President Islam Karimov will visit Brussels on January 24 to meet the President of the European Commission (EC), Jose Manuel Barroso, the Belgian authorities, and officials at NATO HQ, a spokesman for the EC has confirmed. This will be the Uzbek dictator's first meeting with the European Union in Europe since the EU lifted sanctions imposed after Uzbek government troops fired on protesters in Andijan in 2005, killing hundreds of people. The EU decided the measures weren't working as intended to achieve goals such as an independent investigation into the massacre, and removed the sanctions in 2008, a gesture that didn't improve the human rights situation, either. In 2009, an arms embargo was also removed, and EU officials and leaders from individual European nations began to make their way to Tashkent to resume trade – which in fact had little been affected.
Human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, Association Droits de l’Homme en Asie Centrale, a group of emigres from Uzbekistan, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have been appalled at the validation of Karimov's harsh rule implied by the forthcoming reception in Brussels, and have publicized their concerns, ranging from the use of torture in detention, to the continued refusal to release prisoners of conscience, including journalists and human rights activists, as well as the imprisonment of thousands of devout Muslims who have practiced their faith outside of state restrictions.
It seems that NATO, not the European Union, initiated the idea of inviting Uzbekistan’s controversial leader to visit Brussels, EurasiaNet reported, citing an aide to Barroso. The new rapprochement is often portrayed as dictated by Europe's need for energy security. A year ago on January 20, 2010, the EC’s Barroso said, "We have to stop simply talking about energy security in Europe, and start doing something about it" -- prompted by the pricing dispute between Moscow and Kyiv that led Russia to cut natural gas supplies to the European continent via Ukraine in December 2009, Business Week reported. Yet the EU appears to be turning more to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan for future energy prospects, including through the long-stalled Nabucco pipeline, and evidently does not obtain that much fuel from Uzbekistan. The global recession has led to a downturn in demand, although this is expected to begin to bounce back soon. Evidently what is uppermost in the minds of EU leaders now is securing the route to deliver non-lethal shipments to NATO troops in Afghanistan.
In 2009, the EU's 27 countries had a trade balance with Uzbekistan of just 600 million euro, with imports of 300 million and exports of 1 billion, according to the European Commission's trade reports. Trade has increased in the last year, notably with Germany. Most of the trade is in machinery and transport equipment; in 2009, 82 million euro were spent on fuels and mining products.
Curiously, the tables show that the EU's imports from Uzbekistan increased in the years 2006 and 2007 after the 2005 events in Andijan and the imposition of sanctions, and then dropped in 2008 and 2009 after the lifting of sanctions. That’s likely because the sanctions only involved visa bans and an arms embargo, not any ban on trade. It could also be explained by advance purchase orders and decline in consumption related to the global recession.
As the EC reports indicate, Uzbekistan's main trade partners are the United States, China, Russia, Switzerland, and Norway. Overall, Uzbekistan's imports rose from 2005-2008 and declined in 2009, and its exports remained steady in 2005-2006, rose somewhat in 2008 and have continued to rise to date. According to the EC, overall trade between the EU and Central Asia has grown in the last five years and the EU is now the main trading partner of the region as a whole. Even so, the percentage of Central Asian trade is small for the EU -- Kazakhstan, the largest trading partner accounting for almost 85 percent of the EU's trade with Central Asia, still only makes up 0.7% of the EU's trade worldwide. Cotton, crude oil, gas, and metals are the main items the EU imports, and all five Central Asian countries continue as beneficiaries of the EU's Generalized System of Preferences, a trade arrangement through which the EU provides preferential access to the EU markets. The EU has a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan whereby the sides grant each other most-favored nation status regarding tariffs and restrictions. This policy is viewed by the EU as a means to help eliminate poverty and increase access to EU markets.
Ezgulik (Goodness), a leading civil society group based in Tashkent with branches in other Uzbek cities, has published a critique of the World Bank's rural development loans in recent years in the provinces of Uzbekistan. The non-governmental organization documents what it characterizes as severe flaws in the Bank's assessments in providing the second phase of a $67.9 million loan to the government of President Islam Karimov in 2008. Chiefly of concern is the use of forced child labor in the cotton industry, and the failure to make the agricultural reforms claimed to end the command and administer system of quotas helping to perpetuate such abuses. The Bank sent a response to Ezgulik on December 22 of last year saying that it appreciated the feedback and would set up a meeting soon to better understand the group's concerns.
Ezgulik has repeatedly experienced problems with the Uzbek authorities in retaliation for their outspoken criticism of state policies. On December 30 of last year, police seized the group's office equipment to pay a fine imposed by a court in relation to a libel case involving the high-profile murder of a famous singer, and Ezgulik’s efforts to represent the concerns of the victim’s relatives. Vasila Inoyatova, chair of Ezgulik, said pressure on her organization increased after she spoke at the Warsaw review meeting of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in October 2010.
Abdulfattoh Raimokhunov, 48, died in the notorious Jasliq prison in southwestern Uzbekistan January 11, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Uzbek Service (RFE/RL) reported. Relatives told RFE/RL that the official death certificate said Raimokhunov died of a heart attack, and they were forced to bury him quickly without an independent autopsy. His brother said that when he telephoned Raimokhunov in December, he had no health complaints, although in 2009 he had complained that a prison guard beat him on the head with a truncheon. Later, his brother noticed a fresh bruise on his brother's forehead. Raimokhunov’s efforts to file a complaint about his mistreatment were blocked.
The Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan reported at least 39 deaths in 2010 of prisoners who had reportedly been physically abused.
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 email@example.com