Debating the EU’s Uzbekistan Sanctions

by Nathan Hamm on 11/7/2006 · 7 comments

The International Crisis Group released a report yesterday on the European Union’s sanctions on Uzbekistan. ICG urges the EU not to scale back those sanctions, but instead to expand them. They advise the EU to extend the visa ban and to expand it to include President Karimov, his family members, his recent appointments, and those close to him in the circles of power. They also call on the EU to freeze the assets of those on the visa ban list and to focus on “building resilience” in neighboring states to reduce the debilitating effects of Uzbekistan’s proximity.

It should come as no surprise that Human Rights Watch has strongly come out against the sanctions.

Reacting to reports that several EU members are arguing that because the sanctions have not worked they have become an impediment for the union, Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, said lifting sanctions would leave the EU powerless to influence Uzbekistan.

If the EU gives up “the sanctions now, they give up the most important piece of leverage that they have, and the Uzbeks would have absolutely no reason to engage,” she said. “The only reason that the Uzbeks would be wanting to engage in any kind of dialogue with the EU would be to see the sanctions lifted.”

So, what is the EU to do?

HRW’s advocacy director points to the possibility of using the sanctions as a lever to encourage improvements. Uzbekistan has lived with the sanctions for a year already, and if they are as ineffective as advertised, there seems to be little reason for Karimov to come around just to get them lifted. Stronger sanctions may be an entirely different matter though.

The EU could scale back the sanctions and hope to use that sign of goodwill to forge a partnership that includes reforms in Uzbekistan. European advocates of scaling back sanctions are not wrong to note their ineffectiveness. But then again, as ICG notes in its report, there is ample evidence that engagement does not really produce results either. Europe could try to address one of the major areas of US failure in engaging Uzbekistan, meeting the Uzbek government’s expectations for enormous support. This incurs not only financial costs as Europe would run risk of being accused of “propping up” Karimov, and it is unclear whether or not it would have much effect.

The European Union could stay the course. Nothing much would be accomplished, but perhaps the sanctions could be used as a lever.

Whatever they choose, the prospects of European success in dealing with Uzbekistan will largely be determined by the two sides’ perceptions of each other’s power and motives. As noted earlier, Germany has given Uzbekistan fairly good reason to conclude that Europe needs it more than it needs Europe. And Uzbekistan probably also concludes that Europe is talking about human rights because it feels it necessary to, but that what really counts is the business side of things. (See here for a good observation on this point.) And if Uzbekistan needed any more evidence of what counts for Europe, it need only look to the EU’s newly-inked energy deal with Azerbaijan. Human rights and democracy, it is reported, came up in the talks with Aliev, but they clearly did not get in the way of business.

Europe does need to reduce its dependence on Russia for energy though, and Central Asia and the Caspian are two of the most sensible places to look. If Europe’s first priority is energy, perhaps then it should drop any public pretenses of making human rights improvements a priority and simply hope for the best. That, at least, would be a policy decision that more accurately reflects the motivations behind renewing the relationship.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Josh November 7, 2006 at 11:56 am

I think the larger issue is that sanctions don’t really work on autocrats. A strongman doesn’t have to care about sanctions, because they hurt people on the citizen level far more than the political elites, assuming they feel any effect at all. Decades of sanctions have done little to moderate the behavior or Cuba, North Korea, Iran, or Vietnam. In China’s case, deepening relations and improving trade ties actually had moderating (or liberalizing) effect on their society; it’s a safe bet that trying to aggressively liberalize Uzbekistan, making it an attractive place to do business, would have a similar effect.

zg November 7, 2006 at 1:19 pm

The larger issue may be that Putin is willing to put up with the EU military and not NATO as countries become ‘dual members;’ using membership in each organization as an excuse not tp participate in the other. The terrorists are the opposite of Putin.

The EU sanctions have to be considered with the coups in the Stans. EU is particpating more than the US because it is questionable who was behind the coups. the US may have already made an effort to remove the leaders that were found so horrible by Civil Rights goups and, of course, Amercian bloggers. The EU apparnetly cannot handle the problems with sanctions and they may move beyond coups that were unsuccessful for the US to direct EU military involvement. The EU military is growing and it will probably take on ‘NATO like’ roles in the Stans.

Brian November 7, 2006 at 2:18 pm

I think it must be said that the sanctions that have been imposed are not that far-reaching and are arguably just symbolic. The EU has withheld weapons sales to Uzbekistan, which rarely bought weapons from the EU in the first place, and they’ve imposed visa restrictions on like 11 or 12 people. This is supposed to have some kind of dramatic effect on the country? It’s an annoyance, and the diplomacy aspect of it means that it’s a wall in the way of normalization, but it’s never going to force any fundamental change in the country. Nor is it really going to affect the lives and livelihoods of the people of Uzbekistan.

Karimov is going to do what he wants. The country’s a typical stubborn dictatorship like Myanmar or N. Korea that doesn’t like to listen to outsiders. So I think more importantly than the sanctions themselves, is EU credibility. Since the sanctions were imposed not much reform has taken place, and there have been substantial setbacks. The EU will be rewarding Uzbekistan if it eases the sanctions.

Leaving the sanctions in place won’t cause the Uzbek people much harm.

zg November 7, 2006 at 4:32 pm

Imomali Sharifovich Rakhmonov was just elected and there are complaints no one competed. the EU may be learning what the Americans learned: It’s probably going to be a ‘dictator’ regardleess of the complaints by rights agencies and others. The EU is going to have to deal with these and, unless they care to perform a military role, that will increase terror, the ‘dictators’ will always be in power.

ak November 8, 2006 at 12:19 am

There is no reason to think that the situation in Uzbekistan would improve if the West would show some sign of “grace”. Uzbekistan has not improved why should there be a change? We have to consider much more how people in these kind of countries think in order to deal with them in the right way. As long as the West still gives money to the gov there won’t be any change. They don’t care about the people. They’ve learned to care for themsleves and sanction won’t change their situation too much.

about energy: the West has to make a decision about the first priority: energy or human rights. This is not a easy one. But at the end, this could make the differnce whether we have become slaves to our own needs or whether we are so free to step into somehting we do not know how it will end. For sure it won’t be that bad. Xudo hoxlasa!

Kyrgyz kid November 8, 2006 at 2:45 am

EU will kiss Karimov’s butt for sure. Please, place your bets too.

Denzil November 8, 2006 at 3:52 am

Well, its a whole year when I was harshly debated here on issue of so called “sanctions” – to many believed then on their effectiveness. Now not very like, but, people, you’re still concentrated on one direction – their impact to Uzbekistan (mixing policy, behaviour and strategy in one plate). But what about their impact to Europe? Of course, relations with Uzbekistan maybe are not on the same scale as Turkey or Algeria, although there is a lot stuff about enegry interests.
Few questions: 1. Any infrastructural ground for these “energy interests”? 2. How about Afghanistan? Is American working without regional support in Iraq became a lesson?
I suppose, last issue is more important, for both sides..

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