The death of Islam Karimov, the authoritarian president of Uzbekistan, marks the end of an era for Central Asia’s most populous country. Karimov, who took power in 1989, ruled with an iron fist after Uzbekistan’s independence from the dissolving Soviet Union in 1991: ruthless with his opponents, his methods included torture, arbitrary imprisonment and the crushing of free speech and protest.

In May 2005 Karimov oversaw the killing of hundreds of civilians in the eastern city of Andijan, in the bloodiest peacetime massacre in the former Soviet Union. During his reign, he pioneered abusive practices – such as banning unregistered religious groupings and expelling foreign nongovernmental organizations – that were copied in the region.  

Other aging authoritarian leaders, especially in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, will be watching to see how the secretive ruling elite in Uzbekistan manages the succession.  There are fears among ordinary Central Asians of violence that could spill beyond Uzbekistan’s borders, if social and political tensions bubbling below the surface erupt.

Woven into this history is Germany’s key role in the way Karimov and his terrible rights record were handled on the international stage - and lessons on Berlin’s challenges in dealing with authoritarian governments.  Germany has been most influential in shaping the European Union’s foreign policy towards Uzbekistan, all while depending on Tashkent as a vital strategic hub for its military engagement in neighbouring Afghanistan. This toxic mix hugely reduced Germany’s (and Europe’s) ability to curb Karimov’s human rights abuses.

Despite being rich in some natural resources Uzbekistan proved difficult for German business, with deeply entrenched corruption and well-grounded fears among investors over weak legal regulations, currency concerns and even expropriations of businesses. Rather, Germany’s attention focused on military co-operation and counter-terrorism issues. Karimov was a ready partner, at a price.

Primarily, this was a deal with Germany and the West to use Uzbekistan as a base and supply route for Afghanistan, in exchange for turning a blind eye to Karimov’s ruthless ways. Germany used Uzbekistan’s southern Termez airbase for 13 years until late 2015 to transfer troops and equipment to and from Afghanistan. Germany diplomats made clear to me and many colleagues that maintaining this hub was Berlin’s top priority. 

Karimov extracted a high price: at least 90 million euros for Termez’s use and upkeep and possibly significantly more (Berlin refused to disclose full figures). The money flowed into Karimov’s corrupt, opaque state coffers. The Termez deal was controversial in political Berlin, for good reason. Successive German governments were determined to retain it and avoid debate on the implications for Germany’s human rights stance. In 2011 the government even attempted to withdraw partial figures it had published showing the cost of using Termez.

Termez influenced what focus there was on human rights in Uzbekistan. Germany and the EU expressed outrage with the Andijan massacre in 2005, and EU members imposed sanctions against Tashkent. However, only months later Germany started a diplomatic push to weaken and ultimately lift them, arguing that Tashkent was more likely to improve human rights once sanctions were removed.

This strategy, either cynical or naïve, proved entirely flawed. The decision in October 2009 by EU foreign ministers to lift the remaining sanctions noted criteria to be fulfilled that would determine the “depth and quality of …(future EU) co-operation” with Uzbekistan. These included the release of prisoners held on politically motivated charges, free elections, a free media, and access for UN human rights experts and independent foreign groups.

The result? The EU’s relationship with Tashkent is deeper than in 2009, but none of these criteria are even close to being met. Human rights conditions in Uzbekistan remain terrible, and Germany knows it: “serious concern” is used many times in foreign ministry responses to parliamentary questions on human rights issues in Uzbekistan.

So what’s next for Uzbekistan and for German policy? In Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the former prime minister and close Karimov ally, has already been installed as acting president. Concerned governments, including Germany, should press for concrete human rights and democratic reforms, and accountability for Karimov-era abuses.

Berlin has a responsibility to show leadership and the withdrawal from Termez gives it a window of opportunity. The human rights “dialogues” with Uzbekistan that Germany and the EU have favoured since 2009 will only work if Tashkent understands it has something to lose unless it improves on human rights.

At present Berlin appears unwilling to use its leverage. It could link human rights improvements to targeted economic and security programmes that Uzbekistan cares about. Pressing Tashkent to end systematic torture and release political prisoners would be a good start.

As a new era begins, Germany should learn from its past mistakes.

An abridged version of this article appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 21 September 2016.