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Experts Say Uzbekistan Fears Outside Interference


Experts say they believe the ongoing crackdown against foreign organizations in Uzbekistan is due to Uzbek government fears of what they call "outside interference."

Uzbekistan has recently come under international criticism following the government's move to force international non-governmental and other organizations to leave the country.

The closures in recent weeks include civil society groups like Freedom House and IREX, and media agencies like Internews, BBC and Radio Free Europe.

When asked about the crackdown at a recent conference in Washington, Uzbek Ambassador to the United States Abdulaziz Kamilov said his government is making tough decisions.

"Obviously, it's regrettable to stop any cooperation with any NGOs, but every time, when we stop accreditation or close cooperation with any NGO, we try to explain the reasons," he said.

One organization that has operated in Uzbekistan for 12 years, Eurasia Foundation, faced lawsuits in Uzbek courts. So, the foundation voluntarily closed its offices in Tashkent before negative court rulings would force it to leave the country.

Eurasia Foundation President Bill Maynes says the charges against his group were specific and vague at the same time.

"We know what the alleged reason was," he said. "It couldn't possibly be the real reason. We've been told that we did not register our logo 10 years ago. We've been told that we signed a lease with someone who did not get his papers properly signed by a notary public. We've been told that we operated outside of mandate, but how is unspecified."

He says he believes his group, which is largely U.S.-funded, is just one of the victims of what he sees as an overall souring of relations between the United States and Uzbekistan.

"I mean, all of these draconian steps were taken after Uzbekistan had decided to close the U.S. military base in Uzbekistan," he said. "And, then, it took some time, but there's been a cascade of steps taken against American NGOs."

Maynes adds that he believes Tashkent's fear of any foreign presence in the country hardened after last year's uprising in the town of Andijan, where hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in violent clashes with police.

"There's been a growing, ever since the uprising in Andijan and the deaths that took place there, there has been a heightened sensitivity from the Uzbek government about outside involvement, outside interference, outside encouragement, of forces within the country that are pressing for change," Maynes said.

Besides kicking out foreign organizations, Uzbekistan's unelected government has jailed human rights activists and suspected Muslim extremists.

This, says Frederick Starr, of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is why the issue of "outside interference" is very real for Uzbekistan. He says Central Asian governments often see NGO .s as acting at the behest of their home governments.

"The argument that these NGOs are non-governmental fails, because they know that in most cases, they have received public funding from Congressionally-financed programs in the U.S. and EU-funded programs in Europe," Starr said. "Therefore, it looks to them that these are not really non-governmental, that these are agents of other governments."

The Eurasia Foundation's Maynes agrees that there is a perception problem. But he stresses that although organizations like his receive much of their funding from the U.S. government, they operate independently.

"We have a number of foundations that operate around the world, that are not under the command of the local U.S. ambassador," he said. "You know, you have the Asia Foundation, the Inter-American Foundation, the African Development Foundation. You have a number of private initiatives that receive government money. And we think that is totally normal."

Maynes says groups like the Eurasia Foundation work to improve Uzbek society - important work he says Tashkent currently does not do.

"We've shown the list of recent grants to some Uzbek officials, and they privately all agree that these are very good grants," he said. "I think we've given grants to university students to find jobs, we've given grants to handicapped organizations, organizations for the handicapped, to help them find jobs. We've given grants to organizations that help people understand their rights and defend them."

He says he believes the Uzbek government will only allow international organizations to stay in the country if they have value for the government. Therefore, he says, he hopes Tashkent will come to realize the value of groups like Eurasia Foundation, and make theirs a temporary absence.

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