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Authoritarian Uzbek Government Causes Concern - 2001-12-03

Cabinet ministers from Uzbekistan have been in Washington to discuss expanded relations with the United States. Uzbekistan has played a key role in the war against terrorism by providing an air base and access for more than 1,000 U.S. troops. But the authoritarian Uzbek government is a cause for concern among some analysts.

Compare what is happening now to the break-up of the Soviet Union, said Sodyq Safaev, deputy prime minister of Uzbekistan. He thinks his country's new alliance with the west is equally momentous. "We are now observing the astonishing intensification of Uzbek-American bilateral relationships in all fields: military, political and we hope economic," he said. "We might define it as a dramatic transformation of geo-politics in Central Asia."

Speaking at a meeting of the Atlantic Council in Washington, Mr. Azimov said U.S. success in Afghanistan removes a cloud from the entire region. Uzbekistan and the other countries will be free to make progress without the threat of terrorism emanating from al-Qaeda-controlled Afghanistan.

In return for Uzbekistan's help in the war, the United States pledges to come to Uzbekistan's aid if it is attacked by an outside power. But Uzbek defense minister Kadir Gulomov said more is involved. "From the very beginning of this war against terrorism, Uzbekistan and its president took a very solid, principled position and joined the international coalition," he said. "This was not done, of course, just to please the United States, but it was considered a chance to attract more allies - the whole international community - to the fight which we already began three years ago."

Mr. Gulomov was referring to Uzbekistan's struggle against terrorists linked to the Taleban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He said it is important to make sure the entire terrorist network is destroyed so it can no longer threaten the region.

But in confronting the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Uzbek's government under President Islam Karimov has been brutally repressive, according to Human Rights Watch and other observers. It has arrested, jailed and tortured thousands of Muslims practicing their faith outside of government control. Most have no connection with any terrorist organization.

Uzbekistan allows no political opposition or independent media. Human Rights Watch says the challenge for the United States will be to ally itself with Uzbekistan without aligning itself with Uzbekistan's policies.

Is that possible, asks Muriel Atkin, professor of history at George Washington University? Uzbek forces will inevitably use their U.S. training against internal threats, even if that is not intended. Will the United States then be drawn into local conflicts and become a target? "What I am much more worried about is whether the U.S. has made a Faustian bargain with Uzbekistan for the sake of the military cooperation by perhaps being even more willing than in the past to overlook the atrocious human-rights record in Uzbekistan and to accept the fact that Uzbekistan represses dissent and justifies it by labeling all dissent Islamic extremism," she said.

Uzbekistan is also contesting numerous areas in the troubled Ferghana Valley with neighboring Kyrgyzstan. If Kyrgyzstan should launch an attack, does the United States go to war with it?

At the Atlantic Council meeting, Uzbekistan's deputy foreign minister Rustam Azimov said the emphasis should be less on military and security issues than on economic ones. That is the real war ahead. "We consider three instruments crucial in this war," said Sodyq Safaev. "It is education. It is employment through the development of small and medium-sized businesses. It is poverty reduction and social safety net development."

And it is human rights, says Professor Atkin and others.