The European Union has ditched most of its sanctions against Uzbekistan after what it claims were improvements in the authoritarian state's human rights record.
A visa and travel ban on eight senior officials in President Islam Karimov's administration been lifted but a separate arms embargo will remain in place for at least another year.
The October 13 decision came just days after a court in Nukus in western Uzbekistan sentenced RFE/RL journalist Solozhon Abdurakhmanov to 10-years imprisonment on narcotics trafficking charges. His lawyer and international organizations say the charges were trumped up. The EU imposed the visa and arms restrictions on Uzbekistan in response to the killing of civilian demonstrators in the Ferghana Valley town of Andijan in May 2005.
Uzbek authorities maintain that no more than 187 Islamic extremists and a number of jail breakers were shot, but eyewitnesses and human rights activists insist the death toll was significantly greater and included the murder of women and children. An independent investigation into the massacre has yet to be carried out despite international demands. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
EU foreign ministers say their decision to ease sanctions was grounded in "progress achieved in Uzbekistan last year with regard to respect for the rule of law and protection of human rights." This included the abolition of the death penalty, judicial and constitutional reforms, efforts made against the use of child labor, and the release of Mutabar Tajibaeva, a human rights activist, from custody. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Council went on to call for "the release [of] all imprisoned human rights defenders" and an end to government intimidation of others.
Dismayed human rights activists criticized the EU's decision, describing it as a "political expediency" largely motivated by a German initiative to improve relations with the populous Central Asian state. Others suggest the EU action is connected with energy issues, saying that Brussels wants to foster steady ties with Central Asian states in order to keep natural gas options open. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Germany also hopes to foster stronger trade ties with Uzbekistan with more than 50 German companies already active in the country.
Among recent measures employed by the EU to normalize relations with gas rich Uzbekistan was a seminar, "Liberalization of the Media is an Important Condition for Democratization of Society." The two-day event held in Tashkent on October 2-3 was roundly characterized by international observers as an exercise in government manipulation, in which independent journalists were not allowed to participate.
A joint statement issued October 6 by a group of seven non-governmental organizations, with the headline "On Media Freedom, Talk is Cheap," suggested that the media forum was held more for show than to genuinely promote ways to expand press freedom in Uzbekistan. "The EU must not close its eyes to the harsh realities that journalists face in Uzbekistan. Our organizations, which took part in the seminar, can attest that nothing new was heard from the representatives of the government and the state-controlled media who were present," said the statement. [Editor's Note: One of the NGO signatories to the statement was the Open Society Institute. EurasiaNet is funded under the auspices of the Open Society Institute's Central Eurasia Project.].
"There was no hint of acknowledgement that the country's media are neither free nor independent, that journalists and others are regularly imprisoned for expressing their opinions, that access to critical external internet sites is blocked and that foreign journalists are not allowed accreditation to cover the country from within," the statement added.
Uzbek authorities hit back at the NGO statement's assertions, alleging that some of the groups that signed the statement -- including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and International Crisis Group -- harbored an anti-government agenda heading into the media forum. A commentary posted on the pro-government UzReport website complained about the behavior of some NGO activists who attended the seminar. "Our Western colleagues, during the seminar, constantly tried to convince representatives of the Uzbek media that everything was wrong and bad in our country, and that there was no need to initiate cooperation and conduct any dialogue in Uzbekistan. To be frank, all this very much reminded us of methods of ideological battles during the Cold War," it added.
Deirdre Tynan is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.