Tuesday 20 May 2008

Europe's Soft Powerlessness

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 20 May 2008.


Any dictator concerned about Western condemnation of his actions could learn a lot from Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov. Tashkent's strongman, with some help from Berlin, has just outmaneuvered the European Union to get the sanctions against his regime lifted.

Three years ago, the EU agreed on an Uzbek arms embargo and visa bans against top regime officials involved in the brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan. No one can be sure how many men, women and children were killed on May 13, 2005, when security forces opened fire on the crowd. The authorities never allowed an independent inquiry. But conservative estimates suggest some 750 people died that day.

In fact, an independent investigation was one of the key conditions the EU had set for lifting the sanctions imposed in response to the mass killings and the torture, forced confessions and show trials that followed. It was an all-too-rare case of the EU taking the international lead on a tough foreign policy issue. The U.S. never even got as far as sanctions.

Sadly, European nerves didn't hold up. In late April, the EU suspended the sanctions for a second six-month period. Set to expire altogether in October, the sanctions are now as good as dead. Of course, the EU didn't get its independent investigation into Andijan, or any of the other demands it made in 2005. Instead, EU foreign ministers justified their action by saying Uzbekistan had made progress in human rights. This was based on the slimmest evidence imaginable.

Tashkent had, they said, abolished the death penalty and adopted international standards against child labor. These were only paper promises, however, and we have yet to see their actual implementation. Let's wait for autumn, when the regime will no doubt begin its annual drive of forced child labor. Tens of thousands of children are taken out of school for months at a time to pick cotton which provides $1 billion a year for the regime but little or nothing -- certainly not education -- for the kids.

EU foreign ministers also praised Tashkent for releasing a handful of human-rights activists even as thousands of prisoners of conscience remain behind bars.

Europe's chief diplomats were also very excited that Tashkent agreed to an EU-Uzbekistan "human rights dialogue -- media democratization seminar." I am one of the 15 people the EU invited to this meeting and I would welcome the opportunity to call for press freedom in Tashkent, something my Uzbek colleagues could never do.

However, I am skeptical the seminar would achieve much. To propose a discussion on media democratization in a country that has never had an independent media, where censorship is all-pervasive and countless journalists are in prison or exile, is the height of ineffectual rhetorical gesture. But it probably won't even happen anyway. Just after the EU suspended the sanctions, Tashkent -- surprise, surprise -- refused to confirm the seminar's date, which they had earlier agreed to. The meeting has now been "postponed" indefinitely.

If any one EU member state deserves credit for this foreign-policy failure it is Germany. From the start, Berlin has worked against sanctions and then pushed to weaken them with a determination and effectiveness that would be the envy of any paid lobbyist Tashkent could ever hope to hire.

Perhaps this sounds an odd political approach for a country whose experience with two dictatorships in the 20th century gives it a greater obligation than most to speak out against authoritarianism. But Germany has been willing to sell out its own and European values for two misguided reasons. The first is that Berlin seems to harbor the unrealistic hope that Uzbek gas could make a real contribution to the diversification of European energy supplies. But the Central Asian country's gas reserves are much lower than Tashkent suggests. What's more, getting them to Europe would be costly, not to mention risky given the country's instability.

That's why even with the proposed Nabucco pipeline -- designed to link Europe to Azerbaijan and hopefully one day to a second pipeline to Central Asia -- no one in the industry has suggested feeding Uzbek gas into this new network. In any case, Uzbekistan's gas exports currently go to Gazprom.

The second is a military base Germany has in the southern Uzbek city of Termez, which it uses for its operations in Afghanistan. Since earlier this year, other NATO members have also been able to use Termez.

But the base's military significance hardly justifies supporting an authoritarian regime. Tashkent's violence against its own people only erodes the kind of regional stability the NATO mission is designed to encourage in the first place.

European foreign policy has been made to look foolish by establishing a principled stand only to surrender those same principles in a couple of short years. The humiliation is compounded by the timing. The suspension of the sanctions comes just weeks ahead of the anniversary of the massacre.

Berlin's maneuvers in support of the Karimov regime have done a huge discredit to the EU. The message this episode sends to other authoritarian rulers, such as in Belarus, Burma or Zimbabwe, is all too clear: You don't need to fulfill the conditions for the lifting of European sanctions. All you need to do is wait it out. The EU will back down soon enough. Soft power, indeed.

Mr. Stroehlein, director of media and information for the International Crisis Group, formerly worked on journalism training projects in Uzbekistan.

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