21st Jan 2019

EU calls for release of Uzbek political prisoners

EU foreign ministers have relaxed sanctions against Uzbekistan while calling for the release of political prisoners, but Europe's hopes of diversifying energy supplies through Central Asia are at risk from a new Russian deal.

The EU on Monday (14 May) took four names off a previously 12-strong list of Uzbek officials banned from entering Europe, but upheld an arms embargo on Central Asia's most powerful state. The visa list will be reviewed in six months and the arms ban in 12 months.

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  • The EU council is trying to strike the right balance with Uzbekistan (Photo: Council)

The EU statement also "calls upon the Uzbek authorities to release Ms Turaeva and other detained human rights defenders and to lift restrictions of movement against Ms Niazova" in reference to recent sentences against two dissidents, as well as 13 other political prisoners.

Ministers made the move following Tashkent's decision to hold a human rights dialogue with EU officials on 8 May and two previous meetings on the 2005 Andijan massacre, saying the EU "appreciates the readiness of the Uzbek side to engage in this dialogue."

The sanctions were imposed in late 2005 after Uzbek troops shot hundreds of civilians in the town of Andijan. They were relaxed slightly under German pressure in late 2006, but the country still remains among the most repressive regimes in the world.

EU diplomats said Berlin this week wanted to take at least six names off the visa ban list and to hold the sanctions review three or four, instead of six, months down the line. Germany, which has a military base in Uzbekistan, is leading an EU push for greater engagement in Central Asia.

The compromise deal was reached following Dutch opposition. The Hague initially wanted to clip just three names and in the end refused to let Uzbek defence minister Ruslan Mirzayev off the hook. National security chief Rustam Inoyatov and other special forces officers will also stay under the ban, Reuters reports.

Balancing act

Reacting to the decision, external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner took the German line, saying "This gives a real chance to engage with Uzbekistan" and "gives Uzbekistan a chance to show they mean what they said in the last human rights dialogue."

"It's to make clear that we still attach great weight to the sanctions. If you take more names off, you could give the signal that Uzbekistan doesn't need to do any more," a Dutch diplomat told EUobserver. "There is a new opening [in EU-Uzbek relations] and we will have to balance that carefully."

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which had previously criticised countries such as Germany and Spain for trading EU values for potential energy deals in the region, also gave a cautious welcome to the foreign ministers' strongly-worded statement.

"We are quite pleasantly surprised by the outcome," an HRW spokeswoman said. "Most significant about it was the call, for the first time ever as far as we know, for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders."

The EU's new drive to get into Central Asia is partly motivated by fears it is too dependent for oil and gas on Moscow, with Central Asia holding up to 5 percent of world energy resources and with the European Commission drafting a feasibility study on a gas pipe under the Caspian Sea, bypassing Russia.

Russia pre-empts EU move

But the Kremlin - which has relations with Central Asian leaders going back decades and does not make a fuss about human rights - this week stole the march on Europe, with Russian president Vladimir Putin securing major new energy deals with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Under the agreement, Turkmenistan will pump gas via Kazakhstan to Russia using a new pipeline going round the Caspian Sea with construction to start in 2008. Turkmenistan will also upgrade existing pipes to Russia to help ship more gas up to 2028.

Germany is trying to play down the significance of the move, saying it has not come as a surprise, that the EU did not expect an "exclusive" energy relationship with Central Asia and that Brussels' undersea pipeline project might still go ahead.

But Washington's analysis was more bleak, with US energy minister Samuel Bodman saying in Paris on Monday that the new Russian deal will let Moscow "keep its hands on Caspian gas" in a situation that "would not be good for Europe."

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