Uzbekistan's President Karimov in Brussels

Geopolitical Interests before Human Rights

Human rights activists were highly critical of the fact that both the EU and NATO recently received Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Brussels. For them, it sends out a fatal signal to the autocratic ruler that he can continue his authoritarian policies with no fear of international consequences. By Edda Schlager

Islam Karimov (left) shaking hands with José Manuel Barroso (photo: AP)
Human rights activists are adamant that it was a mistake for the EU and NATO to receive the Uzbek president as it sends out the wrong kind of political signals

​​None of Jamshid Karimov's colleagues know how he is at the moment. The journalist was last seen on 12 September 2006. He was on his way to visit his sick mother when he disappeared. Two weeks later, his family found out that he had been put into a psychiatric clinic, where he remains to this day.

Presumably the only person with reliable information on the state of Jamshid Karimov's health is his uncle, the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov. Abdujalil Boymatov from the Society of Human Rights in Uzbekistan is convinced that "it was he who ordered his nephew's admission to hospital," along with repeated forced psychiatric treatment that triggered sensory disturbances and temporary blindness.

Jamshid Karimov is one of the few journalists critical of the regime in the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, which has been ruled since 1989 by Islam Karimov – first as head of the Communist Party, then as president. The president's nephew worked for ferghana.ru and for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), websites run from outside the country that provide the only access to independent news in Uzbekistan.

Murder, torture and repression

Cases like that of Jamshid Karimov are the reason why Uzbek President Islam Karimov is regarded as one of the world's most dangerous despots – on a level with the men in charge of Sudan and North Korea. Murder, torture and repression of dissidents are daily occurrences.

Despite all this, both the EU and NATO received Karimov in Brussels on 24 January. He met up with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

The only specific outcome to be made public is an agreement on the setting up of an EU delegation in Uzbekistan. Other than that, Brussels has been keeping its cards close to its chest. Not even the usual press conference took place, earning criticism from Christian Rickerts, managing director of the German organisation Reporter ohne Grenzen (Reporters without Borders): "That underscores the impression that the EU politicians wanted to spare Karimov any awkward questions during his visit to Brussels. We are disappointed by this obliging gesture."

Human rights activists around the world criticised the meeting. For the editor-in-chief of the independent portal uznews.net, whose name cannot be given for safety reasons, it sends "completely the wrong message to Uzbekistan that the EU met Karimov at eye level."

Planted evidence

Soldiers in Andizhan (photo: AP)
According to Human Rights Watch, about 500 people were shot dead by the military in Andizhan on 13 May 2005 alone, thousands of others fled the country

​​No less than 11 journalists and 15 human rights activists are currently being held in Uzbek prisons. One of them is Salijon Abdurakhmanov, who reported for uznews.net from Karakalpakstan. He has been in prison since June 2008, having received a ten-year sentence for drug dealing. The editor-in-chief of uznews.net is convinced of Abdurakhmanov's innocence: "The drugs that were found in his car and on which the entire case was based were planted there."

Like many other local human rights activists and journalists, the uznews.net editor has herself fled Uzbekistan. Yet even outside the country, critics of the regime are not safe. The Uzbek journalist Alisher Saipov, who ran the weekly newspaper Siyosat, is a case in point.

Saipov's main focus was the co-existence of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the south of Kyrgyzstan, where more than a thousand people died in inter-ethnic violence last year. In October 2007, Saipov was shot dead in broad daylight in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, where he lived. The murder has never been solved, but human rights activists suspect to this day that the Uzbek secret service was involved in this case too.

Andizhan massacre

It was in the Fergana Valley on the border between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – the most densely populated region in Central Asia – that the protests against Karimov's regime began in May 2005, causing an international stir.

At that time, Karimov had several hundred people – allegedly fundamentalists – shot dead in Andizhan. By failing to allow independent investigations into the Andizhan massacre, the president manoeuvred his country into isolation. Uzbekistan increasingly cut itself off politically, punishing dissidents all the harder.

Following the events in Andizhan, the EU imposed sanctions against Uzbekistan, including an arms embargo and a ban on entering the EU for twelve leading Uzbek politicians. However, the sanctions were lifted in 2009 after Uzbekistan released several dissidents from prison.

Experts on Central Asia agree that there are geopolitical reasons for this rapprochement between Europe and Uzbekistan. Efforts to foster democracy and human rights were not on the agenda in Brussels; energy issues and Afghanistan were.

Uzbekistan has reserves of some 1.68 trillion cubic metres of gas, with 64.4 billion cubic metres produced in 2009. That makes it the second-largest gas producer among the CIS states after Russia, although a large part of the Uzbek gas reserves has not yet been tapped.

For this reason, the country is considered an important partner for the Nabucco pipeline, which is intended to diversify Europe's energy supply and reduce its dependence on Russia. Yet the billion-euro project involving the German energy giant RWE is already ailing before construction starts, due to the unreliability of the potential suppliers.

Uzbekistan's neighbour Turkmenistan, for example, which was previously designated a Nabucco supplier, recently signed major supply contracts with Russia and China. Uzbekistan is also interested in cooperating with partners who are much less fussy about human rights. In other words, if Europe sticks to its less tolerant attitude, it would jeopardise the Nabucco plan.

Strategic alliances

Map of Uzbekistan (source: dw-world.de)
The EU would like to become less dependent on energy supplies from Russia and is courting Uzbekistan in an attempt to reach this goal

​​Karimov has other cards up his sleeve. Uzbekistan is part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which NATO uses to supply its troops in Afghanistan. Ever since the US Air Force had to vacate its Uzbek military base in Karshi-Khanabad in 2005, moving to the more distant Manas transit centre in Kyrgyzstan, Germany has been operating the only supply base in Uzbekistan (in Termez) for troops in Afghanistan.

Because NATO's previous main supply route to Afghanistan via Pakistan is coming under increasing pressure due to the civil war there, Uzbekistan is becoming more important. So without Karimov's cooperation, the Northern Distribution Network would be at risk.

It seems as if Karimov has all the arguments on his side, and Europe knows it. For the editor-in-chief of uznews.net, however, the Brussels meeting was an admission that Europe is playing ball in Karimov's power game. "The visit shows how powerless the European Union really is."

Edda Schlager

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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