Can the EU Resolve the Uzbekistan Dilemma in 2007?
Richard Weitz «View Bio

The European Union (EU) has long made promoting political reform in Central Asia a priority. The EU’s failed campaign, which began in May 2005, to induce political changes in Uzbekistan has led many EU members to press for substantial revisions in the organization’s approach towards Central Asia. Other EU governments, however, have insisted on continuing the present course. In the end, the EU failed to resolve the issue keeping sanctions on the books but reducing their scope. The EU will need to resolve this issue next year, as well as overcome several other problems, before it can become a major force for political reform in Central Asia. This will be a key test for the German presidency’s ambition to develop a Central Asia policy.

BACKGROUND: Several factors have led Central Asia to assume a prominent place on the agenda at recent EU meetings. First, continued friction with Russia over energy issues has increased European interest in importing oil and natural gas from Central Asian countries as well as in promoting these states’ independence from Moscow. Second, some EU members, such as Germany, have substantial commercial interests in Central Asian countries that extend beyond their energy trade. Third, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, which has seen a resurgence of both the Taliban insurgency and drug cultivation, has stimulated EU efforts to bolster neighboring states against terrorism and narcotics trafficking. Finally, the general importance that EU governments assign to promoting political and economic reform abroad has led these states, starting particularly with the EU strategy document for 2002-2006, to press for desired changes in Central Asia.

For over a year, EU representatives have unsuccessfully tried to convince Uzbek President Islam Karimov to allow an independent international investigation of the country’s May 2005 military crackdown on anti-government demonstrators in Andijan. In November 2005, the EU governments embargoed the sale of military equipment that the Uzbek government could use against its domestic opponents. They also froze the aid programs and expert meetings stipulated in their joint 1999 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Uzbekistan. This decision marked the first time in EU history that the organization has suspended a PCA with another country. In addition, the 25 EU countries agreed to stop issuing entry visas to Uzbekistan’s top dozen senior leaders (including the defense and interior ministers), whom the EU held responsible for the Andijan crackdown. The EU governments decided to review the sanctions after one year to gauge whether Uzbekistan had improved its human rights practices.

The Uzbek government responded by ordering all EU members except Germany to stop using its airspace and territory in support of their military operations in Afghanistan. Since then, Uzbek authorities have continued to restrict the activities of local human rights activists and have closed about a dozen Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Uzbekistan. The EU arms embargo has also proven ineffective since Russia, China, and other military suppliers have declined to follow the EU’s lead.

On November 13, 2006, the EU foreign ministers met in Brussels to decide whether to renew the sanctions. German representatives, whose country retains strong commercial and security interests in Central Asia, led moves to eliminate all sanctions besides the arms embargo. With some French, Polish, and Spanish support, the German government argued that the penalties had proven ineffective and that resuming a sustained human rights dialogue with Uzbekistan would more successfully achieve EU objectives in the region. To bolster his position, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier unsuccessfully sought major concessions from Karimov during a week-long visit to Central Asia prior to the foreign minister’s meeting.

In contrast, human rights advocates argued that the sanctions should not be dropped until the Uzbek government met the original criteria the EU established for repealing the sanctions. The governments of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries (as well as the United States) also opposed relaxing the sanctions. In a compromise, the EU foreign ministers agreed to resume a low-level human rights dialogue with Uzbek authorities while extending the arms embargo an additional 12 months and the visa restrictions another six months, pending further reviews every three months.

IMPLICATIONS: Two main factors have impeded the EU’s ability to achieve its objectives in Central Asia. First, the EU governments have refused to allocate substantial financial resources for promoting their political reform objectives in Central Asia. Second, the EU has given priority to its relations with other regions especially the Caucasus and Russia.

The EU has taken some steps to enhance its presence and effectiveness in Central Asia. For example, in July 2005, the EU created the position of Special Representative for Central Asia to promote its policies in the region. In October 2006, French diplomat Pierre Morel assumed the position, held until then by now Slovak Foreign Minister Jan Kubics. The EU also operates Commission Delegations in several Central Asian capitals as well as in nearby Kabul. The near doubling in recent years of the number of EU member countries has substantially increased the number of EU-affiliated embassies and diplomats in the region. To exploit synergies, the EU coordinates its policies towards Central Asia with other international institutions (especially the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and the United States.

Nevertheless, limited resources continue to constrain the EU’s influence in Central Asia. For 2006, the European Commission allocated only 66 million euros to help all five Central Asian governments reduce poverty, expand regional cooperation, and support ongoing administrative, institutional, and legal reforms. The scale of the EU’s activities in Central Asia remains limited compared with those in the neighboring South Caucasus region. The EU has assigned a Special Representative for the South Caucasus, initiated a European Security and Defense Policy rule of law mission in Georgia, and activated the European Commission’s Rapid Reaction Mechanism to help secure democratic gains and avert conflict in that country following its Rose Revolution. After a year of hesitation, the EU governments decided in June 2004 to let Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia participate in the organization’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), while continuing to exclude the countries of Central Asia.

Besides Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, the ENP encompasses the non-member countries of Eastern Europe and even North Africa, but not those of Central Asia. In return for progress in political and economic reform, typically described in individual country ENP Action Plans, the initiative grants participating countries special privileges such as full access to the EU’s internal market and “four freedoms” (the relaxed movement of capital, goods, people, and services). EU officials consider Central Asian states too distant and too unreformed for inclusion in the initiative. This approach has weakened perhaps the EU’s most important source of potential influence in Central Asia and the prospects of greater access to the prosperous economies of the member states.

At the same time, although EU leaders have indicated a general desire to limit Russian influence in Central Asia, in practice they have not strongly challenged Moscow’s preeminent position there. In their negotiations over such matters as the envisaged Common Space of Cooperation in the Field of External Security, Russian representatives have rejected using the term “common neighborhood” to characterize EU-Russian interaction in Eurasia. Instead, they have proposed that Russia and the EU pledge to support each other’s efforts at achieving “voluntary” integration within their respective regions. At their May 2005 summit, Russia and the EU agreed to a “Road Map for the Common Space on External Security” that envisaged enhancing cooperation primarily in their “shared neighborhood” which they define as “the regions adjacent to the EU and Russian borders” (i.e., not Central Asia). Central Asian governments recognize that EU governments will probably continue to prioritize relations with Russia given the much lower level of economic and other ties between the countries of the EU and Central Asia.

CONCLUSIONS: EU governments and the European Commission will continue their efforts to develop a new strategy document for Central Asia to replace the expiring 2002-2006 paper. A major issue is how to promote political reform in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. Although the EU recently agreed to renew sanctions against Tashkent, the German government, which will assume the EU presidency in January, will likely raise again the need for more “balanced” policies that assign greater weight to the EU’s economic and strategic goals in the region to complement the currently prominent human rights objectives. German officials have also suggested that the EU should consider adopting a new ENP that would involve Central Asian countries more deeply in the EU’s energy, transportation, and other networks.

Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of Program Management at the Hudson Institute.

Published courtesy of The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst.