Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Uzbekistan: Beyond Sanctions

This originally appeared in Transitions Online on 22 November 2006.

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The EU can do little now to change Uzbekistan’s direction, but it could be doing more to prepare the Uzbek people for the coming blows.

It was not the worst-case scenario many had feared. European Union foreign ministers did not drop Europe’s sanctions against Uzbekistan at their meeting on 13 November. But their decision to temporarily renew the punitive measures was not exactly a complete victory for human rights and regional stability either.

At issue were the EU steps taken in October 2005 in response to the Andijan massacre five months earlier. After Uzbek security forces shot dead hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters in the eastern city on 13 May 2005, the EU placed an embargo on arms exports, slapped a visa ban on a handful of government officials, and partially suspended its partnership and cooperation agreement with Uzbekistan. At that time, Brussels called for certain key conditions to be met before it would lift its sanctions, including an independent international inquiry into the Andijan events, fair trials for those accused of involvement in the uprising, and an improvement of human rights generally in the country.

But the measures were clearly too weak to move Tashkent in the desired direction over the course of the year. The regime continues to refuse an independent investigation, trials were blatantly rigged in every case, and Uzbekistan has undergone a comprehensive deterioration of its human-rights record during the last 12 months.

Still, it would be hard to argue the sanctions had no effect at all. The regime was clearly annoyed by them, and Tashkent had been lobbying very actively, especially with Germany, to get them overturned. In fact, they were working so hard at it, that many observers thought the 25 foreign ministers might not be able to find the unanimity needed to renew the sanctions.

A temporary fix

In the end, the ministers’ decision was not a complete surrender of European values. They extended the arms embargo for a further 12 months and the visa restrictions for a further six. Sadly, they didn’t extend the list of those on the visa ban list to include President Islam Karimov himself, but the two extensions are certainly not as bad a result as was feared.

Taking at face value Uzbekistan’s promises of a joint meeting of experts to discuss the Andijan events and of a regular dialogue between Tashkent and Brussels on human rights, the EU reinstated technical meetings within the partnership and cooperation agreement. Continuing evidence from the ground, however, suggests progress through such talks is a long shot at best.

Since the EU’s sanctions were initially imposed on Uzbekistan a year ago, the crackdown on dissent has not relented. Journalists, human rights activists, and religious leaders, among others, have faced harassment, arrest, torture, and lengthy prison sentences. Those seeking refuge abroad have come under pressure from Uzbek and other security services, and some have been forcibly repatriated. Uzbekistan has held show trials of accused Islamic extremists, with the all but inevitable convictions based on confessions extracted through torture.

Such political repression, combined with disastrous misrule of the economy, have left Uzbekistan in a woeful state. The government maintains tight control over the country’s main export commodities – cotton, gas, and gold – ensuring that revenues go not to communities involved in their production, or to the national budget, but to the regime itself and its key allies, particularly those in the security services. Perhaps motivated by an increasing sense of insecurity, the regime has begun looting some of its foreign joint-venture partners. Shuttle trading and labor migration to Russia and Kazakhstan are increasingly threatened economic lifelines for millions of Uzbeks. In short, the country is well down the path of self-destruction followed by such countries as Burma, Zimbabwe, and North Korea, in which an elite prospers while the majority lives in worsening poverty.

Rather than take serious measures to improve conditions, Karimov has resorted to scapegoating and cosmetic changes, such as the October 2006 firing of Andijan governor Saydullo Begaliyev, whom he accused of being partly responsible for the previous year’s events. On the whole, however, Karimov continues to deny that his regime’s policies were in any way at fault, while the same abuses go unchecked in other provinces.

In their 13 November decision, EU foreign ministers clearly stated the aim of the proposed technical meetings as, “bringing about, through dialogue, the compliance of Uzbekistan with the principles of respect for human rights, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms.” That seems almost naively ambitious, but at least it offers a fairly clear measuring stick to judge the results of the talks in future. The first formal opportunity for such an appraisal comes in three months, according to the EU decision, when progress on all fronts will be up for review.

Unfortunately, the ministers' decision contains some seriously problematic language in terms of measuring progress. The five-paragraph text makes no reference to the two conditions imposed on Uzbekistan in October 2005 for the sanctions to be lifted, namely an independent international investigation over the Andijan events and free and fair trials of those alleged to be involved. The only condition now is a general improvement of the human rights situation – which would be welcome, of course, but it is much less than what the EU had been seeking previously. And much less than the victims of the Andijan massacre and their persecuted families deserve.

