Nearly two months after the European Union ruled that sanctions against Uzbekistan would remain suspended for six months, there are signs that Western governments continue to seek rapprochement with Tashkent. The trend is happening even while human rights bodies caution that lifting sanctions altogether will leave the West with no leverage to seek improvements in the country's dismal human rights record.
On April 29, the EU decided to maintain a freeze on sanctions imposed after the 2005 Andijon crackdown, saying that it welcomed "the progress achieved in Uzbekistan in recent months in the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law." Among the improvements cited: the abolition of the death penalty, the introduction of habeas corpus, the ratification of an International Labor Organization child labor convention and the February release of four political prisoners.
The sanctions remain suspended even though Uzbekistan has still not met the EU's own criteria to lift them. These conditions include permitting an international Andijon inquiry, releasing imprisoned rights defenders, accrediting a Human Rights Watch (HRW) representative in Uzbekistan, cooperating with United Nations special rapporteurs and removing restrictions on non-governmental organizations.
Some observers think the decision was a victory for Uzbekistan. "I think Uzbekistan was quite bullish and ignored all the demands of the EU, and has forced it to change its policy and engage Uzbekistan in a different way, which means start dealing with it without any preconditions," Naubet Bisenov, an analyst specializing in Uzbekistan at the Institute for Economic Strategies-Central Asia in Almaty, told EurasiaNet. "My personal opinion is that Uzbekistan has done everything contrary to what the West, and the EU in particular, expected from it."
The sanctions -- a partial suspension of the EU-Uzbekistan cooperation agreement, a visa ban on 12 officials and an arms embargo -- have been gradually relaxed since 2005 and will automatically expire in October unless the EU unanimously decides to renew them.
HRW urged the EU to state in its April review that the sanctions will be maintained beyond October. "We chose not to call for the sanctions to be reinstated, even though we did make it clear that obviously, despite the fact that there have been positive steps in the right direction, the overall human rights situation remains atrocious and the criteria as such had not been met," Veronika Szente Goldston, advocacy director at HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division, told EurasiaNet. "What we called on the EU to do was to accompany the extension of the suspension with an extension of the sanctions regime beyond October so that this leverage
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.