26th Oct 2021

Germany keen to relax Uzbek sanctions despite crackdown

Germany is continuing to push for a relaxation of EU sanctions on Uzbekistan despite the jailing of a prominent human rights activist this week, with a scheduling mess in Brussels opening a loophole that could theoretically see banned Uzbek officials free to enter Europe for two days.

"There was no agreement. One group of countries thinks there has been no substantial change in the human rights situation so there's no reason to change the sanctions," an EU official told EUobserver after a closed-door meeting of EU diplomats on Wednesday (2 May).

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"Another group thinks the sanctions are not working," the contact added, listing the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech republic and Slovakia in the pro-sanctions camp, while mentioning Germany, France, Spain and Italy on the sanctions-relaxation side.

The lack of agreement means the decision will have to be taken following an EU foreign ministers' debate in Brussels on 14 May, with EU experts currently preparing a menu of options for how many Uzbek officials should face a travel ban in future and how long the sanctions should be extended for.

The EU restrictions - which today include a visa ban on 12 Uzbek officials and an arms embargo - were imposed following the Andijan massacre in 2005. But they automatically expire on 12 May 2007, leaving a legal gap of two days between the expiration and the foreign ministers' decision.

Brussels lawyers have tricks for handling this type of problem, which recently arose with Zimbabwe sanctions as well. But one EU official quipped that "maybe the Uzbek guys will do some intensive travelling in those two days."

On a more serious note, the contact added that the German presidency "did not play its role very well" in terms of staying neutral, as the scheduling problem could be interpreted as exerting pressure on some EU states to fall in with the German line before 14 May in order to avoid the mess.

Berlin's game is being played out as Uzbek authorities this week imposed a seven year jail sentence on Umida Niazova, a 32-year old mother of a young boy who had worked as a translator for Human Rights Watch. Another Uzbek activist, Gulbahor Turaeva, got a six year jail term the week before.

The case of Ms Niazova came up at Wednesday's diplomatic discussion in Brussels, but Germany believes that extending sanctions will not reduce Ms Niazova's sentence. Berlin has also said that any one case should be put in the balance of wider EU reform efforts under a new Central Asia policy to be launched in June.

Berlin and Brussels lay out reasons

In a parallel discussion with MEPs on Wednesday, German diplomat Rolf Schulze said "the isolation of Uzbekistan...is not an option." A European Commission official, Rolf Timans, added that people should be "realistic" on what can be achieved at the beginning of EU-Uzbek relations, following years of mutual apathy.

"One should not expect that the Uzbek authorities will release such prisoners overnight," he said. "We have to start discussing human rights first. Let's not expect that the results will be forthcoming immediately."

"I hope there are no Uzbek officials in the room," replied French green MEP and the chair of the European Parliament's new human rights committee, Helene Flautre. "Your words suggest that they hardly need to make an effort."

Major NGOs have also heaped scorn on Germany's attitude to Central Asia, saying that for all its rhetoric on human rights, the country's real interest appears to be: keeping its military base in Uzbekistan and securing new natural gas contracts for European firms.

"Niazova's sentence is first and foremost a disgrace for the Uzbek government, but it's a disgrace for the EU too," Human Rights Watch director Holly Cartner said. "The EU now needs to make absolutely clear there will be no consideration of easing any sanctions until Niazova and the 14 other imprisoned defenders are released."


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