Islam Karimov, the authoritarian president of Uzbekistan, had a lucky break this week. Since his 2011 visit to Brussels, Karimov has been keen to visit the European Union again to gain international credibility for his government which ranks as one of the worst abusers of human rights in the world. His overtures have been resisted by Germany and other member states, but Latvia came to his rescue on Thursday, by welcoming him on an official visit to Riga, the capital.
And Karimov’s luck didn’t end there. Despite Uzbekistan’s atrocious record on torture, forced labor, political prisoners, and the silencing of almost all independent opposition and civil society voices, his Latvian hosts failed in public to address any of Tashkent’s severe human rights problems, according to media reports.
It’s a bad precedent that Latvian president Andris Berzins found time after his meeting with Karimov to praise economic and security ties with Tashkent but not address human rights. It sends a signal that these issues are not important and ignores those struggling to promote human rights protection in Uzbekistan.
Equally worrying, Berzins told Karimov that when Latvia takes over the rotating presidency of the EU in the first half of 2015, it would work to “further enhance relations between the EU and Uzbekistan” by reviewing the existing EU-Central Asia Strategy adopted in 2007 and updated last year.
Thankfully – and this appears to be news to Berzins – that Strategy identifies human rights protection as fundamental to improved ties with the EU. And EU institutions have on many occasions called on Tashkent to improve its human rights standards.
The EU sometimes pulls its punches on Uzbekistan’s human rights record. But this fundamental recognition of human rights as key to improved relations is central to what the EU stands for. Berzins seems to have lost this perspective this week. Let’s hope he’ll regain it by 2015.