The European Parliament held a briefing on June 21st where civil society activists from Anti-Slavery International and the International Labor Rights Forum expressed outrage at the EU’s willingness to do business with Uzbekistan, given the continued use of forced child labor in the cotton industry, EurasiaNet reported. In February, the European Council approved an amendment to the EU’s Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Uzbekistan, extending customs and tariffs breaks to Tashkent. Yet it has not yet been ratified by the European Parliament.
The briefing was designed to inform the debate on the vote to come later this year. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, and France have issued public statements about the removal of students from school and their exploitation in the cotton harvest as well as the retaliation they suffer if they don’t go along with the local administration’s recruitment. MEP Catherine Bearder of the UK, who is on the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee, described the use of children to pick cotton in Uzbekistan as “penal servitude on a massive scale” and said passing the agreement “would clearly send the wrong message about what the EU stands for, the rights of people that we trade with.”
The briefing followed condemnation of Uzbekistan by employers and labor unions at the annual meeting of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva, where a lengthy report prepared by the Committee of Experts was discussed regarding Uzbekistan’s failure to prevent child labor, or to submit reports on compliance, and its unwillingness to issue an invitation to an ILO monitoring mission during the harvest. Labor and employer groups called on Uzbekistan to permit the ILO mission to come to Uzbekistan during the harvest.
The EU has faced considerable criticism over its close relationship to the regime of autocratic President Islam Karimov. A libel trial launched in Paris by the president’s daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, against a journalist from rue89.com who called Karimov “a dictator” and questioned his daughter’s charitable operations, took an unexpected turn earlier this month. Documentation intended to bolster her character references backfired. A letter signed by an EU consultant on behalf of Europa House, the EU’s representative office in Tashkent, praised Karimova-Tillyaeva and the organization she chairs, the National Center for the Social Adaptation of Children (NCSAC), noting past grants given, and implying that €3.7 million were slated for disbursement through the NCSAC.
Rather than reinforcing the notion that Karimova-Tillyaeva was a credible partner for the EU, the disclosure of the letter as well as sharp questions asked about an alleged payment to an Italian actress, Monica Belluci, for participation in a charity ball only served to raise more doubts about the EU’s complicity with the regime. An EU spokesperson quickly denied the claims that any funds were used to support the dictatorship or the daughter, but seemed merely to be treading water, as it was not clear how funds given to an entirely state-controlled entity could help but support the regime. German parliamentarians have demanded an inquiry into how the funds are spent.
A WikiLeaks revelation of an alleged cable from 2004 sheds some light on the history of US and EU relations regarding Central Asia – there is a tendency to see a trend of human rights progress where it doesn’t really exist (improvements were being claimed even on the eve of the Andijan massacre of 2005), and a tendency toward ambivalence about how hard to push Karimov out of deep fears that he would cut off relations with the West – relations needed now more than ever due to the exigencies of the delivery route to troops in Afghanistan maintained with Uzbekistan’s cooperation.
The summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which Uzbekistan is a not entirely enthusiastic member, provided an occasion to debate the response to the Arab Spring of this regional security body, given the obvious parallels between Karimov, who has ruled ruthlessly in Uzbekistan for 22 years, other Central Asian rulers long in power, and Hosni Mubarak, who was finally toppled after 30 years. This sort of vivid comparison sparked rumors that when President Dmitry Medvedev stopped in Tashkent for a visit before the SCO meeting, that he was supposedly urging Karimov to step down voluntarily and ensure a peaceful transition of leadership in Tashkent. There wasn’t any proof of such a conversation, at least from the publicly televised, staged conversation between the leaders, and it seemed largely a framing device by a think-tank researcher to get the Kremlin to articulate just what its plans are for possible Central Asia transitions – just like the false rumor planted earlier this month by Russian nationalist and former parliamentarian Aleksei Mitronov, that thousands were demonstrating in the streets of Andijan (they weren’t).
A more sophisticated analysis about the conversations around the SCO summit can be seen via Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia blog: “the authoritarian rulers in these two regions [Central Asia and the Caucasus] are sufficiently nervous about popular unrest that they are looking to Moscow for possible support in the event of disorders.” According to an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta by Viktoriya Panfilova, Aleksey Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center believed that during talks with Medvedev, “Islam Karimov will seek to clarify how and to what extent Russia can support Uzbekistan.” This perspective focuses not so much on the Kremlin’s ostensible toppling powers – which may be limited despite Moscow’s role in fueling unrest in Kyrgyzstan last year with its fuel tariff hikes, ultimately leading to the demise of ex-President Kurkmanbek Bakiyev. Rather, it concentrates on the possible expectations Central Asian leaders may have regarding intervention in their countries by regional organizations – whether the SCO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Last year, Kyrgyzstan’s interim President Roza Otunbayeva called on Moscow and the CSTO to help prevent the ethnic conflicts that led to at least 400 deaths a year ago in southern Kyrgyzstan – to no avail. Tashkent at least supported a limited police advisory mission in Osh via the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – which also failed to be deployed.
Where once the CSTO denied it would ever intervene in domestic unrest, that was then, this is now, as Eurasia’s The Bug Pit reports -- Nikolai Bordyuzha, the CSTO's Russian secretary general, said the CSTO would “take appropriate action” if the situation worsened in Kyrgyzstan – a threat rebutted by Bishkek's ombudsman, Tursunbek Akun, who said "neither the CSTO nor any other organization has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of Kyrgyzstan." There has also been talk of intervening in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the event, the SCO summit, by contrast, seemed only to condemn the West’s interference in the Arab Spring and talk about increased activity against drug-trafficking and the need for a conflict-resolution mechanism, not any role for Moscow or Beijing for that matter in policing Central Asian unrest.
Uzbekistan doesn’t face anything like the Egyptian demonstrations – yet – but a meeting of Uzbek exiles in Berlin recently, with ties to groups within Uzbekistan, as well as occasional scattered protests by human rights activists, as isolated as they may be, are enough to make Karimov concerned. After all, only weeks before the Tunisian demonstrations following a desperate street peddler’s self-immolation, Middle Eastern experts were claiming the country was stable.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog. To subscribe to Uzbekistan News Briefs, a weekly digest of international and regional press, write firstname.lastname@example.org