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.