Germans v. EU on Uzbek Sanctions: What to Do?

by Joshua Foust on 5/4/2007 · 4 comments

Germany is still pushing for relaxing sanctions against Uzbekistan, even in the face of the recent imprisonment of two human rights activists. One, Umida Niazova, worked for Human Rights Watch (which was recently granted an extension to remain in the country), and the other, Gulbahor Turaeva, committed the crime of possessing opposition publications.

Though these are just two people, their persecution is yet more evidence that Islam Karimov has no interest in improving the plight of his people. And Germany’s continued push for dropping the sanctions, to the consternation of the rest of the EU, may indicate some new tack for engagement, rather than confrontation, over the area.

I tend to favor as much economic and cultural engagement as possible—other countries in Asia (notably China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and South Korea) improved dramatically the more they interacted with global financial and cultural flows. But it is also a both-ways proposition: China, for example, has not seen as much social progress as one would expect because the Chinese government still tightly restricts access to information (with western collaboration, to our shame).

Germany’s approach assumes that any engagement is good engagement, and that isolating Uzbekistan only makes it worse off. There is justification for this viewpoint, from Ian Bremmer’s J-Curve theory to simple experience that sanctions tend only to sanction despotic regimes (c.f. Cuba, North Korea, Iran). But the type of engagement matters as well, and while Germany is quick to say it cares deeply about human rights, the first things on its agenda seem to be its airbase and gas rights.

I can’t definitively say which approach would be more effective in improving the situation in Uzbekistan, especially in the short term. Sanctions certainly play to the finger-wagging instinct in all of us, and carry the supposed moral benefit of punishing a country without bombing it. Sanctions, however, are ineffective at the least, and more often than not make things far worse than they were before. Simple economic engagement, however, is not effective either, except over the very long term (and even then it’s mixed).

Rather, a more comprehensive idea of exactly how to address Uzbekistan in a non-violent manner must be devised. It would, ideally, combine some measure of social or cultural coercion with deepening economic ties to attempt to lift the dregs of Uzbek society out of the financial well they’ve fallen into. The big problem in all of this is Karimov, who can just as easily turn his eye toward Russia and China should he find American and European demands too strenuous (he has done this).

A Darfur-type arrangement, then, may be needed, wherein significant pressure is applied to China to stop enabling atrocities (this has a narrow window of opportunity, since the Beijing Olympics give the West a big advantage). But what of Russia? Putin has shown remarkable insouciance at the outrage over his own excesses; it is unlikely he would care. It is also unlikely enough nations or celebrities could be convinced to care enough to put out the effort.

We’re left with a muddling engagement, then, as the most pragmatic long term hope of opening up Uzbekistan. It is not perfect, it does not appeal to many’s sense of what a moral foreign policy should look like, and it very much looks like it is rewarding atrocities with trade deals—it is all of those things. But engagement is also, counter-intuitively, the best long term solution toward permanently improving the plight of the ordinary Uzbek. I throw my hat in with Germany on this one.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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David Holiday May 5, 2007 at 6:37 am

Hopefully the 3-month extension given to HR Watch means something, but it may not. When Counterpart was getting kicked out of Uzbekistan, I finally received accreditation so that I could lawfully close out the organization. So, I couldn’t get accreditation to actually work in Uzbekistan, only to stop working!

Alisher May 5, 2007 at 7:14 am

How to engage with criminals? Let then release all of them and open the doors of prisons. How to engage with dictators like Adolf Hitler? Do you think Karimov is much better than him? Evil must be punished, good deeds be encouraged. This is a simple and not yet outlived truth. Nobody has yet invented anything alternative worth to consider.

Botir May 5, 2007 at 10:59 am

I guess all those problems with human rights activists are just internal fight in the government of uzbekistan…president and security forces are just not cooperating anymore.

The reasons could be that the security officers simply want someone else in power. Because in relation to the outcomes of the European strategy, it will be known, who runs for the next presendential elections, and if the current leader will participate in them(regardless of the assurances of the head of parliamentary committe in 2002), which is most likely. because, 7 years term was the first one for the current leader.

DAvid May 6, 2007 at 7:17 am

I think the German comment: “One should not expect that the Uzbek authorities will release such prisoners overnight,” sums it up. Actually, one should expect exactly that. The sanctions are not very onerous and they have no impact on the average Uzbek. They are a blunt stick, but the only stick the EU still wields. Personally I would like to see more engagement on educational, cultural and social affairs, where possible, but keeping the sanctions in place. And if the Uzbek govt don’t like it, well, they’ve always got Moscow. Personally, I don’t think closer relations with Russia are such a bad thing for the average Uzbek, although not wonderful for human rights of course. But the leadership is very wary of Russian influence, and they need the EU far more than they would like to admit, for political reasons. Let’s be honest, nobody from the EU is going to invest there anyway. Better relations with Kazakhstan would be the single most important step for increased investment. But that will not happen any time soon.

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