It would seem the EU is slowly rolling back its firm line on Uzbekistan. Though many points held firm in this latest review, the ground is being prepared for an easing of the sanctions, perhaps even during Germany’s six-month presidency of the EU in the first half of next year, rather than the strengthening that is needed.

Dreams of an energy-rich ally

German and perhaps wider European attention on Uzbekistan has been distracted by the energy issue. European media, when they cover Central Asia at all, tend to lump the region together as a panacea source for oil and gas that could lessen Europe's dependence on Russia. Kazakhstan, it is true, has very large oil reserves, and Turkmenistan is sitting on significant gas reserves – although that country’s megalomaniacal leader scares off Western companies that might otherwise consider building the new pipelines necessary to get the product around Russia and direct to European markets. By contrast, Uzbekistan offers a very dim flame.

Uzbekistan’s gas exports amount to about 12.6 billion cubic meters, with about 9 billion cubic meters going into Russia's Gazprom system where it could presumably head west. The rest goes to Kazakhstan in a swap deal and to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are entirely dependent on Uzbek energy. Nine billion cubic meters is about 11 percent of Germany’s annual consumption – certainly not an amount that could provide European energy security even if it did not have to pass through Russia from this doubly landlocked country.

Small increases in Uzbek gas exports over the past few years have been propelled not by increasing output, but by the Karimov regime systematically denying gas in the winter to poor people in Uzbekistan: literally turning off the taps to certain towns. In fact, this was one of the main drivers behind the protests in Andijan and the violent reaction that followed, prompting EU sanctions in the first place.

Germany may be further inclined to kindness toward Tashkent by its desire to hold on to its military base in Termez, south Uzbekistan, which Berlin sees as important to its operations as part of the NATO force in neighboring Afghanistan. But any military value in having a base near but safely across the border from Afghanistan certainly should be weighed against the tremendous damage the regime does in the wider struggle against jihadi extremism. When it comes to combating terrorism, the Uzbek government, far from proving itself a valuable ally in that international effort, continues to create repressive conditions in which popular support for radical Islam will only grow.

Pre-disaster relief

Beyond human rights and sanctions, however, is the deeper issue of Uzbekistan’s longer-term threat to regional stability. Karimov’s dictatorship is looking increasingly fragile, and serious thought should be given to facing the consequences of its ultimate collapse.

After Andijan, a few hundred Uzbek refugees fleeing into neighboring Kyrgyzstan strained that extremely weak state nearly to its breaking point. What happens when the next government massacre or a serious power struggle sends thousands or tens of thousands over the border? Even relatively prosperous Kazakhstan could be seriously troubled if violence were to drive Uzbeks across its border. And Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan could in no way cope with an interruption in supply from their sole energy source.

Karimov’s government itself is brittle and rife with rivalries, and while there is little likelihood of a popular uprising, a palace coup by disgruntled members of the elite is feasible. The president is increasingly isolated, surrounded by a shrinking circle of cronies. Speculation about possible successors is widespread, with his daughter, Gulnora Karimova, and her putative ally, Moscow-based Uzbek oligarch Alisher Usmonov, mentioned most frequently. However it occurs, succession of the dictator is almost certain to be accompanied by serious unrest.

There is little that Western countries can do now to change Uzbekistan’s direction, but they could be doing more to ready the Uzbek people for an eventual change to a more reasonable government and to prepare the region to withstand future instability. Such longer-term measures would include support for Uzbeks to study abroad and media projects to broadcast more news and educational programs into Uzbekistan. The EU also needs to help expand the capacity of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan to cope with the economic and political fallout from problems in Uzbekistan, including help in crisis planning, pre-positioning of resources to handle potential refugee movements, improving policing and border security, and increasing aid to ministries responsible for emergency situations.

It is also essential to help Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan become less dependent on Uzbekistan for energy and transport, for example by providing assistance for hydropower projects, particularly small-scale schemes, and improving roads from Almaty, Bishkek, and Dushanbe to China, Russia, and Afghanistan. The EU should assist institutions in improving policing, governance, the judicial sector, and parliaments. Europe should also devise a longer-term plan to build trade connections between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the three Central Asian nations, without waiting for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to sign up.

None of this will divert Uzbekistan from its current tragic course, but it would keep some skills and knowledge alive among Uzbeks through the dark age they are now suffering, and it could save lives in the region when the almost unavoidable shock comes. Keeping the sanctions on Uzbekistan was good – even if strengthening and broadening them would have been better – but what the EU really needs to concentrate on above all is building this kind of resilience to cushion the approaching blow.

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