BRUSSELS, Belgium — The world still doesn’t have the full report on exactly what happened on May 13, 2005, when Uzbek government troops opened fire on unarmed protesters in the central square of the city of Andijan. Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, has blocked all attempts at an international investigation into the incident, but survivors tell of streets flowing with blood as men, women and children were mowed down by automatic weapons as they tried to flee; their corpses later loaded onto trucks and driven away.
Nongovernmental organizations have done their best to piece together the events of that bloody day, including a particularly detailed collection of eyewitness reports by Human Rights Watch, but the Uzbek government has yet to offer any cooperation — or suffer any real consequences for either the massacre or for obstructing the investigation of it. Human-rights activists continue to demand that Karimov be brought to account.
Instead, Karimov is being brought to Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union.
As a testament to the distastefulness of his record, no one — not the European Commission nor NATO nor the government of Belgium — will admit to having invited him.
That may take some of the gleam off Karimov’s gloating over the high-level visit beginning Monday, but not much. No matter who did or didn’t ask him to come — or whether it was his own idea, as is also being suggested — Karimov, consistently labeled as one of the world’s worst dictators, will be sitting down with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and other high officials from the two blocs.
This is an enormous public relations coup for Karimov and an embarrassment for the Europeans, no matter how emphatically Commission spokesmen insist that “robust dialogue” is the best hope for changing the Uzbek regime and that human rights will be at the top of their agenda.
“It’s mad — it’s mad!” exclaimed the International Crisis Group’s Andrew Stroehlein. “Don’t offer this dictator a legitimizing public forum like this!” Stroehlein and other human rights leaders argued strenuously for the EU to save face by canceling the meeting, praising EU President Herman van Rompuy and the Belgian government for pointedly declining any rendezvous with Karimov.
But he will have coveted photo ops with some of the most influential leaders in Europe, even a signing ceremony on energy cooperation. The public won’t hear much about these events, though — the only coverage will be from official photographers since neither the EU nor NATO are allowing any press access.
Critics say the visit will, nevertheless, help Karimov. At 73, he will be pleased to cap his career with such a prestigious trip, said Alisher Sidikov, head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, especially after failing in his desire to have a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations General Assembly last fall.
The message this sends to Uzbek citizens is chilling. The very fact that EU officials are holding the meetings without cooperation from Uzbekistan on Andijan, Sidikov said, “will absolutely clear [Karimov] from any claims” of wrongdoing. Sidikov was among the many journalists who had to flee his country because of government threats after covering the killings. Even though he and other refugees are now safe, he said, their relatives are being harassed and threatened inside Uzbekistan.
While the EU initially imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan for Karimov’s refusal to allow an investigation, the most potentially effective part, a visa ban — which, notably, did not include Karimov — was suspended two years later. A largely insignificant arms embargo expired without renewal in 2009.
After the suspension of sanctions, Human Rights Watch reported, “Uzbek authorities intensified their crackdown on civil society activists, members of the opposition, and independent journalists. Torture and ill-treatment remain rampant and occur in a culture of impunity.”
Sidikov said that in his conversations with EU officials, they have expressed frustration with how ineffective the bloc’s policies have been in altering Karimov’s behavior. The president and his secret service have crushed all domestic dissent as well as blocked international organizations from maintaining their presence, so the West has no way to help grow grassroots opposition inside the country. He concluded with some irony that an invitation to Brussels was issued “out of despair … it’s the last tool they have in their kit.”
Karimov, on the other hand, has some very powerful tools for keeping EU, NATO and even U.S. criticism muted.
The war in Afghanistan, with which Uzbekistan shares a short border, has been a boon to Karimov’s clout. He saw common cause with the Unnited States against Islamic extremism after Sept. 11, 2001 and granted Washington the use of Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad base, also known as "K2," to supply forces in the war against the Taliban. Karimov withdrew the favor in 2005 after the U.S. government’s criticism of the Andijan massacre, forcing the 800-strong American force to leave.
But Germany, which leases the Termez base along the Uzbek-Afghan border, was less confrontational after Andijan and was not evicted. The Germans then pushed within the EU to have the visa ban dropped.
While there’s no disputing a Islamic terrorist presence in Uzbekistan, Karimov has applied that label to anyone he wants to silence in a country that is more than 90 percent Muslim. This status quo in the capital, Tashkent, has some advantages for the West, said Bruce Pannier, a central Asian analyst also with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who attended university in Uzbekistan in the 1990s.
“Uzbekistan has the biggest population [in the region] and borders five countries,” Pannier said. “If chaos breaks out in Uzbekistan the effect will ripple through all the neighboring states. Kazakh oil and uranium, Turkmen gas, the central Asian border with China, and Kazakhstan’s border with Russia all become less secure.”
All the same, said the International Crisis Group’s Stroehlein, these reasons do not justify a diplomatic visit to the EU capital by the likes of Karimov.
“In 99 percent of the cases engagement is good — there are some nasty regimes where you can make some small progress,” he said. “This is the 1 percent where it’s not. There’s been no improvement on anything; it has not made the regime reform in any way. Engagement in this case is worse than doing nothing.”