Europe's Reasons without Reason
Europe's Reasons without Reason
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Europe's Reasons without Reason

The European Union was brave, precise and unequivocal when it imposed sanctions on Uzbek officials directly involved in the Andijan massacre of May 2005. In November 2006 the Council of Ministers decided that they would be prolonged for six months and reviewed after three months. It was very hard for observers not to see in that decision a tendency towards softening the sanctions as no clear review criteria were mentioned.

With the review deadline getting near, the EU corridors are again full of rumours about President Islam Karimov’s alleged “good will” and “readiness to make a gesture” towards Brussels.

Around Rond-Point Schuman, Realpolitikers will present many arguments to support lifting “ineffective sanctions”. But has any good news reached us from Uzbekistan in the meantime? Has the repression of journalists, human rights defenders or non-governmental organisation members softened? Has the situation in the prisons, in the court rooms – where allegations of torture are never taken into account – improved? Or in the cotton fields, where children are obliged to work in conditions close to slavery? Has the level of small, daily humiliations Uzbeks must swallow from the heavy-handed police in any way diminished? And has the government accepted that a credible independent commission can investigate in Andijan as the EU has demanded from the beginning?

Unfortunately to all these questions the blunt and short answer is ‘no’. And other questions about free and fair elections, or that the president’s legal mandate ended on 22 January without much notice, are not even being asked. Is the president not himself challenging the constitutional order far more obviously than the thousands of citizens jailed under such a charge?

Diplomacy being what it is and politics having its reasons que la raison ne connaît pas there will be voices in Europe ready to consider that perhaps allowing some diplomats to travel to the Ferghana valley would be enough progress to allow the EU to change its policy. All the more so given that the US has not followed the EU on imposing sanctions. We Europeans cannot stand our ground without them, can we?

For what purpose would the EU compro-mise its demands and values when the Uzbek president has done nothing concrete to improve the situation? For economic preferences? Anybody who has worked in that country knows that the ‘business regulations’ are designed as to oblige everybody to operate illegally, a perfect way to keep society under control. For hydrocarbons? Uzbekistan cannot export anything serious further than Bishkek.

Europe will get nothing in return for any ill-placed generosity towards this regime other than scorn. The Union of 27 should care deeply about being treated like a third-rank power by a provincial despot. With 26 million inhabitants, Uzbekistan certainly matters, but Karimov ceased to represent the aspirations of his nation a long time ago and buried the last bits of confidence for its citizens with the victims of Andijan.

And after all, who needs who the most? Is it less comfortable for Uzbekistan to have to limit its external relations to Russia and China than for the EU to keep only the very low diplomatic relationship it now maintains with this country? If Tashkent wants to improve contacts with the EU, it knows exactly what it should do. What the EU requires, at the end of the day, is far from threatening the Uzbek regime. Those in Europe who call for a dialogue with Karimov are either deceiving themselves or ill-informed on his ability to produce anything but long monologues.

The Uzbek nation, which deserves much better than the regime inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union, will certainly remember how the EU treats it during these years. It will also remember the Russian eagerness to back the regime after Andijan and the US caution, much as Latin Americans remember how Washington too often courted their military dictatorships and vote accordingly today.

The foreign ministers should not shame Europe on 5-6 March by lifting sanctions that might be weak but still send a powerful message to Karimov and all who attempt to behave like him in the region. Softening them now would be a different kind of message, one from a very ‘soft power’ indeed.

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