What is Germany thinking?

by Maria on May 14, 2007

18 months ago, it was decision day for the EU’s General Affairs and External Relations Council to decide on banning Uzbek government officials from entering Europe. A travel ban was put in place after the Uzbek government shot dead about 200 protesters in Andijan in May, 2005. The US also protested the massacre and was kicked out of its air base in Afghanistan’s neighbour (despite having poured $1 billion of aid into the country since 1992, not to mention the odd extraordinary rendition). In October 2005, the EU issued a strongly worded protest and banned Karimov and about a dozen of his cronies from entering the Europe. Today, it’s d-day again, as the Council decides whether to continue banning 12 named officials from entering Europe.

Normally, this bread and butter issue should have been decided last week in discussions between government officials. Most member states wanted the ban continued for 12 named people, but Germany wanted only 8. Using its presidency of the EU to throw its weight around, Germany refused point blank to negotiate at the working level, and pushed the issue up to the EU’s foreign ministers for their meeting today. All over Brussels, diplomats are scratching their heads at how far Germany is willing to stick its brass neck out for this nasty little dictatorship and asking themselves; wtf?

We all know that German ex-prime ministers are willing to go to ignominious lengths to suck up to owners of gas and oil rights. And they seem to quite enjoy stomping over the Poles to do so. But Uzbekistan doesn’t have all that much energy when compared to Kazakhstan, and it’s much further away. Germany does have an air base in Uzbekistan, but is apparently building one in Afghanistan to service airplanes that won’t need the Uzbek stop-overs anyway. So why is Germany mis-using its Presidency of the EU to diminish sanctions against an unchanged and sickeningly repressive regime? No one seems to know.

Around Brussels, there is an unusually strong feeling of surprise and disgust that the Germans are willing to go so far to prop up their Uzbek friends. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Germany seems to have an amazingly cheap asking price. A few years ago, a large German car manufacturer paid to have Karimov’s notorious book of his own wisdom translated into German and distributed there. Soon after, the Uzbek government purchased its fleet of official cars from that company. Cheap at the price. On the whole, though, the Uzbek government regards any private enterprise as a direct threat to its authority. There aren’t a whole lot of investment opportunities in Uzbekistan. At least not if you’re operating in the open market. So even the old saw about ‘engaging’ the government being good for opening up the economy (and maybe, down the line, good for democracy) just doesn’t apply. It’s hard to see that Germany is even making a lot of money in Uzbekistan, or that it will have much opportunity to do so in the next few years. And I can’t imagine Germany is seriously suffering from the weapons trade aspects of Europe’s sanctions, though I could be wrong.

When a country decides its strategic interests are served by keeping a repressive regime sweet, you often hear that ‘engagement’ with that regime is an important way to ease it towards democracy. If this is the case, Germany is doing at least as much harm as it is good. In April, Human Rights Watch’s official accreditation in Tashkent was revoked when HRW’s representative called on the EU to maintain its sanctions against Uzbekistan. The German embassy in Tashkent made representations to the Uzbek government and Human Rights Watch’s accreditation was reinstated. Which might be more compelling if Germany wasn’t stretching the bounds of collegiality with its EU partners to reduce or remove those very sanctions. What Germany gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. HRW can continue to operate, for now, but there’s not much benefit to human rights activists if the foreign government protecting their legal status also actively works in opposition to their aims. ‘Engagement’, we should remember, is a means, not an end.

All the Germans have extracted from Uzbekistan are promises for ‘structured dialogue’ about human rights and the possibility of an acknowledgement that the Andijan massacre actually took place. Folks, talking is not really a concession. And talking that says we’ll talk in the future; also not a concession. Not when you’re dealing with a regime that’s far more nimble than any rotating EU presidency at the old dance of pro-democracy concessions before a big meeting, extraction of rewards from well-meaning foreigners, reversion to repressive type. The Uzbek government is so convinced Europe has gone soft, they’ve actually stepped up imprisonments of human rights activists in the run up to today’s decision.

The Germans know this too, so what are they up to? They have seriously tested the patience and trust of their Council colleagues, with an alliance of the UK, Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden pressing just as hard back. It’s well known that big countries often make poor presidents of the EU – they can’t resist throwing their weight around and using the privilege of chairmanship to put their national interests first. But Germany has gone far beyond the norms of acceptable conduct and has damaged its own credibility and moral standing amongst its peers.

If it’s not for gas, money or for obvious strategic reasons, then why has Germany fallen to such inexplicable moral lows to support the Uzbek regime? I for one would like to know.



rilkefan 05.14.07 at 4:14 pm

Wait, the issue is banning eight or banning twelve? I’m not getting the urgency here.


abb1 05.14.07 at 4:15 pm

I think every bit of progress made by the sanctionee should be immediately acknowledged and rewarded by the sanctioner; otherwise the sanctions could become counterproductive. Maybe that is the case here.


