While watching the ceremonies and press briefings, one couldn't help but feel that President Vaira Vike-Freiberga did not really want to be standing next to the Uzbekistan President Islom Karimov, a man who presides over a regime that is consistently given the worst marks for human rights abuses by nearly all independent organizations.
His regime has not been shy about using repression and torture against both political opponents and religious fanatics, and one oft-cited legitimate report documents how two Uzbek men were subjected to boiling. Many have been beaten so severely that they will spend the rest of their lives in a wheelchair.
Indeed, Karimov represents everything Latvia's democratic leadership, no stranger to the horrors of repression and torture, disdains and, since gaining independence since 1991, has persistently spoken against - Chechnya and Belarus being the best examples. So why the red-carpet treatment for a Central Asian tyrant? When posed this question, many political observers in Latvia were at a loss for an explanation; most did not want to go on record. And the official line - that the Uzbek president was here to boost business ties - doesn't hold much water: Trade with the Central Asian country is minimal, even less than with Peru.
There are, nonetheless, several rational explanations. First, though a dictator, Karimov has already been around the block. He sat in the White House two years ago, even though the U.S. State Department has issued report after report on Uzbekistan's dismal human rights record. And since then he has been welcome in many civilized countries, hopping around European capitals as if on a spring walk, something that, say, Belarus' Lukashenko would never be permitted. So Karimov's trip to the Baltics is nothing unusual.
Second, the trip confirms what many have been speaking about for months now: namely, now that the Baltic states are members NATO and will be in the European Union, they are destined to play a crucial diplomatic role with other former Soviet republics. Though Uzbekistan is far away in terms of geography and mentality, its leaders can sit down with Baltic leaders and speak the same language. In many cases they share the same past - e.g., a Moscow institute they may have studied together at, a Black Sea resort where they spent summers back in the '70s and '80s.
Without a doubt, the touchstone is there. In this paradigm, the dictator's trip to Latvia is part of a concerted effort in the West to gradually imbibe a spirit of democracy and liberalism in Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It's diplomacy in a cauldron, and it's often a dirty, thankless job. But, as the saying goes, someone has to do it.