NATO, not the European Union, initiated the idea of inviting Uzbekistan’s controversial leader, Islam Karimov, to visit Brussels, according to an aide to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Karimov is scheduled to meet with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Barroso, EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, as well as Belgian authorities, on January 24.
“To my knowledge it was NATO and the Belgian authorities who issued the invitation first. We did not make the invitation,” Michael Karnitschnig, a spokesman for Barroso, told EurasiaNet.org .
A spokeswoman for NATO would not say on what date the alliance issued the invite to Karimov. “We will discuss cooperation between NATO and Uzbekistan in supporting Afghanistan, and also how to deepen our cooperation in the framework of the Partnership for Peace,” she added.
EU representatives have tried to downplay the visit, which has caused an uproar among international human rights organizations. Rights activists say Karimov is one of the most autocratic rulers on earth, and they consistently rank Uzbekistan near the bottom on global lists measuring corruption and political repression.
Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, described Karimov’s visit as “regrettable.”
“Human Rights Watch is not against engagement or high level dialogue but what we are against is engagement without any strings attached,” Szente Goldston said. “This visit and the lead-up period to it should have been used to secure concrete improvements and that does not seem to have happened. At the very least we hope the meeting will not overlook human rights concerns but that Barroso will make it his business to press for improvements.”
During Karimov’s visit to Brussels, EU representatives are expected push for Tashkent’s agreement to open a permanent EU representative office in Tashkent, and the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) covering energy development and exports from the Central Asian state.
A Brussels-based energy expert suggested that an EU-Uzbek energy pact might have little practical value. “It’s not clear that there is a lot of material coming from the EU side, but for the Uzbek side it’s about the rehabilitation of Karimov,” said the expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “As for the energy agreement, it’s not clear either how much gas Uzbekistan has for Europe.”
One thing that Uzbekistan does have for the United States and EU is strategic value. The airport at the Uzbek city of Navoi has emerged as a key cog in the Northern Distribution Network, a web of Central Asian rail, road and air links that funnels supplies to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Most of the NDN supplies bound for Afghanistan flow through the railway junction at Termez, at the Uzbek-Afghan border.
Uzbekistan’s strategic importance played a significant role in prompting the EU to lift sanctions in 2008 that had been imposed on Tashkent three years earlier following the Andijan massacre.
Of late, Uzbek authorities have come under pressure for the ongoing use of forced child labor to collect cotton. A recent report prepared by the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies outlined the seriousness of the problem.
Given the rights controversies that continue to swirl around Uzbekistan, the visit to Brussels can only be considered as a public relations coup for Karimov, said Michael Laubsch, the executive director of the Eurasian Transition Group “This is Karimov’s first chance after Andijan to get international feedback and a welcome from Western Europe,” Laubsch said. “I have yet to see any practical reason why the EU should engage more with Uzbekistan for gas or oil.”
HRW’s Szente Goldston said that the EU’s credibility would be damaged if officials failed to press Karimov publicly for democratization improvements. “It would be a disgrace if Karimov was received in Brussels without hearing a strong message about human rights from the EU side,” she said.
Laubsch cautioned that the EU was unlikely to start pressing Uzbekistan on human rights now, after missing numerous opportunities to do so since 2005. “Cooperation should not be criticized, but when we look at the upcoming visit, the EC had the chance to invite exiled Uzbek human rights activists or human rights institutions to discuss human rights in the country. But the EC didn’t do this,” he said.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.