Uzbekistan – America and the European Union have let a dictator get away with murder

Published in The Economist on 25th August

ON MAY 13th, the authorities in Uzbekistan opened fire on a peaceful demonstration of close to 10,000 people in the eastern city of Andijan, probably killing several hundred of them and possibly as many as 1,000. According to survivors, tanks rolled through the main square, firing indiscriminately, snipers picked off their victims from convenient buildings, and, later on, soldiers shot some of the wounded dead. That was three months ago. Since then, the European Union and America have expressed their horror at the worst massacre of demonstrators since Tiananmen Square by imposing the following sanctions on Uzbekistan:

Weary observers of realpolitik might think that they have seen it all before: that the democracies often enough turn a blind eye to misdeeds of dictators like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov when it suits them. But this is something special. On few, if any, occasions since the cold war has so little been done by so many in the face of such atrocity. At least China was thrown into the diplomatic ice-box for a few years after Tiananmen, and the arms embargo imposed on it is largely intact 16 years on. Myanmar remains a pariah even among pariahs’in both cases for misdeeds on about the same scale as Andijan. America claims that it is indeed pondering sanctions, but awaiting Europe’s lead. This not a widely noted feature of its foreign policy these days, but there is a kind of sense behind it. A former member of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan is a part of the widest of Europe’s concentric circles. It is a member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and it has a partnership and co-operation agreement (PCA) with the EU. So there is some justification in allowing Europe, with its famous common foreign and security policy, to take the lead.

If so, the European Union has risen to the occasion as grandly as it did over Bosnia, Iraq and on so many other occasions: with a display of spinelessness worthy of a sea full of jellyfish. First, in June, it demanded that Uzbekistan submit to an international investigation to determine precisely what happened in Andijan. Failure to comply by July 1st, it terrifyingly threatened, might lead to a ‘partial suspension’ of the PCA. Some countries wanted to go so far as to threaten a visa ban for (some) Uzbek officials and possibly even an arms embargo’but that was reckoned to be a bit too tough.

July 1st came and went, as did August 1st. Still the EU has done nothing. It has tried to send a ranking bureaucrat, one Jan Kubis, to take a look: but Uzbekistan has refused to let him go to Andijan. Fortunately, outfits such as Human Rights Watch, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have proved more enterprising than Mr Kubis’so there is no excuse to be made that the EU does not have a pretty good idea of what happened. The latest word is that the issue of Uzbekistan may be looked at when the EU’s foreign ministers meet in Wales on September 1st. But it is not even certain that the massacre of about 500 people by one of Europe’s associates will merit a discussion there. Meanwhile, the Uzbek government is pressing ahead with its own investigation of what happened on May 13th. This involves beating ‘confessions’ out of demonstrators who are made to say that they carried weapons to the square, and forcing neighbouring Kirgizstan to send Uzbek refugees back before they can tell any more tales to journalists, NGO workers, or even Mr Kubis.

But doesn’t the West ignore equally grisly abuses in Chechnya? Yes, but there it can at least be argued that friendship with Russia is in its vital interest. Friendship with Uzbekistan is not. Uzbekistan has gas, but it is not very accessible to westerners. And until now America has had an airbase, but others in the region will do just as well. The failure to punish Mr Karimov discredits the West, and provides ammunition to its enemies. It has gone on for far too long.