The Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov is expected in Brussels on 24 January for meetings with the Council of the EU, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and NATO. It's difficult to imagine a contrast greater than that between the consideration shown Karimov and the pariah status reserved for other autocrats (who are not even among the "worst") such as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The media paid little attention to the story, but in March 2007 Uzbekistan had its own version of Mohammed Bouazizi, the unemployed young Tunisian who set himself on fire last December. Hadisha Aripova, a widowed mother of two children, ran a small market stall in the town of Djizak. After police confiscated her goods, she set herself on fire in despair. Like Bouazizi, Aripova did not survive. She was 38. If her horrifying end failed to spark widespread protests like those in Tunisia, there was a reason: just two years earlier hundreds of protesters had been killed by the elite troops of Karimov in Andijan, another Uzbek city. This had a certain dissuasive effect. But the social circumstances in Uzbekistan that contributed to the incident remain unchanged.

One of the most sinister police states of Eurasia

In 1989 Islam Karimov became head of the Communist Party of what was then still Soviet Uzbekistan. Following independence in late 1991, he led one of the most sinister police states of Eurasia. The key sectors of the economy, from cotton and natural gas down to local markets, are in the hands of the president's family, his entourage and their local satraps, who abuse state organisations and the justice system to get ever tighter grips on their monopolies. "The police state and its leaders from the Soviet era are still in place," a local contact told me. "The social acquisitions of Soviet communism have disappeared." The majority of the population lives a reality never shown to the many tourists who swoon at the architecturally historic Samarkand or to the well-shepherded delegations of foreign diplomats.

Following the Andijan massacre the EU imposed an arms embargo, and various officials of the security services were barred from entering Europe. But that wasn’t taken too seriously. And now comes the boss himself. His country is loaded with oil and natural gas. The extent of the country’s reserves makes up part of that smokescreen that has enveloped the regime for years, to fool the outside world into believing that it needs Uzbekistan and the regime more than the other way around. Uzbekistan is also one of the world's largest cotton producers. What’s more, the regime has made itself indispensable in the so-called war on terror.

The myth of "constructive cooperation"

Like Ben Ali in Tunisia, Karimov has quietly reaped the benefit of the doubt because at least he keeps the "Islamists” under wraps. The bulk of the country's political prisoners is made of true Islamists but also suspected ones, as well as Muslim dissidents. Although it is not accurate to claim, as some do, that Islamism has been cooked up by the régime, the armed Islamist groups that popped up from time to time after the late 1990s had virtually no support among the population. Many of those targeted by the “anti-terrorist policy" of Karimov are Muslims weary of the social situation or practising Muslims whom the busybody regime considers “too religious”. The lessons of Tunisia that can be applied to Uzbekistan is that Muslims can have good reason to be frustrated without this being an international Islamicist plot.

Uzbekistan is also a vital link along the supply route to NATO troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. While cooperation with the Uzbek regime is far from smooth, the Tashkent regime is exploiting its strategic importance as much as it can, especially as the convoys through Pakistan are being increasingly targeted by the Taliban.

The populace and public opinion in Uzbekistan and Eurasia is taking less and less seriously the claim that the EU and the West in general can have a positive influence on the Karimov regime through "constructive cooperation". While some quarters within the EU have expressed in private some discomfort vis-à-vis the arrival of Karimov, and although there will necessarily be some friction over human rights, the fact is that he is being received. And his regime will not fail to broadcast his visit as a bend of the knee and a sign of recognition. Some hope that Karimov, who is 73, will shortly relinquish power voluntarily, and that the best course until then is to maintain contact with Uzbekistan. From this point of view, the current attitude vis-à-vis Karimov remains defensible. Everything depends on how the transition, which will happen sooner or later in Uzbekistan, plays out. Karimov may hang on for years yet, and he has proved himself a wily master at mystifying foreign contacts, which says more about them than about Karimov himself. But can the EU play the same “realist policy” card if things do not turn out as it hopes?