The Failure of Reform in Uzbekistan: Ways Forward for the International Community
Osh/Brussels, 11 March 2004: The international community's friendly engagement with the regime in Uzbekistan has not worked. It has only resulted in the continuation of systematic human rights abuses and encouraged the ongoing economic decline of the country.
The Failure of Reform in Uzbekistan: Ways Forward for the International Community,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, finds that Uzbekistan has broken most of the promises it has made to foreign governments and international organisations to improve its poor human rights record and undertake much-needed economic reforms. The report calls for a more hard-edged approach to the regime by the international community but at the same time increased investment in the country's civil society.
"The regime has been given too much of a free ride because it is seen as a partner against terrorism and Islamist extremism. But engagement with it must become much more critical", says David Lewis, Director of ICG's Central Asia Project, "in order to stem the serious, potentially long-term damage being done to the West's credibility in this predominantly Muslim region".
Uzbekistan has made no real progress towards meeting either the benchmarks set by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in its March 2003 Country Strategy or the commitments to political and economic liberalisation in bilateral agreements with the U.S. and EU.
Torture by law enforcement agencies and in prisons continues to be systematic, arrests and harassment against journalists, human rights activists and opposition figures as strong as ever; the situation has worsened since late 2003, when Georgia's revolution rattled the leadership.
Uzbekistan's economic decline also continues, driven by bad policies overseen by an elite uninterested in change. Despite government reform rhetoric, the economy is feudal, corrupt, non-transparent and controlled by a small minority, with 80 per cent of the population living in poverty. The key reform demanded by the IMF, the EBRD and other international financial institutions, currency convertibility, exists formally but regulations that are often confidential make the reality far more restrictive. Tight border and trade controls also contribute to economic stagnation.
If the EBRD's stated commitments to fostering multi-party democracy and free markets are to have meaning, the Bank needs to send a strong signal to the regime by suspending all new investments in the public sector and loans to companies with a significant state holding.
The U.S. State Department needs to say unequivocally to Congress that it can no longer certify Uzbekistan's progress on political and economic reform and human rights. It should outline steps that Tashkent would need to take to ensure a renewal of aid by December 2004. The EU should be willing to use the leverage its own aid program provides.
"The steps the regime must be required to take need to be substantial this time, not, as has happened in the past, the token release of one political prisoner out of thousands", says Robert Templer, Director of the Asia Program at ICG. "The Uzbek government seems to have outwitted the U.S. and Europe all too often: this time, the West should insist on real reform".