of isolation with Uzbekistan, opting instead for "critical and conditional engagement" in the hope of pushing forward with human rights reforms there.
It's still unclear how many protesters were killed by government forces in May 2005.
Bailly also said human rights would be "the first point of the agenda" when Karimov met Barroso on January 24.
The EU must put more pressure on the Uzbek regime to allow an independent investigation into Andijon, David Nichols of Amnesty International says.
"The situation has got so bad that Uzbekistan now actually has said publicly that because the EU has dropped its sanctions there is no need to carry out an investigation, so it's dropped," Nichols says.
"I don't know what kind of signal that sends to the many, many people in Uzbekistan, human right defenders and independent journalists, who are still fighting for justice over what happened in Andijon, when the EU cozies up to the president and fails to stand by its clear demand in 2005."
Gas For Nabucco?
Some in Brussels hope that Uzbekistan can become increasingly important for the EU's flagship energy project, the Nabucco pipeline, which will aim to bring natural gas from Azerbaijan and other countries around the Caspian Sea to Europe, while circumventing Russia.
But analysts are skeptical.
Even though Uzbekistan has estimated gas reserves larger than Azerbaijan's, the country is unlikely to be able to provide much gas to Europe in the near future, according to Amanda Paul, a policy analyst on energy security at the European Policy Center.
"Currently most of these reserves are not explored or they are being used for domestic consumption," Paul says. "So to the best of my knowledge they wouldn't have very much, if any, that possibly could be put into such a pipeline at a present time. It would also be quite expensive."
During his stop at NATO headquarters, Karimov is expected to seek to deepen bilateral relations with the alliance. The two sides signed an agreement in 2009 giving the alliance surface transit rights for nonlethal cargo, via Uzbekistan, for troops in Afghanistan.
Karimov had reportedly sought bilateral meetings with Belgian officials and sent a request to meet the Belgian king. But no official at the Belgian Foreign Ministry is scheduled to meet Karimov and the royal court cited "scheduling issues" as a reason for the Belgian monarch's inability to see the president.