Belgium, the European Commission and Nato have all denied that they were the ones who invited Uzbek hardman Islam Karimov to Brussels amid bitter criticism from NGOs and MEPs.
Speaking to EUobserver on Friday (22 January), commission spokesman Michael Karnitschnig said: “I don’t know whether Belgium or Nato invited him. I can say [EU commission President] Barroso did not invite him. The Uzbek side contacted us first. They launched the process if you will.”
Mr Karnitschnig in earlier remarks to the Eurasianet.org website said: “To my knowledge it was Nato and the Belgian authorities who issued the invitation first.”
Nato is not keen to play the leading role in the event, however. “It was not Nato who initiated the invitation to Brussels,” a Nato source said.
Meanwhile, Belgium has washed its hands entirely of the controversial trip. “There is no bilateral part in the [Karimov] visit. He’s only visiting the EU and Nato. There has never been any request about this, though I wouldn’t exclude that a future [bilateral] visit could take place,” Bart Ouvry, the Belgian foreign ministry spokesman, said.
The Uzbek foreign ministry could not be reached for a clarification on Friday.
The Karimov trip looks highly incongruous with the EU’s attempt to depict itself as a champion of democracy and human rights in Belarus and Tunisia.
Mr Karimov is responsible for the massacre of 1,500 civilians in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan in 2005. In another incident confirming his credentials as one of the most cruel and unusual leaders on the world stage, Human Rights Watch in 2002 documented a case of a Muslim detainee who was boiled alive in one of his jails.
Mr Barroso’s office has said he will ask questions about human rights. But the primary aims of the Barroso and Nato meetings are strategic concerns about Uzbek help on EU energy security and supporting the war effort in Afghanistan.
Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and central Asia, has said that Uzbekistan uses its positive relations with the EU to shut down any ongoing queries into what happened in Andijan. “They say that since the EU lifted its sanctions after the massacre, even the Union considers the case closed,” she told this website.
For its part, The International Crisis Group believes Mr Barroso is trying to evade responsibility for a poor decision. “In addition to being embarrassed, the commission is now desperate. I mean, Nato could have invited Karimov to Brussels, but Barroso still didn’t have to accept a meeting with him just because he was in town. The commission knows this whole thing is a mess, and they are looking for excuses,” the group’s communications director, Andrew Stroehlein, said.
Belgian green MEP Bart Staes added: “The EU is wrong to roll out the red carpet for dictators … the timing could not be worse, with the EU condemning another dictatorship in Belarus and welcoming the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The message sent is contradictory and reflects the inconsistency of EU foreign policy.”