EU to uphold Uzbekistan and Belarus sanctions

By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The EU is set to uphold existing sanctions against Uzbekistan in Central Asia and Europe's "last dictatorship" Belarus when foreign ministers meet in Brussels on Monday (5 March), despite attempts to build better relations with the pariah states.

The Uzbek move - agreed by EU ambassadors on Wednesday - means Tashkent will remain under an arms export embargo and that seven Uzbek officials will stay on an EU visa ban list until the next review period in May. The sanctions are set to expire in November, unless renewed.

The measures were imposed after Uzbek troops slaughtered at least 180 civilians in the eastern town of Andijan in May 2005. Tashkent last December held one meeting with EU experts on Andijan, but failed to deliver a follow-up meeting and has arrested more NGO activists since then.

"The [EU] regrets the Uzbek position not to hold a further round of talks...[and] urges the Uzbek side to resume these talks as soon as possible," the EU draft statement says, adding it will take into account "the actions of the Uzbek government in the area of human rights" in the next review period.

The statement fails to tie future relaxation of sanctions to "concrete steps" such as releasing named political prisoners or giving Red Cross access to jails however, ignoring a request from Human Rights Watch. The NGO fears that another wishy-washy meeting on Andijan could see the EU justify lifting sanctions in May.

Brussels' firm stance comes at a sensitive time in EU-Uzbek relations, with EU diplomats working in Tashkent fearing they could get frozen out by president Karimov's prickly regime. The German EU presidency sees Uzbekistan as a cornerstone of its new policy to build an EU presence in Central Asia.

A January EU internal paper says Tashkent has recently swung toward Russia due to "extreme irritation" at the EU visa ban list, adding "Uzbekistan represents half the population of Central Asia and cannot be put aside without compromising an EU strategy towards the region."

Belarus list to stay

The EU has also decided to extend for 12 months a visa ban and asset freeze on 34 Belarusian officials and president Aleksander Lukashenko. The Belarus sanctions were imposed after rigged presidential elections and mass arrests in March 2006.

The US on Tuesday also took a tough line on Minsk, with Washington adding six new names to its now 16-strong visa ban list and saying the register could be further widened in future.

President Lukashenko last month called on the EU to lift sanctions and start talks instead of "shouting at each other over the fence." But he has continued to make arrests of young opposition activists and is keeping high-profile dissident Aleksander Kozulin in jail.

"It would be a very important step to release Kozulin," an EU diplomat said, amid concern in some EU circles that Russia is trying to use recent gas and oil price hikes to bully Belarus into an unwanted state union.

The EU is also planning to impose trade sanctions worth ?400 million a year against Minsk in June for violating trade union rights. International Labour Organisation staff who recently visited Belarus will in March brief the European Commission on the latest situation on the ground.