During a visit to Latvia this week, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov got just what he wanted: recognition from a Western leader and promises of more, without any annoying questions about his well-documented human rights abuses.
Following a meeting with Karimov on October 17, Latvian President Andris Berzins promised that in the first half of 2015, when Latvia holds the rotating European Union presidency, improving relations between the EU and Central Asia would be high on the Baltic nation’s agenda, Latvia's Leta news agency reported.
Berzins also promised to back Tashkent’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.
At least publicly, Latvian officials failed to mention Uzbekistan’s troubled human rights record, instead prioritizing economic and security cooperation. Uzbekistan is critical to the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which NATO uses to supply, and now withdraw from, the war in Afghanistan. Latvia lies at the other end of the vast network spanning the former Soviet Union.
The Baltic nation, a member of both the EU and NATO, has been criticized in the past for offering undeserving prestige to Central Asian autocrats craving attention from Western leaders. Last year Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov met Berzins in Riga. Again, human rights were not publicly discussed. Berzins doubled the tribute with a visit to Ashgabat this year.
Ahead of Karimov's visit to Riga, activists urged Berzins to address human rights.
Prominent exiled Uzbek activist Mutabar Tajibayeva blasted EU leaders for receiving Karimov in Brussels in 2011 and in Riga now.
"The European Union, which is regarded as a benchmark of freedom and democracy but has geopolitical interests in the Central Asia region, often acts in contradiction to its key principles," Tajibayeva said in an October 16 statement. "We regard today's reception of dictator Islam Karimov in a European and democratic country as kowtowing to its authoritarian regime which will worsen the human rights situation in Uzbekistan."
Though there had been reports Karimov and his hosts would hold a press conference, the Uzbek leader made a short statement and did not take any questions.