American officials and investors are being bamboozled by the Uzbek government into believing that it is easing away from its habits of Soviet-style repression, opposition leaders and human rights activists here complain.
They claim recent steps that appeared to herald a relaxation of President Islam Karimov's harsh and authoritarian rule are merely cosmetic, designed to woo Western investment to Central Asia's most dynamic economy.
"It is important that Western democracies put more pressure on Karimov so that he won't be able to trick them," says Mikhail Ardzinov, a prominent human rights monitor and government critic. "Nothing fundamental has changed."
In Uzbekistan, where Mr. Karimov won 99.6 percent of the vote in 1991 according to official results, not even the government pretends to be democratic.
But a search for Western capital - especially American capital - to fuel economic reform prompted the authorities this year to appease critics of their human rights abuses and make the country's international image more palatable.
Among other highly publicized steps, the government released some political prisoners, permitted an independent human rights group to register itself as a legal body for the first time, and hosted an international seminar on human rights organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The moves paid off. Last June, Mr. Karimov visited the United States, meeting President Clinton - a major boost to his international prestige - and dozens of US corporate leaders who he hoped might be persuaded to invest in Uzbekistan.
Even those few human rights activists who are prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt acknowledge the tactical nature of the new policy.
"Karimov wanted to go to the States, so it was a very convenient situation for us," says one of them, Marat Zahidov, whose Committee for the Protection of Individual Rights applied for and won official recognition in June.
But the apparent change of policy - after years of repression - has impressed some foreign observers.
"The human rights situation is improving," says one Western diplomat. "It will be a long time before it is irreversible, but so long as it continues, it is more than window dressing."
"We are still at the beginning of a long road, but it has been possible to have a dialogue" with the government, adds Alois Reznick, the head of the local OSCE office.
These conclusions are not shared by Shukrullah Mirsaidov, head of the Coordinating Center of the Democratic Opposition, an unofficial umbrella group that includes the two leading opposition parties, Erk and Birlik, which are banned.
"We have decided not to trust the government anymore," he says. "There are too many examples of things looking good on paper but actually being the opposite."
Mr. Mirsaidov was Karimov's vice president before falling out with his boss in 1992. He now lives in a half-furnished apartment on the outskirts of Tashkent after being evicted from his home by the police in a lengthy legal battle over corruption charges. Mirsaidov claims he is being victimized for having spoken frankly and critically of the government at the OSCE human rights seminar in September.
Another seminar participant, from the provincial capital of Namangan, found his store had been closed by the tax police when he returned home. It remains closed, while the police conduct a lengthy investigation into alleged "tax evasion."
This sort of behavior only bolsters the doubts that lurk in most Uzbeks' minds about the government's real intentions. "People are worried," Mr. Reznick says. "They wonder: 'If I do something, what will happen to me?' "
Almost all forms of political activity are banned. All newspapers are censored, and there are no independent radio or television stations.
Independent religious leaders who might act as a focus for discontent have also been targeted for arrest, according to human rights monitors.
Karimov, in a speech to parliament in August, insisted that his goal is a democratic government and acknowledged the need for an opposition; some of his critics are prepared to take him at his word.
"I don't want to fight with the government; I want to use the government in order to solve citizens' problems," says Mr. Zahidov, head of the only officially recognized rights group.
"By the elections in December 1999, our hope is to have an approximation of multiparty elections, with at least one genuine opposition party," says the Western diplomat.
Even that may be too ambitious. Ending his August speech promising democracy, Karimov was careful not to raise hopes too high. The state would divest itself of total power only "step by step," he insisted. "We are perfectly aware that this cannot be done in a short period of time."