6th Dec 2022

EU explores ways to talk to Central Asia dictators

  • Tashkent statue of Amir Timur, a medieval-era warlord in Central Asia (Photo: Wikipedia)

The EU is unlikely to further relax sanctions against Uzbekistan when they come up for review on 5 March. But with the pariah state and its president Islam Karimov keen on greater engagement, EU diplomats and NGOs are taking a critical look at how to talk to Central Asia dictators.

The German EU presidency had planned to propose to EU foreign ministers in March to trim some names off the visa ban list for Uzbekistan, which saw a travel ban imposed on seven officials after the 2005 Andijan massacre, as well as a freeze on high-level talks and an embargo on EU arms sales.

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But Tashkent's failure to set up two key meetings - a second experts' group on Andijan and an EU human rights dialogue - has seen Berlin put the proposal back on the shelf until May, amid pressure from the UK and Sweden that even a symbolic gesture could send out the wrong message for now.

"The question is whether it is more promising to talk to difficult partners or to ignore them if you want to achieve some change for the better," an EU diplomat said. "But you have to see some progress before you can contemplate changing sanctions...the actions would have to be more."

The German push for more dialogue already saw the EU restart the high-level talks with Uzbekistan last November, leading to a December meeting with EU experts over what happened when Uzbek soldiers machine-gunned at least 180 civilians in the easterly town of Andijan two years ago.

The meeting made "some headway" in seeing Tashkent admit "it might not have done everything right" and offering to "review crowd control tactics" to prevent future tragedies. But it fell far short of a real international enquiry into the killings, which sent shockwaves around the world.

The debate comes in the context of the EU wanting to open four major new embassies in Central Asia by 2008. The initiative is designed to pave the way for new gas pipelines to Europe bypassing Russia and to stimulate democratic reform in the Russia-dominated region.

The European Commission and EU member states' top foreign policy official Javier Solana are following the German line of engagement first, reform later: Mr Solana's deputy, Pierre Morel, was in gas-rich dictatorship Turkmenistan last week to help celebrate the appointment of its new leader.

NGOs fear stereotype

NGO misgivings about the new trend in EU policy are getting through for the time being, with one pro-engagement EU diplomat recently saying "If there was no mention of human rights in the Central Asia policy document, the NGOs would eat us alive."

But some civil society groups fear they are being increasingly sidelined as "isolationists" by the pro-engagement camp, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) saying it is open to "talking to dictators" but only on the model of "principled engagement" that adheres to "specific benchmarks" before rolling back sanctions.

"The EU placing us and other NGOs in the 'isolationist' camp is simply misguided, or cynical," HRW analyst Veronika Szente-Goldston told EUobserver. "We reject the demonstrably false dichotomy of isolation versus engagement."

The EU's Uzbekistan sanctions failed so far, HRW argues, because the EU simply announced them without following up with creative initiatives for reforms, leaving EU diplomats in Tashkent "hanging out in the cold, with no idea what they were supposed to do."

"So, if you ask the heads of mission, they are of course against sanctions, since the only consequence for them was that they were no longer welcome to meet with the government or invited to events," Ms Szente-Goldston said.

Strategic miscalculation?

On the strategic front, NGO International Crisis Group has also criticised premature EU Central Asia engagement as "highly naive," saying it fails to address the depth of Russian influence on incumbent regimes.

Russia's EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov told EUobserver that any attempts to boost relations with Central Asia "at the expense of Russia...wouldn't work" adding the EU will also have to "compete" with China, Turkey and the US for the region's energy reserves.

"The legal status of [territorial waters in] the Caspian Sea, has yet to be settled and that should be kept in mind when one talks about infrastructure projects that might criss-cross that particular lake," he said on EU plans to bypass Russia with the new Trans-Caspian pipeline.

He declined to answer whether he thought the project would be realized in his lifetime, but joked that perhaps the EU could export its values to Central Asia "through the pipeline" if all else fails.

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