West presses for Uzbek reform

A European development bank announced Tuesday that it would scale back its involvement in Uzbekistan.

When pro- democracy protesters stormed Georgia's parliament and triumphed in their "Rose Revolution" last November, it sent shockwaves of popular hope and government paranoia across Central Asia.

In Uzbekistan, US-government funded groups working closely with the nascent opposition - some of the same groups that played a key role in Georgia, and in the 2000 toppling of Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic - were immediately targets of suspicion.

The repressive nature of the Uzbek regime has been thrust into the international spotlight after violence last week left 47 dead. The US, which has troops deployed at an Uzbek base, has been stepping up pressure on Tashkent to allow greater political freedoms.

"It's obvious the [Uzbek] government felt a fear of the 'Georgia Syndrome' happening here," says Kamoliddin Rabbimov, a former government researcher, who today advises Western pro-democracy groups. "The government became suspicious of these pro-democracy organizations, while ordinary people started to think: 'It might be possible [here].'"

While experts say the two cases are different, some US-funded groups were told flat out by Uzbek officials last December that the Georgia example - where the US spent $1.3 billion over 10 years on building civil society - would not be repeated here. The groups were also ordered to comply with more stringent controls, and re-register with the Ministry of Justice.

Their fate is likely to turn this week, as the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov decides whether the groups can stay, and whether to uphold past agreements with Washington for new openness and democratic moves.

Most groups expect to be approved - to work under greater scrutiny - though one or two may be shut down.

Visiting US congressmen on Monday pressed for change. Rep. David Dreier (R) of California said that "from this tragedy, moving toward the goal of bringing about greater political freedoms and economic freedoms is the natural and correct step."

Citing "very limited progress" on a series of reform benchmarks, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development announced Tuesday that it would scale back its involvement in the country. Meanwhile, $50 million in new direct US aid depends on a State Department decision later this month on whether Tashkent is cleaning up human rights abuses. Amid a welter of critical Western rights reports - including the US State Department's own annual survey in February - the Brussels-based International Crisis Group stated last month that "there are no grounds" for State Department certification.

The US and Uzbekistan signed a strategic partnership framework in March 2002, not long after President Karimov permitted the US military to begin using an airbase as a key logistics hub for the 2001 Afghanistan war. The deal requires Uzbekistan to "intensify the democratic transformation of society," and obligates the US provide "advice, aid, and assistance" to boost democratic institutions.

Spearheading that mission - as in Georgia, and throughout the former Soviet Union - are the US-funded International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. They, along with George Soros's Open Society Institute, Freedom House, and others, have been told to re-register, and submit to conditions they fear will enable far greater government interference.

"Even if the government removed all the obstacles, what happened in Georgia couldn't happen here for 10 years," says a Western observer familiar with the work of pro-democracy groups.

In those key days in Tbilisi, US activists were part of the inner circles of opposition groups, having worked with them for years. In some cases, they helped direct traffic as events unfolded.

Government officials and parties loyal to deposed President Eduard Shevardnadze did not avail themselves of similar offers of democracy training.

Uzbek opposition parties, compared to Georgia, are "in their infancy," the Western observer says, and "some new groups are not out to overthrow the government. They just want a voice."

There have been signs of progress. Last year, two banned opposition groupings whose leaders remain in exile were able to hold congresses in Tashkent, with key support and political cover from Western pro-democracy groups.

Smaller parties, such as one aimed at farmers and entrepreneurs, have also gained some traction - perhaps one reason why Karimov announced in December the creation of a fifth new official party, aimed at the same constituency.

But that hardly adds up to popular overthrow, despite a system that - like most in Central Asia - is barely removed from the calcified Soviet system from which this nation emerged in 1991.

"We're so far away from any political change here now, [regime figures] have nothing to worry about," says another analyst in Tashkent, who asked not to be further identified.

Mr. Shevardnadze accuses US and European civil society groups of undermining his rule, and he broadcast explicit warnings to other leaders in the region to watch their backs.

But experts here point out key differences: Georgia had a strong opposition in parliament, and that government lost control after blatantly rigging an election. In Uzbekistan, by contrast, the regime controls every segment of society, and there has been virtually no democratic breathing space.

The aim of the Western pro-democracy groups, says analyst Rabbimov, "is to create an opposing view. We need this balance, because if there is no democratic opposition, they may all go underground.... People will lose their hope, and become Islamist."

But it may be too late. The alienation and radicalization of large parts of the population is already underway following years of repression and torture directed at thousands of Muslim believers. This makes openness a less straight-forward answer to the problem.

"There is a big dilemma: Some democratic traditions in the West can't be implemented here, because we have Islamist elements," says Rabbimov. Freedom of speech, for example, could permit the spread of "radical propaganda that will get better support of the people, and have a real chance to change the whole system here."

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