The EU's approach to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan stands out as a stark, illustrative example of why its much-touted "constructive engagement" and "quiet diplomacy" don't work with repressive governments and may even be damaging the cause of human rights.

EU policy toward both countries is in the spotlight this week with Monday's controversial visit to Brussels by Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso as his host, and a key decision on Turkmenistan expected today from the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee.

The EU's Uzbekistan policy reached its nadir in October 2009, when it lifted the sanctions imposed following the government massacre in the city of Andijan despite Tashkent's defiance of the human rights criteria the EU had said would have to be met before the sanctions would be lifted. As justification, EU foreign ministers cited, among other things, the Uzbek government's participation in a "structured human rights dialogue" with the EU (more on these dialogues below). EU officials also argued that the sanctions were ineffective because they served only to alienate the Uzbek government and "stood in the way of a constructive relationship."

Yet in the 15 months since the sanctions have been lifted, the EU's "constructive engagement" policy has shown scant results. Uzbek government repression shows no sign of abating. If anything, human rights abuses have intensified, with increased government persecution of civil society activists, new credible reports of arbitrary detention and torture of detainees, the unrelenting crackdown on independent Muslims, and the government's persistent refusal to allow domestic and international nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, to operate without interference.  

In the case of Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive governments, the EU has engaged in a long-standing quest for closer relations. It concluded an interim trade agreement last year and is now pursuing a broader agreement - this the subject of today's European Parliament foreign affairs committee discussion. In both cases, the EU has failed to condition an enhanced relationship on human rights improvements or to seriously try to secure improvements in advance.

Yet both agreements contain a clause committing both parties to respect human rights and providing for the possibility of suspension should either violate this principle. Turkmenistan's appalling human rights record means that if the EU were to take this clause seriously, no sooner would it have concluded the agreement than it would be compelled to initiate proceedings to suspend it. EU officials have either chosen to ignore this absurd situation or do not intend for it to be anything more than ink on paper.

Only the European Parliament has sought to give these agreements' human rights clauses some practical meaning, by formulating a set of human rights benchmarks for the Turkmen government to meet before being granted upgraded relations. In reaction, instead of trying to secure even a few incremental human rights concessions that would make Turkmenistan a more suitable partner, the EU commission and the council launched a full-fledged campaign to get the parliament to back down on its demands.

In making the case for the EU's unconditional push for upgraded relations with Turkmenistan, officials have invoked the "risk of alienation" argument, often with accompanying references to China and Russia as the looming winners of Turkmen gas because they make no human rights demands. Human rights promotion, according to this logic, makes the EU a less attractive partner, with the implication that the EU's road to success is to become more like Russia and China.

EU officials have also referred to "deeper engagement" and a new "framework for dialogue and cooperation," in some cases even arguing that enhanced relations will improve the EU's ability to achieve positive change in Turkmenistan. Yet almost two years of rapprochement between the EU and Turkmenistan have not produced meaningful human rights improvements. The country remains closed to independent human rights monitors, and the government is tightening its grip on civil society and Turkmen activists and preventing citizens from leaving the country. An unknown number of political prisoners continue to languish in prison.

In fact, the EU's approach to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan provides a telling example of what happens to human rights policy under "constructive engagement." Apart from a rhetorical commitment to promote human rights as part of the relationship, this policy essentially boils down to nothing beyond the so-called "structured human rights dialogues" the EU pursues with each of the Central Asian states.

These annual isolated talks with unclear objectives and outcomes appear to have no bearing on the overall relationship with the countries concerned. To make matters worse, the dialogues have become an excuse for not raising human rights concerns in other - more weighty - settings, thereby weakening the role of human rights in EU policy, rather than strengthening it. And the dialogues have become an end in themselves, with "progress" being measured by each additional dialogue round held.

The EU's "constructive engagement" approach toward Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan has squandered precious time and leverage to press for concrete human rights improvements. It has also allowed both countries' extraordinarily repressive governments to use EU engagement to deflect criticism of their poor human rights records and has left the already beleaguered human rights defenders in these countries feeling even more abandoned and isolated.

The EU's approach has also made it look weak and unprincipled - and not just in Tashkent and Ashgabat. It  sends a message to repressive leaders around the world that the EU isn't serious about human rights, that defying EU calls for human rights reforms doesn't carry policy consequences.

This is a message the EU simply cannot afford to send. It should overcome its reticence toward conditionality and benchmarking, and clearly articulate the specific reform steps it seeks in each country. In the case of Uzbekistan, such steps have already been laid out by EU foreign ministers in the context of the sanctions process, and in the case of Turkmenistan, by the European Parliament.

In both cases, what is urgently needed is sustained policy follow up, especially at the highest levels, where it really matters, including in EU member states' bilateral relations. And the political will to impose policy consequences if reform expectations are not met.