Zeman Brings a Knife to a Gunfight

The Czech president’s defense of a now-canceled visit from Uzbekistan’s dictator was strangely off-point and uninformed.

The just-announced cancellation of a planned visit to Prague by Uzbekistani strongman Islam Karimov should put to rest the controversy over whether the invitation should ever have been extended. But it won’t put to rest questions over how informed some in Prague Castle are about the foreign affairs they’re conducting.

The ruckus was sparked by Czech President Milos Zeman’s invitation to Karimov, the autocratic ruler of one of the world’s most closed societies, to come to Prague.

The prospect of Karimov’s visit, which was to have taken place next week, spurred an outcry among human rights groups globally, with 31 of them signing an open letter urging that the invitation be rescinded. The letter cited Uzbekistan’s well-documented use of torture and forced labor in its cotton trade.

Zeman, who in January defended his stance, lonely among European heads of state, to attend the Sochi Winter Olympics on the grounds that “politics” and sports should not mix, shot back quickly.

It was his predecessor, Vaclav Klaus, who had extended the invitation, he reminded them, on a trip to Uzbekistan in 2004.

But then, referring to a January 2011 meeting in Brussels between Karimov and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Zeman did a very strange thing. He wrote, “I don’t think you were protesting against that visit.”

“Where to start?” they must have been thinking at the offices of Human Rights Watch, which spearheaded the campaign against Karimov’s visit.

First, by pointing out that Klaus’ visit to Uzbekistan took place a year before that government’s troops fired into a crowd of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan, killing several hundred people. That event helped turn the image of Uzbekistan from brutal dictatorship to pariah.

Second, by pointing out eight protests lodged against Karimov’s 2011 visit to Brussels by some of the signatories to the recent open letter. Anyone who was around then, and paying attention, remembers the hue and cry. Which raises the question, didn’t anyone at Prague Castle do their homework on this one?

Perhaps there is an argument for engaging with brutal dictators, as long as it’s an opportunity to press them on matters of human rights and freedom (although it’s doubtful that Zeman, the president of a country of 10 million with no trade to speak of with Uzbekistan, would have much leverage). But there is no argument for a president and his advisers to be so ignorant about a controversy into which they have jumped with both feet.

As Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch told RFE, “His reply to us demonstrates a really strange lack of awareness of the entire situation and everything that’s been going on around Uzbekistan in the international community for years.”

This article originally appeared February 11, 2014 on the TOL website.

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