C. L. Ball 05.14.07 at 4:40 pm

Re #1, if it is trivial (8 v. 12) then Germany should not care either, but Germany does seem to want it to be 8 and not 12 banned individuals. Re #2, Maria points out that Uzbek improvements have been negligible — promises to talk later on HR are not really progress. HR talks should not be treated like trade or arms disputes, in which the talks indicate the legitimacy of the issue at stake. The question for Uzbekistan is compliance with HR norms and it remains non-compliant.

Uzbekistan has been on Freedom House’s “Worst of the worst” list since at least 2002. Ever since the EBRD allowed its summit to take place in Tashkent, it has been downhill.


Maria 05.14.07 at 4:50 pm

I believe Germany wanted the list of banned travellers reduced to 8, the other member states wanted to start at 12 and negotiate.

The urgency is simply that it’s happening today.


Maria 05.14.07 at 4:52 pm

Thanks, c.l. – sorry, I was sat on that comment for a while before I hit post.


Slocum 05.14.07 at 5:41 pm

What is Germany thinking? Maybe it’s symbolic. Could it be a message to other nasty regimes? Something like, “If we’d do this for Uzbekistan, even without much in the way of financial interests, imagine how far we’d be willing to go to stand behind you and ignore your ‘indiscretions’ when there is some real money on the table.”

China has a solid reputation of being willing to do business with any regime no matter how odious, and perhaps Germany is just trying to remain competitive in a fast-moving global economy.

Seriously, though, there are some real benefits in laying claim to the role of “good cop” and trying to make the other member states play “bad cop” — aren’t there?


eudoxis 05.14.07 at 5:42 pm

The visa ban was extended for 8. Supposedly, 3 of the 4 officials removed from the list have resigned from their official posts. Gas and oil exploration seems to be sufficient reason these days to turn a blind eye to human rights. Germany is not alone. Korea, Japan, China, and India are also flirting with Uzbekistan.


Daragh McDowell 05.14.07 at 5:49 pm

The Karimov regime is undoubtedly one of the nastiest governments on the planet, so much so that even enlisting its help to drive out the Taliban from Afghanistan begged the question of which was the lesser of two evils.

However, there is a certain realpolitik involved here. The West’s reaction to the Andizhan massacre, while absolutely the right moral position to take, had the effect of completely eroding almost all Western influence in Central Asia and cementing Sino-Russian hegemony in the region. Not only are Beijing and Moscow entirely unconcerned with Tashkent’s state repression, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) and Collecttive Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) have as part of their general goals the combat of ‘extremism’ in the region, IE anybody who opposes the status quo. CSTO offered its services in ‘pacifying’ the Kyrgyz protestors that affected that country’s ‘Tulip Revolution,’ and may yet intervene to quell the continued pro-Democracy demonstrations going on in Bishkek. The SCO states aren’t just willing to tolerate Andizhan style events, odds are is that they will encourage them if it helps stem the ‘Orange menace.’

The colour revolutions and Andizhan had the collective effect of spooking pretty much every government in Central Asia and increasing their engagement with Russia and China while strengthening domestic authoritarianism (Maria you highlight Kazakhstan as one of the more progressive states in the region, and you’re right, but one still must remember that President Nazarbaev’s most prominent opponent in the 2005 elections was found dead of two gunshot wounds to the head and one to the chest shortly before the election. Coroner ruled it as a suicide.) Uzbekistan, for various reasons has always been the most amenable to Western overtures, and it’s strategic significance rivals Kazakhstan’s. An argument can be made that if Tashkent is kept sweet, then it will erode Russian economic and political domination of the region, and help lock it into Western economic and political structures. Only after this happens will Europe and the US have any significant levers to effect change.

Additionally, Russia is, surprisingly enough running out of Gas. Turkmen and Uzbek supplies are essential if Gazprom is going to be able to meet its domestic and foreign obligations. Cutting out the Russian middleman is good for European energy security, and could possibly kick the legs out from under Putin’s ambitions for an ‘energy superpower.’

Again, not saying I agree with what Germany is doing. Islam Karimov is a vile little man who runs a frighteningly oppressive state. Unfortunately, ignoring or isolating it isn’t an option when Russia or China will gladly take the West’s place.


abb1 05.14.07 at 5:57 pm

If Uzbek progress is negligible, so are the EU concessions.

“Not really progress” is just an opinion. This AP piece says otherwise; is the POV expressed in this piece unreasonable? Why? Seem perfectly alright to me.

You only have an effective leverage as long as you’re willing to adjust, and convincingly so. Carrot with stick work, the stick alone doesn’t.


