At a November 1 meeting in Tashkent with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier raised the prospect of gradually lifting the European Union (EU) sanctions against Uzbekistan with the condition that Tashkent must implement “concrete measures” on human rights issues. The dramatic German offer, opening up the genuine possibility of Uzbekistan’s rapprochement with the EU and other Western multilateral organizations, is rooted in German interests in Uzbekistan, growing bilateral relations, and Karimov’s assessment that Berlin is the key to smoothing over past differences with European governments.
At the heart of the issue between Tashkent and the EU is the Uzbek government’s bloody crackdown in Andijan in May 2005, specifically the indiscriminate use of force against its own civilians. Subsequent EU sanctions include a visa ban on 12 Uzbek officials and an arms embargo. While these sanctions are due to expire in mid-November, they are widely expected to be renewed. Berlin, seeking compromise from Tashkent, has asked the regime to consider setting up an inquiry into those events. The Uzbek side now has until Wednesday, November 8, to prepare proposals that Germany will take to the EU ministers’ meeting on November 13, when a final decision will be taken.
Steinmeier explained that Berlin is preparing for its forthcoming chairmanship of the EU by concentrating on the effects of increasing globalization and the way forward for the EU in helping to stabilize Central Asia. Berlin believes Uzbekistan’s involvement is vital to that latter objective. Karimov welcomed German efforts to extricate Tashkent from its diplomatic impasse with EU countries commenting, “We, in Uzbekistan, highly assess the relations that are developing between our countries. This is, above all, issues of trade and economic relations, relations that are now being established in the military and technical sphere; and we are especially impressed with, and we highly assess, the level of the dialogue that is developing between our countries” (Uzbek TV First Channel, November 1).
The nature of the political dialogue between Germany and Uzbekistan has evidently touched upon issues and themes that other EU members continue to avoid. “Germany’s initiative to draw up a new blueprint for EU policy regarding Central Asia, and, on the whole, Uzbekistan, is respective of this initiative and will make a contribution…this blueprint could meet, first of all, mutual interests and be a good stimulus to establishing relations that unambiguously meet the interests of the EU and Uzbekistan,” Karimov revealed. A “blueprint” to rehabilitate Uzbekistan in its relations with the EU would also cause anxiety among member states, many of whom remain opposed to lifting sanctions, not least of which is the United Kingdom, but also France, although Paris favors opening a dialogue with the Uzbek regime.
With the trade turnover between the two countries estimated at $330 million in 2005, and German companies keen to secure greater access to Uzbekistan, Karimov’s confidence in Berlin is hardly misplaced. Steinmeier also took his delegation to Bukhara, where talks were held with local businessmen on ways of strengthening existing cooperation. In particular they considered diversifying economic activities in the areas of education, medicine, industry, and tourism, as well as various new investment projects. Commenting on the economic purpose of his visit to Tashkent Steinmeier said, “We discussed issues that are important for both of our countries, and I am sure that they will effectively serve to strengthen the partnership. This is also the opinion of all those who are here as part of the representative delegation” (Uzbek TV First Channel, November 2).
Berlin has other factors influencing its calculations as far as the risk of being seen within the EU as soft on Uzbekistan. First, its commitment to Afghanistan, with its troops deployed in peace support operations representing a clearly sensitive issue for the German government; stabilizing Afghanistan and indeed success in this policy is high on the German agenda. Uzbekistan is appraised as a key factor in achieving wider stability in the region, a view shared by other countries. However, German troops are also deployed in Uzbekistan, assisting in the friendship bridge at Termez in southern Uzbekistan and ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Berlin has therefore maintained security interests in Uzbekistan, which makes it uniquely placed to conduct a dialogue with Tashkent.
Equally, Karimov was very careful not to evict the German forces in Termez when he asked U.S. military forces to leave Uzbekistan, and he has always believed that Germany would emerge as a mediator for Uzbekistan’s Western interests. That risk has now paid off, but he must deliver something that will allow Berlin to riposte its detractors: an inquiry into Andijan that meets the EU’s concerns may be a first step. If the gamble taken in Berlin is matched in Tashkent, 2007 could see a surprising reversal in Uzbekistan’s international standing.