SMARTLY dressed in a dark suit, Ubaidullah Abdurazakov, Uzbekistan's foreign minister, enters the ministry's well-appointed reception room - his styled, silvery hair all in place and a smile on his face.
In a pleasant, patient voice, Mr. Abdurazakov discusses the political situation in Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous state, as it makes the transition from a Soviet republic to independence. Even when talking about threats to the country's stability, including unrest in neighboring Tajikistan, his affability seems unflappable.
But his tone and manner change dramatically when the topics of political pluralism and human rights are brought up.
"If you are the head of a family, and someone begins to act up, you must assert your authority to keep everyone in line," Abdurazakov says, his voice rising to a shout as his fist pounds the chair.
Abdurazakov's outburst underscores the tough stance President Islam Karimov is taking on liberalizing Uzbekistan's political system, which is dominated by the Popular Democratic Party, formerly the Communist Party.
Indeed, Uzbekistan is moving far more slowly than most other former Soviet republics in dismantling the Communist-era totalitarian system, Tashkent-based foreign diplomats say. The party may be renamed, and statues to Bolshevik leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, may have been removed, but censorship remains, as does as an enigmatic, all-powerful leadership.
"It's pretty much just like Kremlinology," one diplomat says about monitoring Uzbek politics. "Karimov is pretty much in charge. It's not a transparent system."
The slow pace of change in Uzbekistan is justifiable, government members say, because of dangers posed by the fighting in Tajikistan and the rapid revival of Islam in parts of Uzbekistan. It is also understandable, they add, because of the lack of a democratic tradition throughout Central Asia, a region long used to authoritarian rule, including 73 years of Soviet communism.
Rushing ahead with democratic reforms could be a recipe for upheaval in Uzbekistan and Uzbek destabilization could have serious consequences for Russia, and even the West, Abdurazakov says. Without Uzbekistan to act as a buffer, some say, there would be little to prevent upheaval and Islamic fundamentalist fervor from reaching Russia.
"This is the most stable state in Central Asia, and in all of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States]," Abdurazakov claims. "We have a population of 22 million people and we cannot play with fire."
The foreign minister and other top government officials here insist they are committed to carrying out democratic and market-style reforms, but argue that stability is a prerequisite for achieving those goals.
On Dec. 8, the Uzbek parliament adopted a new Constitution that enshrines a multiparty system and guarantees such fundamental rights as the freedom of thought and travel. At the same time, the Constitution enhances the president's authority. `Stalinist methods'
President Karimov's opponents say the government, in the name of stability, is running roughshod over the population's human rights. The president's only desire, they add, is to retain total control.
"Stability is, of course, needed here, but Karimov is using Stalinist methods to achieve it," says Abdurashid Sharif, a leader of Birlik, a pro-democracy movement not recognized by the government.
Several Birlik leaders, including Mr. Sharif, have been targets of vicious attacks this year. Sharif and others insist the government is responsible for the beatings, but Abdurazakov says "hoods" are to blame.
Diplomats say the crackdown on the opposition - particularly Birlik and the Islamic Revival Party - has intensified since May, when a civil war pitting pro-communist elements against Islamic forces began in Tajikistan. The Tajik events convinced Uzbek leaders that an iron hand was needed to maintain order, the diplomat says.
"They see what's going on in Tajikistan and they are scared. They are doing everything to make sure the Tajik situation is contained," he says.
(Reuters reports that tanks and heavy weapons were used in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe yesterday, as fighting raged between Islamic forces and former Communists.)
Pro-communist forces currently have the upper hand in the Tajik conflict, but Karimov is taking no chances in Tashkent. There are no indications that the Uzbek-Tajik border - closed when fighting intensified late this summer - will be fully reopened soon.
The border closing was aimed at preventing the conflict from spilling over into Uzbekistan. Karimov has reason to be worried about such a scenario, Birlik and others maintain, because many of the conditions that sparked the Tajik conflict also exist in Uzbekistan. The most striking parallel, they add, is the authoritarian tendency shared by Karimov's administration and that of former Tajik President Rakhmon Nabiyev, who was ousted by pro-Islamic forces in September.
Uzbek opposition leaders say arms and ammunition have made their way into the country via Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Government officials, including Abdurazakov, play down such reports, but they express concern about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism across Central Asia.
Opposition leaders and diplomats dismiss government assertions about the possibility of a fundamentalist Islamic government coming to power soon in Uzbekistan. But no one disputes that Islam is enjoying a revival in some parts of the country, particularly in the overcrowded and fertile Fergana Valley.
Of late, Uzbek officials have sought closer ties with Russia. Opposition members say the fears of fundamentalism have prompted Karimov to sell out his country's sovereignty in return for Russian help in propping up his regime. Government officials angrily denounce such claims, saying it will will be impossible to develop the economy without close relations with Russia. Unclear intentions
Even though the Uzbek leadership has given some disturbing signals about its intentions, many foreign diplomats in Tashkent still believe the government's ultimate goal is to create a democratic, market-based society.
Birlik leaders, however, say that Karimov will not continue reforms, even at the current slow pace, unless there is strong foreign pressure. The longer the outside world waits, they add, the better Karimov is able to consolidate his power.
"Karimov knows that if he loosens up a little with economic and political reforms, the people will want changes in the leadership," Birlik co-chairman Shukhrat Ismatulaev says.
Government policies, supposedly aimed at avoiding a Tajik-style war here, are boosting the chances for such a conflict. "Uzbekistan can never become a law-based state under Karimov," Sharif says. "When a man feels he cannot be protected by the law, it pushes him to defend himself in another way - with arms."