P O'Neill 05.14.07 at 7:07 pm

I think Daragh is right to be thinking about Russia, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the Uzbek case might be one where the German intransigence reflects some backdoor cooperation with Russia and not necessarily some geopolitical conflict with them.


Richard 05.14.07 at 7:08 pm

I am also puzzled: if it were Turkmenistan, I’d get it (though for the moment Russia and Ukraine still control the taps on Turkmen gas). It’s a long limb for a seemingly small issue – is there anything special about the particular individuals involved?

A few years ago, a large German car manufacturer paid to have Karimov’s notorious book of his own wisdom translated into German and distributed there.
Well, the first volume of Turkmenbashi’s Rukhname was translated into, what, 26 languages by would-be foreign investors? And it’s got a far more corrosive history. Really, agreeing to translate these books is such a cheap bit of diplomacy, like recognising national monuments, that I wonder how much weight it can actually carry. Who really cares (beside Karimov)?


P O'Neill 05.14.07 at 7:23 pm

Richard, in the Turkmen case, the book translations were a part of the overall cult of personality, not just a little bit of side diplomacy. And who knows what fees are being paid for the overseas “rights” to these books.


Daragh McDowell 05.14.07 at 7:30 pm

Thanks for that insight on 10 P O’Neil. I have to admit it wasn’t an angle I’d thought of.

And yeah, if we can see a list of the 4 that Germany is talking about exempting it might be helpful. If its some state apparatchik who can serve as a go-between, then the harm may be mild relative to the potential good. If its Karimov’s daughter (Gulnora, described as the Uzbek Paris Hilton which does not begin to describe her repellence) then the line should probably be held.


luc 05.14.07 at 8:35 pm

This here looks like a good explanation.

Germany still has a miltary base there that is supposed to be essential for NATO operations in Afghanistan. So they wanted the new minister of defense off the list.

And if I read it correctly Germany is probably under some pressure from the US to maintain that base.


Daragh McDowell 05.14.07 at 8:48 pm

Well since the US base in Manas seems to be hanging by a very thin thread, that sounds like a very probable explanation.


Maria 05.15.07 at 6:45 am

Richard (11), you’re right. The anecdote was actually about Turkmenbashi’s book of wisdom – my mistake.


Daragh McDowell 05.15.07 at 8:54 am

Ahhh the Ruhnama… I can’t wait till Hodges Figges starts stocking it in Penguin Classics format. Anybody know when we can expect an English version of its sequel, the Mahribanlarym?


Richard 05.15.07 at 9:03 pm

Anybody know when we can expect an English version of its sequel, the Mahribanlarym?

I actually sincerely hope someone gets around to it. I can’t do it, but I understand there’s all sorts of stuff about the Seljuk sultans in there, which I could really do with to complete my paper on Bashi-ism and monuments. I don’t care a jot for assessments of artistic merit, or whether Bashi knew historical truth from his elbow, and enough other people have laughed at the books that I don’t feel I have to join in – but I am interested in the stories he insisted every schoolchild, job candidate and driver should know. He clearly had his reasons.


David 05.15.07 at 11:34 pm

“the Uzbek government shot dead about 200 protesters in Andijan in May, 2005”

I’ve heard as high as 700. Where is the 200 from?

Not for nothing, but the US has been sniffing around Karimov’s table too in recent months. Richard Boucher visited there not too long ago to deliver a spineless, nonsensical message of drek. And what’s more he was rebuffed by Karimov, who subsequently met with Putin at Sochi (the Russian Crawford).

To say that the US was kicked out of theor airbase for protesting the massacre is begging the question. I really think that the only reason we protested at all was because we knew that Karimov was warming up to Putin even then, and we hoped that by raising our voice to a schoolmarmish scold we would spur elements in Uzbekistan to stage a true revolution. (There really is this weird and misplaced idealism about what these color revolutions were or are. Democracy triumphant? Not so far…)

The Carnegie Endowmment has had a video of the massacre on their site for a while. You can see it here…


It’s a government job, so you can hear a lot of “Allah Akhbar” in the background, you know, to make it seem like this was all radical fundamentalists ready to overthrow a democratic government…

One final thing: in Craig Murray’s “Murder in Samarkand,” he tells how after the Rose Revolution, the ousted Eduard Shevardnadze (former Gorbachev Foreign Minister and architect of Perestroika) flew to Tashkent and warned Karimov of the danger of the spread of the color revolutions and to watch out for those foreign NGOs.

There’s a picture of them together.

That Shevardnadze would be cozy with Karimov was surprising (to me anyway…I’d heard about the corruption etc.) and sad.


