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Uzbek Rights Activists Pin Hopes on New EU Presence

By News Briefing Central Asia

A European Union meeting in Tashkent is expected to discuss the launch date for a new EU mission in Uzbekistan.

The April 7 meeting involves foreign ministers from the five Central Asian states, the EU’s special representative for the region, Pierre Morel, and Hungarian foreign minister János Martonyi, whose country currently holds the presidency of the EU Council.

The European Commission has an office in Uzbekistan, but a European Union presence would mark a significant step in relations.

An agreement to open an EU office was reached when President Islam Karimov met European Commission head José Manuel Barroso in Brussels in January. But last month, Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign affairs High Representative Catherine Ashton, was quoted as saying the decision had been reversed after the Uzbek authorities expelled Human Rights Watch from the country.

This report was subsequently denied by another spokesperson for Ashton, Maja Kocijancic, who told the Uzbek service of RFE/RL radio that while the EU was concerned about the action taken against Human Rights Watch, it was not abandoning plans to open an office in Tashkent.

The Uzbek government is likely to have mixed feelings about an expanded European presence on the ground. On the one hand, it will be delighted at this accolade of recognition from the West, and hope this will mute some of the international criticism it gets for human rights abuses including the persecution of dissidents and the detention of political prisoners.

On the other hand, though, the EU office could offer the kind of support to local human rights activists that is now a rarity, given that most international organisations working on these issues were thrown out of Uzbekistan after the Andijan violence of May 2005, in which government troops shot down hundreds of protestors.

Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent Rights Defenders, says the EU office could be a conduit for first-hand information about the situation in Uzbekistan.

“To date, the EU has had to rely on the resources of other international organisations,” he said. “In the conditions here, it’s quite difficult to obtain the accurate information needed to asses the domestic political and economic situation.”

Abdurahman Tashanov of another human rights group, Ezgulik, said the mission should make it easier for EU officials to raise concerns with their Uzbek counterparts.

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.