Prague, 5 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek opposition and rights activists this week told a visiting European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) delegation that authorities have failed to implement human rights and democratic reforms demanded last year by the bank.
Talib Yakubov, who heads the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL: "There was a debate. [The EBRD delegation] wanted to know whether there has been real change in Uzbekistan since the [EBRD] annual meeting [in Tashkent] in May. All nine organizations participating [in] the gathering agreed there has been no change."
The activists said no progress has been made on eradicating torture in prisons, while the government has refused to register opposition political parties.
"...If the EBRD strictly controls the credits and if the EBRD creates a commission that includes NGOs and opposition activists, then the money would not go to [people's] pockets."
A delegation from the EBRD's board of directors, including Secretary-General Johnny Akerholm, is visiting the country this week to check progress on the benchmarks it set one year ago for the Central Asian nation.
EBRD spokesman Jeff Hiday outlined the visit's agenda: "The purpose of that particular mission is to see where we've come over the past year. A year ago we set down seven benchmarks. We asked that the Uzbeks make some progress on these benchmarks. That is what we're trying to determine now."
In the political sphere, the directors are examining the openness of Uzbekistan's political system, the freedom of media, the extent to which independent local NGOs may register and function freely, and the country's human rights record. On the economic front, the delegation is studying the convertibility of local currency, the state of foreign trade, property rights and privatization, the pace of banking sector reform, and progress in adjusting public-utility tariffs.
The directors, who will leave Uzbekistan tomorrow, will report back to the full EBRD board of directors in London. The board will, within a few weeks, consider the future course of the bank's relationship with Uzbekistan.
Failure to comply with the EBRD's demands could harm the republic's relationship with the bank. On the other hand, Hiday noted, the bank's annual investment in Uzbekistan could easily quadruple if the conditions are right. "Of course one option is, if we were to determine that they had not made progress, there could be some further restrictions," the spokesman said. "Historically, we've done between 60 and 70 million euros [$77 million-$88 million] a year of business in Uzbekistan. But over the past two years, we've done about half that. If the conditions were right we could do upwards of 100 million a year."
The bank committed 26 million euros last year through five projects in Uzbekistan. The bank's cumulative investments in the republic stand at 527 million euros ($664 million).
Human rights groups strongly criticized the EBRD for holding its 2003 annual meeting in Uzbekistan because of the country's poor rights record. In 2002 the United Nations rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, accused Uzbekistan of systematic use of torture. Human rights bodies documented more cases of torture over the past year.
On other political fronts, the Uzbek opposition is not seen to have made any headway. No Uzbek opposition party is formally recognized. Nor will they be able to take part in the December parliamentary elections if their registration applications are not approved by the 6 April deadline.
Despite their concerns over Uzbekistan's human rights record, Uzbek opposition and rights activists pressed the EBRD to keep lending to the Central Asian republic. Vasila Inoyatova, a human rights activist and a member of the unregistered Birlik (Unity) party, told RFE/RL: "Opponents said that credits from the EBRD end up in some individuals' pockets, instead of being spent on their original purpose. But if the EBRD strictly controls the credits and if the EBRD creates a commission that includes NGOs and opposition activists, then the money would not go to [people's] pockets."
But some Uzbeks disagree with this position. About 10 demonstrators met the EBRD delegation at its arrival at the hotel in Tashkent (2 Feb). "No loans to the corrupt regime. Human rights first, then loans," read a placard.
Economist Sobir Otamirzayev participated in the protest. "I came to the protest to say that no credit should be given to Uzbekistan because these credits do not help ordinary people anyway. All the money goes in other directions. It cannot help the people. In the end, the debtors will be the people themselves."
Anna Sunder-Plassmann is a researcher on Central Asia at the London-based human rights watchdog group Amnesty International. She says the EBRD and the international community as a whole should take a "firm and consistent" approach toward Uzbekistan.
Sunder-Plassmann insists that if the international community does not send mixed messages, some success can be achieved.
"The recent statement made by the U.S. has emphasized the importance of human rights, but we can see that the U.S. is sending mixed messages about its commitments to human rights protection in Uzbekistan. And it is important that the EU follows up on the issues that it raised in its statement [where] it mentioned torture and the death penalty."
The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, Jon Purnell, said this week that Washington is closely watching Uzbekistan's progress on human rights. He noted that his country has not decided to cut aid to its Central Asian ally in the war on terror.
A joint statement released last month at the end of the European Union-Uzbekistan Cooperation Council in Brussels welcomed Uzbekistan's pledge to eliminate torture in its prisons. The EU said it will continue providing assistance to help the country's transition towards democracy and a market economy, and would seek a more active political role in the country.
(Khurmat Babadjanov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)