The EU is likely to drastically scale down sanctions against Uzbekistan at the upcoming EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on 13 November, as Europe seeks to establish a long-term energy and security foothold in Central Asia.
The sanctions – which consist of an arms embargo, a visa ban on 12 Uzbek officials and freezing high-level bilateral talks – were imposed after last May’s massacre in Andijan, but elapse automatically on 17 November unless renewed by a consensus of all 25 member states.
Uzbekistan has not met any of the conditions stipulated in last year’s EU resolution – such as setting up an independent inquiry into the shooting of at least 180 civilians in Andijan – with European politicians and NGOs agreeing that human rights abuses have worsened in the past 18 months.
But Germany is suggesting cutting sanctions to an arms embargo only, EU diplomats say, after reports from the seven EU embassies in Tashkent said sanctions have achieved nothing except pushing Uzbekistan closer to Russia.
“The sanctions would probably be dropped sooner or later with no political gain for the EU, but now there is still an opportunity to sell them for some kind of closer cooperation,” one EU official said. “Everybody wants to be politically correct, but the [German] calculus is quite persuasive.”
France and Poland are also sympathetic to Germany’s mini-sanctions idea, but the decision still remains open with the UK pushing for the EU to take a hard line. “That’s the only leverage we have,” a British diplomat said. “It would be the wrong political signal at the wrong time.”
The UK’s integrity on Uzbekistan is under a question mark, however, after the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, testified to MEPs in April that Uzbek authorities have tortured terrorist suspects on London’s behalf.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament on 26 October gave a mixed message, calling for the EU to keep the arms embargo and extend the visa ban list to president Islam Karimov, but also saying sanctions have “not produced positive results so far” and need “review” in light of any future Uzbek concessions.
The Uzbekistan gambit
German diplomats, the Finnish EU presidency and the European Commission will meet with Uzbek officials in Brussels on 8 November, with Tashkent expected to offer the EU a regular human rights dialogue and to bring forward the abolition of the death penalty from 2008 to 2007.
German foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier is visiting Uzbekistan this week to see what the Uzbeks might put on the table at the 8 November meeting, following a visit by the EU’s Central Asia special envoy, Pierre Morel, the week before.
But the EU official quoted above said speedy acceptance of any concessions on face-value would be “a fig-leaf for a Bismarck-style realpolitik” with member states wary of a media backlash from NGOs such as the International Crisis Group (ICG) if sanctions are dropped “for free.”
Berlin already attracted bad press on Uzbekistan after giving special permission for ex-Uzbek interior minister Zokirjon Almatov to visit Germany for medical treatment last November, just days after his name was put on the visa ban list.
The EU’s strategic interests in Uzbekistan include potential new gas supplies and security cooperation for NATO’s anti-Taleban operation in Afghanistan as well as wider intelligence gathering efforts in the “war on terror,” with Germany keeping a military air base in Termez, near the Uzbek-Afghan border.
Uzbekistan’s regional weight also makes it key to Berlin’s plan to extend the European Neighbourhood Policy – an enhanced EU political and economic integration package – to Central Asia under the German EU presidency next year.
Gas and terrorism
Tashkent is reputed to be sitting on 1.86 trillion cubic metres of natural gas reserves – enough to power the whole of the EU for four years – and controls the biggest population, the second biggest economy and second biggest army of the Central Asian states.
“If we do not build the Trans-Caspian pipeline [linking the EU to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan via the Caspian Sea] we should be aware that this gas will flow to China,” energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs recently told EUobserver.
But analysts warn Europe could be overestimating both the size of Uzbekistan’s gas reserves and its willingness to fall in with EU needs. “Everyone in the region is laughing at the EU, because whatever gas there is has already been sold to Gazprom,” ICG expert Alba Lamberti said.