Nathan 05.16.07 at 12:09 am

Daragh, this:

The West’s reaction to the Andizhan massacre, while absolutely the right moral position to take, had the effect of completely eroding almost all Western influence in Central Asia and cementing Sino-Russian hegemony in the region.

in addition to being contradictory (“completely” and “almost” together?) is demonstrably untrue. The US still has a very good relationship with Kazakhstan and a fair deal of influence in Astana. The US also has some influence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the latter of which will listen to anyone willing to offer monetary support. Granted, in no case is the relationship as close as the one that existed with Uzbekistan, but regional politics is not all that regional.

I do, however, agree with your point about the realpolitik, and just to be clear, Germany’s motivation is to secure energy supplies for Europe. They say that they also want a region-wide EU policy that promotes democracy and human rights, but they say precious little about Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, making it quite clear that they are more interested in the three states with sizable energy reserves.

There are really no good options as regards Uzbekistan. One should not expect the government to reform so long as Karimov is at the helm, and given the structure of divisions among the Uzbek elite, I would not expect much change after he is out of office.

David, the figure of 200 is roughly the number at which the Uzbek government places the dead. No one knows the true figure. I don’t think it’s 700, but I’d bet it’s more than 200.

I also think you’ve got US policy a bit wrong. True, Boucher visited Tashkent. There have been a few diplomatic visits of late, and it’s hard to say who wants whom. The US position has pretty clearly been that we’ll cooperate where possible, but we’re not going to go out of our way. I recently saw the Uzbek ambassador to the US, and that is pretty much the Uzbek position on the US as well. And during the strategic partnership, the US criticized Uzbekistan on human rights, spurring his move toward Russia in part.


Daragh McDowell 05.16.07 at 6:22 pm

Nathan, you can correct the semantics of my post all you like (I think variations of ‘almost completely’ are generally acceptable) but your assessment of US influence in the region is simply wrong. Influence is relative: of course the US has a voice in Astana, but Russia has a much louder one. That’s why Nazarbaev just declared that there would ‘never’ be US bases on Kazakh soil, and declined to join the Odessa-Brody pipeline without Russian participation. This isn’t even taking into account the fact that Nazarbaev has been cheerleader-in-chief for post-Soviet reintegration since Dec 25, 1991. As for Kyrgyzstan, it also has moved closer to CIS/SCO military and economic structures since Putin came to power, and may soon become a de facto protectorate. Put it another way, US support for Bakayev is all well and good, but the way things are going he’s going to be chess-buddies with Akayev in exile pretty soon.

And Tajikistan? Well, fine, the West may hae gained a considerable degree of influence in Dushanbe post 9/11, but it is of little importance considering the region as a whole.


Richard 05.16.07 at 8:49 pm

hey – don’t forget the centre for central Asian studies and American friendly-face in Bishkek! We do care about mountain people with no obvious oil.

Maybe they have Uranium.


Nathan 05.16.07 at 8:50 pm

Daragh, whether or not you agree that you did, thanks for conceding the point.

What is wrong with this entire discussion is that it takes the too common perspective that Central Asian states are this passive mass to be “won” by great powers. The fact of the matter is that the US never had the influence that people seem to think it did. And Russia does not dominate the way people think either. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are both fiercely independent countries. (Daragh, you forget that Uzbekistan was a cheerleader for integration as well until Russia demanded sovereignty over economics. Kazakhstan lost its zeal for reintegration at about the same point, and is now for much lesser forms of integration.) They play Russia, the US, Europe, and China off one another. They make one agreement with Russia on Monday, and by Wednesday they’re talking agreeing to a big project with the US or China. The influence of outside powers is greatly overestimated.

It’s especially hard to peg Kazakhstan as being on one side or another. It ships most of its oil and all of its gas through Russia, has agreed to even more, etc. But it also kept Iran out of the SCO, sent troops to Iraq, participates in NATO, and has been buttering up the US to support its SCO chairmanship bid.

By the way, if you want to measure Kyrgyzstan’s change, start with Bakiev coming into office, not Putin. Bakiev is incredibly weak, and in need of any support he can get. He’s not shown much willingness to burn any bridges. Anyway, it’s all kind of a moot point as Kazakhstan’s star is rising faster in Bishkek than anyone else’s.


Daragh 05.18.07 at 3:57 pm

I don’t ever remember the Uzbeks being proponents of integration. Using their preponderance in military strength to dominate was more their style.

And as for not tilting to Russia? well… http://www.neurope.eu/view_news.php?id=73862


david 05.19.07 at 6:49 am

Nathan, you say I’ve got US policy wrong and then you basically restate the point I made, that there’s a lot of sniffing around going on.

I get my sense of our “policy” from what I have read on sites such as yours. If you can point me to an actual official policy, or one gleaned from your contacts with the “highest levels” I would appreciate it.

Until then I will assume our “policy” towards Uzbekistan is as incoherenet and ill-informed as is our approach to the war on terror.


david 05.19.07 at 6:50 am

Plus, 700 it is.

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