The European Union appears poised to lift its four-year arms embargo against Uzbekistan. EU officials say strategic necessity is exerting pressure on Brussels to fully engage Tashkent. Critics, however, contend that by compromising on principles, the European Union is sacrificing long-term interests for immediate, but likely fleeting gains.
According to a report appearing October 22 in the EU Observer, a draft statement has been prepared concerning the lifting of the arms embargo, the last sanction still in place from among several imposed on Tashkent shortly after the Andijan massacre of 2005. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The draft, which appears headed for approval at the next meeting of the EU's General Affairs and External Relations Council on October 26, states; "With a view to encouraging the Uzbek authorities to take further substantive steps to improve the rule of law and human rights situation on the ground, and taking into consideration their commitments, the Council decides not to renew the remaining restrictive measures set out in the Council Common Position [of 2008]."
Some human rights advocates deride the draft statement as cynical. The EU is not so concerned about democratization in Uzbekistan as it is with advancing economic interests and improving security cooperation, they say. Any belief that lifting the sanctions will provide a boost for civil rights in Uzbekistan is delusional, rights advocates add.
"Uzbekistan has not done anything at all to deserve the sanctions to be lifted," said Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch's Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
The EU never seemed interested in the sanctions strategy since its inception in 2005, Goldston added. Germany and other EU members, she noted, undermined the intended effect of the sanctions via bilateral diplomacy. "There's been a lot of mixed messaging during high level meetings over the past four years," she said. "It's the final blow to a longstanding and disappointing trend of the EU not giving the sanctions the political backing that they deserved."
Observers warn by letting the sanctions expire the EU risks sending the wrong message not only to Uzbekistan, but to other countries in the region with dubious human rights records. When it imposed the sanctions in 2005, the EU set conditions for their removal. Tashkent has not met those requirements. Thus, EU credibility throughout Central Asia could be severely damaged by the unconditional lifting of the Uzbek arms embargo. Such action would tacitly encourage authoritarian-minded regimes in the region, including President Islam Karimov's administration in Tashkent, to continue acting with a sense of impunity, some rights advocates contend.
"After Andijan, there were conditions attached to the sanctions calling for an independent and international investigation, and that has not happened," said Jacqueline Hale, policy officer responsible for Central Asia and the Caucasus at the Open Society Institute (OSI) in Brussels. "We would urge the EU to stick to its principles." [Editor's note: OSI Brussels is part of the Soros Foundations Network. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of OSI in New York, another component of the network].
"The Uzbek government's record in international relations is not good, inter-regionally or internationally. Their relations with their neighbors swing all over the place. You can buy favor for a short time but is that worth selling out on your principles?" Hale continued. "It's not only about what Uzbekistan thinks of the EU, it's about what Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Russia sees the EU doing, and what messages it sends."
In practical terms, the arms embargo is not seriously squeezing Tashkent, which obtains the bulk of its arms from Russia and Ukraine. The EU sanction that stung the most was a travel ban that was imposed on top Uzbek officials, a restriction that was lifted in 2007. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Nevertheless, the arms embargo carries with it a lot of "symbolic" weight, according to a Tashkent-based rights activist, who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity.
Hale noted that Germany seems to have "an ideological problem with sanctions," with Berlin convinced that economic punishments are not effective in bringing about desired political change. Hale, however, defended sanctions in the Uzbek case as the best available option for achieving desired results.
"The Uzbek regime is unreformed and unresponsive, so in the short term neither engagement nor lifting sanctions will make a difference to them," Hale said. "While people often question sanctions and ask 'do they work?' no one ever turns the question around and asks 'what has 18 months of engagement brought us?'" she said.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.