Thursday 29 April 2010

The High Price of Five Years of Forgetting

This article appeared in the European Voice on 29 April 2010.


"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting". Milan Kundera's words should haunt Europe on 13 May. The fifth anniversary of the massacre in Andijan, a town in eastern Uzbekistan, ought to remind decision-makers, particularly those in Berlin, how the EU first raised the hopes of the victims, and then dashed them.

When the EU imposed targeted sanctions on Uzbekistan in 2005 in response to the killing of some 750 civilians during a public demonstration in Andijan, witnesses and victims' families had the impression that somebody in the world cared about their plight and could express some solidarity.

Of course, few thought that imposing an arms embargo and travel bans on 12 Uzbek leaders would alter the behaviour of one of the world's most repressive regimes, but the measures held some symbolic value. While Tashkent was threatening witnesses and their families, hunting them down abroad, running show trials based on forced confessions, and otherwise trying to erase the truth, the EU's decision represented a sort of official memory in the face of forgetting.

This encouraging response was destroyed by Berlin, however, which demonstrated its contempt for the sanctions right from the start. From the very moment they came into force in November 2005, Berlin was in breach, hosting one of the 12 banned Uzbek officials, Interior Minister Zakirjon Almatov, for medical treatment in a Hanover clinic.

The threat of legal action sent Almatov packing, but today it has become clear that Berlin continued to flout the sanctions in other ways.

In March, the German newspaper Tageszeitung exposed how the German defence ministry had been providing military training for Uzbek officers even while EU sanctions were in place. Among other things, Berlin instructed them in tank manoeuvres – this for uniformed soldiers of a state whose security forces had murdered hundreds of its own citizens by firing into crowds using machine-guns from atop armoured personnel carriers. Apart from the ethical amnesia it demonstrated, this training was a clear violation of the EU sanctions in force at the time prohibiting technical assistance in the security field.

Germany also pushed hard in Brussels over the years to get the sanctions lifted. First they were weakened, then suspended, and finally withdrawn altogether in October 2009. This happened without Uzbekistan having met any of the EU conditions for their removal: in particular there was no sign of an independent international investigation into the events of 13 May 2005. In its mission to get the world to forget the victims of Andijan, Tashkent had an ally in Berlin.

Germany has a military base in Termez, Uzbekistan, supporting its operations in Afghanistan, and this in part explains Berlin's support for Tashkent against both its European partners and universal values. However, any military significance that installation may have cannot justify support for an authoritarian regime whose violence against its own people only threatens the kind of regional security the NATO mission aims to achieve.

Five years of uncritical engagement has not helped bring any stability to central Asia's most populous state. If anything, it has only added further risk to the huge investment that the international community, including Germany, has made in neighbouring Afghanistan. Forgetting may turn out to have serious costs.

Andrew Stroehlein is the Communications Director of the International Crisis Group, which is joint sponsor of the upcoming roundtable in the European Parliament, "Five Years after the Andijan Massacre: The Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Uzbekistan", on 4 May.

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