US yanks aid to Uzbekistan, a war on terror ally

Upset with the lack of political and economic reforms in Uzbekistan, the US State Department announced Tuesday its decision not to certify the country, effectively denying the renewal of $18 million in aid.

US involvement in the Central Asian republic deepened shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, as Washington laid plans to overthrow the Taliban. Uzbekistan allowed US forces to be based near its border with Afghanistan; a contingent remains today. The regime in Tashkent has also been a staunch supporter of the US in Iraq.

The Bush administration's decision to slash aid sends a signal abroad that despite the president's "with us or against us" formula, there is a point at which human rights abuses can overshadow military and diplomatic support for the war on terror.

"I think this decision is the result of a battle in the administration between the State Department and the Defense Department," says David Lewis, the International Crisis Group's Central Asia director. "Decisive for this new sign was not so much that the human rights situation in Uzbekistan got slightly worse, but that the pressure was building on the administration to acknowledge it."

The State Department has prodded Tashkent to allow for elections as well as end torture in prisons. The regime has instead launched an aggressive campaign against foreign nongovernmental organizations. Millionaire philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Institute "was invited to leave Uzbekistan," as President Islam Karimov put it. In May, the democracy-building efforts of three other NGOs, including Washington-based Freedom House, prompted the government to threaten them with expulsion as well.

While these moves incensed many in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Uzbekistan in February may have sent a mixed signal to the regime. Mr. Rumsfeld thanked the country for its support in the war on terror and stressed that human rights are just one aspect of US-Uzbek relations. Taskent probably inferred that the US was giving military considerations higher priority than human rights concerns, Lewis says.

Despite the aid cut, there is no indication yet that the US will sever military ties beyond the ending of a training program for Uzbek officers. Indeed, Uzbek officials appear unphased by the rebuke.

"I am not disappointed by the State Department's decision," says foreign ministry spokesman Ilkhom Zakirov. "We understand that the full amount of the earmarked $18 million will not be lost, but there will have to be a decision by the State Department on every single development project."

"The military cooperation will continue," Mr. Zakirov added.

In an apparent attempt to mitigate the diplomatic blow, the US undersecretary of state for Europe and Central Asia met with President Karimov on a one-day visit to Tashkent Wednesday.

Uzbekistan's state media have not announced the US move.

"I think that up to now nobody here has heard about the decision," says Uzbek political analyst Marina Pikulina. Far more relevant to everyday Uzbeks, she says, are the recent warming of relations with Russia. "Our business community was very glad about that, because they hope the borders will be opened up."

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