President Islam Karimov’s visit to Brussels has raised fresh criticism of the EU and NATO’s double standards vis-à-vis the Uzbek leader. The visit was full of ambiguity: both the EU and NATO denied that the Uzbek president was officially invited, yet he met both the NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and the European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso.
News about Karimov’s plans to visit Brussels became available shortly before his trip, mostly due to EU human rights organizations (www.fergana.ru, January 22). It was not immediately clear if Karimov’s trip qualified as an official or a state visit. Karimov rarely travels to the West. Following the tragic events in Andijan in May 2005, the EU imposed sanctions and visa bans on a number of Uzbek officials. Tashkent’s relations with the West deteriorated further. Uzbekistan closed the US military base in Kharshi-Khanabad, which acted as a major hub for military operations in Afghanistan.
However, NATO’s strategic ties with Tashkent, as well as Uzbekistan’s potential gas supplies to Europe appear more important both for the United States and the EU than the country’s domestic situation. Almost six years after Andijan, Uzbekistan has become a key part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a major supply route connecting Europe to Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia. Participating in the NDN highlighted the gradual thaw in Tashkent’s relations with the West. In 2007, the EU launched a special Central Asia Strategy for a New Partnership to strengthen bilateral and regional relations. The strategy, although at times successful, met most skeptics’ forecasts concerning funding levels and commitment on the part of both EU and Central Asian states.
Most of the EU’s restrictions on Tashkent were lifted by 2008. Karimov’s Brussels trip therefore symbolized further amelioration of relations. The EU and Uzbekistan have signed several bilateral agreements, including a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation in the field of energy, an agreement between the Uzbek government, the EU and the European Atomic Energy Community on the Establishment and the Privileges and Immunities of the Delegation of the European Union in the Republic of Uzbekistan, and a Memorandum of Intention on the implementation of an Indicative Program (https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/services/showShotlist.do?filmRef=74641&out=HTML&lg=en&src=1).
Karimov was greeted in Brussels by protests organized by European NGO’s that claimed that the EU must press the issue of human rights rather than its strategic interests. European media outlets argued about double-standards in Brussels on human rights abuses: while condemning Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for his corrupt and authoritarian policies, Brussels receives leaders no less controversial such as Karimov. Uzbekistan completes Freedom House’s “worst of the worst” list, along with Turkmenistan, North Korea and other countries.
Members of the Uzbek diaspora and human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, joined the protests. Memories of Andijan and the poor human rights situation in Uzbekistan were the main points of criticism from European NGO’s. Therefore, conducting an international investigation into the violence in Andijan was one of the key requests the protesters attempted to deliver to EU and NATO officials (www.russian.rfi.fr, January 24).
Most of Karimov’s meeting with EU and NATO officials, including with Rasmussen, were conducted behind closed doors. Karimov also met with EU officials. Although in response to their critics, EU officials stressed that the issue of human rights was raised with Karimov, while Rasmussen praised the president’s role in calming the June 2010 conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Karimov’s visit to Brussels presented a special occasion for the Uzbek media to praise the president’s foreign policy. Most Uzbek media coverage highlighted Karimov’s success in Brussels, dedicating the front pages to special coverage. The trip was “constructive” and “long-awaited,” Uzbek newspapers noted (www.uznews.net, January 26). Uzbek TV and media quoted Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry statement on the EU’s crucial role in Karimov’s foreign policy (https://mfa.uz/rus/mej_sotr/uzb_mejd_org/). “The head of the European Commission expressed his gratitude to the President of Uzbekistan for the implementation of specific projects aimed at restoring the economy and infrastructure of Afghanistan,” Uza newspaper concluded (Uza, January 26).
Major Uzbek newspapers stressed the president’s initiative on Afghanistan to create a special “6+3” group that would include Afghanistan’s neighbors, as well as the US, NATO and Russia (www.uza.uz, January 25). While the Uzbek media emphasized that Karimov’s visit to the EU headquarters will strengthen Uzbekistan’s ties with the West, there was no mention of the protests in Brussels. Karimov also refused to meet with the media during his visit to Brussels.