Earlier this week, I received a press release from an organization called the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia with some startling news: Islam Karimov – the authoritarian Uzbek president responsible for the Andijan massacre, systemic torture, child labor, and other assorted crimes – would be coming to Brussels later this month on an official, but clandestine visit.

Some calling around to civil society groups in Brussels confirmed the visit, which will apparently cover trade and energy with the EU, security with NATO, and whatever one talks about with the King of Belgium. The visit and the secrecy have led to outage among those working on Central Asia.

“The silence surrounding this visit is a scandal,” Jacqueline Hale, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Institute in Brussels told me. “It reveals the extent of EU embarrassment about hosting Karimov. We hope the EU will be vocal in any press statements on the visit, by asking the president to release journalists and human rights defenders, allow an unrestricted International Labor Organization (ILO) mission to monitor the cotton harvest, and put an end to the culture of impunity around torture”.

Andrew Stroehlein is communications director at the International Crisis Group (as well as an old friend from his Prague days—he was the founder of the excellent Central Europe Review, which merged with TOL some years back). The situation in Uzbekistan and the feeble international response to human rights violations there have long been a focus of his interest and irritation, so I asked him for his thoughts – and not surprisingly got some choice words:

“The Commission is clearly embarrassed about this visit – why else would they be very cagey with journalists about the details and not have a press conference after the meeting with a visiting head of state? They want to play it down, because they know Barroso is meeting one of the worst dictators on the planet. I also suspect some people in the Commission know very well this meeting will bring no benefits to the people of the EU let alone the people of Uzbekistan.

I understand they are angry at NGOs for pointing out the historic insanity of this move, and they resent having to be in damage-control mode. But of course, if they really wanted to control damage, they could just cancel the meeting. Nothing to lose and only international respectability to gain.

To some the word “insanity” there may seem a bit strong, but if, as I think Einstein said, we define insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then it’s the right word.

Sometimes, from the NGO perspective, it can seem pretty frustrating that policy makers keep doing the same foolish things with the same negative results, and nowhere is this more so right now than with the EU’s approach to dictators. Official meetings with Tashkent officials have never brought any decent results. Yet, the EU keeps hailing the meetings themselves as progress, and now it’s Barroso’s turn. Plus, look at the timing — just as so many European politicians are having to backtrack over their former connections to Ben Ali and just as the EU is forced to reconsider sanctions on Lukashenko, we see Barroso meeting Karimov. Well, really, we’ve got to think Einstein had a point.”

Andrew also wrote a brilliant piece for the European Voice this week, “A letter penned in admiration of Uzbekistan’s wily president, on the eve of his visit to Brussels.” He skillfully, in mock praise, details how Karimov has managed to outmaneuver European policy-makers and “become a model of how to shrug off international pariah status”:

“After your security forces massacred some 700 civilian protesters in the city of Andijan in May 2005, things might have seemed a bit bleak to you. The EU set up sanctions against your country, including visa bans against some of your officials (not you, of course – well done, yet again). Brussels established clear criteria for the lifting of those sanctions, with a call for an independent international investigation and improvement in human rights (whatever those are) among them.

But did you let all that get you down? No, sir. You played the international community off against itself with the talent that comes from boldness and the experience that comes from more time in the top office than almost any leader in the world.”

Everyone seems to be particularly irked by the EU’s efforts to keep the meeting quiet. The news was leaked out, and was not provided by official press releases, the norm in such cases for visiting heads of state. Otherwise, no one might have even heard, or if so, only after the fact. As the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia wrote:

“The secrecy surrounding the arrival of the Uzbek dictator is understandable: if the European Council were to publicize the visit, they would have to give a public explanation for the motivation behind inviting the dictator, and would have to accredit journalists who would cover the visit and ask relevant questions.

“We regret that in preparing the visit of the Uzbek dictator the Council of Europe is forced to go against its own principles of openness, publicity and transparency. We hope that this secretive approach does not become the rule in the EU’s dealings with Uzbekistan.”

Finally, under pressure from activist organizations, the meeting was added to Barroso’s agenda:

But guess what, the commission actually links to a page of glowing propaganda on the official Uzbek government site. We hear of Karimov’s “strong will, self-confidence and courage, defending the honor and dignity of the Uzbek people”; of how he has been “the initiator and leader of historic transformations,” directly contributing to “a program of independent development of the country, and the Constitution, meeting democratic demands and international criteria”; of how he even created “a new respected model of economic development.” And next to awards from foreign states and international organizations, Karimov has also received “A Hero of Uzbekistan” award:

For his outstanding contribution to education in Uzbekistan, creation of a state based on democratic laws, guarantee of civil peace and national accord, and for courage, I. Karimov was awarded the title Hero of Uzbekistan and the awards Mustakillik (Independence) and Amir Temur.

So nice of the European Commission to offer all of its unsuspecting visitors a direct link to such drivel. As Alisher Ilkhamov, a program officer at the Open Society Fund, wrote in an email message, “Karimov should decorate Barroso for offering his website for the Uzbek propaganda.”

With no press conference planned and only rumors swirling around about Karimov’s schedule and where he will be staying, civil society organizations are scrambling to organize demonstrations. There is, however, an understanding that it will be hard to protest due to Belgian law.

Other worthwhile reading on the topic:

A piece on the EU Observer includes some amusing questions to an anonymous EU official:

The EU official involved in the Barroso meeting, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the Union has opted for a policy of “constructive engagement” with Tashkent and that Mr Barroso will voice concerns about human rights, political prisoners, NGO and media freedoms.

Asked by this website if Mr Barroso will seek details on what happened in Andijan, he said he “could not confirm this.”

Asked how many people were killed in the massacre, he said: “I don’t have the exact figure with me.”

Asked if it is odd that the EU has voiced solidarity with the pro-democracy uprising in Tunisia while appearing to endorse the Uzbek regime, he said: “I absolutely don’t agree with that. We do support democratisation in Uzbekistan.”

There’s also a solid news story in the Financial Times (but you first need to register – for free – if you are not a subscriber).

And for background, here’s a podcast that I did with Stroehlein and Jacqueline Hale on the fifth anniversary of the Andijan massacre.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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