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Uzbekistan: Largest Private Donor Denied Re-Registration

  • Antoine Blua

The Uzbek government has denied re-registration of the George Soros's Open Society Institute (OSI), which has spent millions of dollars to help institutions within the country.

Prague, 20 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan has become the second country after Belarus to force the New York-based network of foundations to curtail its activities.

The head of OSI, financier and philanthropist George Soros, says the Uzbek branch of OSI is being forced to close because the government has declined to renew its registration.

The Uzbek government yesterday said the foundation was "undesirable."

In a letter on 14 April, the Uzbek Justice Ministry alleged that OSI was funding educational materials that sought to "discredit" government policies.

OSI says the claims are unfounded. It says it will appeal the decision in an Uzbek court.

Cassandra Cavanaugh works in New York with the OSI's Central Eurasia Project.

"All of our projects in education that were with schools and higher education institutions were carried out with the cooperation of the relevant ministries involved. So it seems very odd to us that ministries didn't object to the materials before," Cavanaugh said.

"It's an attempt to wall off the country completely from outside influences." -- Cassandra Cavanaugh, who works with the OSI's Central Eurasia Project
Since the founding of OSI's Uzbek branch in 1996, the organization has spent over $22 million to promote economic, health, and education reforms in the republic.

OSI says it has equipped many Uzbek universities and more than 100 secondary schools with computers and Internet access.

Cavanaugh said the closure of OSI's Uzbek branch is part of a wider attempt by Tashkent to control the activities of foreign nongovernmental organizations operating in the country.

Moreover, new banking restrictions requiring government oversight on grant transactions had made it difficult for NGOs to make payments to many local recipients.

"The new restrictions on NGO funding are part of this whole systemic effort to crack down on civil society in Uzbekistan. It's an attempt to wall off the country completely from outside influences," Cavanaugh said.

Authorities in Tashkent have insisted the new procedures are a strictly procedural matter and will not prevent NGOs from conducting their work. The government says the new rules are part of wider antiterrorism efforts to prevent funding from passing to extremist groups.

But rights activists say Tashkent's refusal to re-register OSI violates the country's commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it ratified in 1996. It also overlooks commitments to pursue economic and political reform under the 2002 strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Uzbekistan.

Rachel Denber is Human Rights Watch's Regional acting executive director.

"By making it impossible for organizations like the Open Society Institute to function in Uzbekistan, the Uzbek government is going back on its obligations," she said.

The announcement of the closure came after the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development this week suspended most of its funding for public sector projects in Uzbekistan, citing the government's lack of progress on democratic and economic reform benchmarks.

Activists have welcomed the EBRD move. They are calling on the bank's shareholder governments to integrate the benchmarks into their bilateral dialogues with Tashkent.

Alexi Pasyuk is the Central Asia coordinator for the CEE Bankwatch Network, a coalition of environmental organizations from Central and Eastern Europe.

"It's important that the EBRD board of directors communicate their decisions to their governments so the governments of these countries don't undermine the decisions of the EBRD. Because it doesn't make sense [that] when the EBRD is decreasing its support, at the same time the U.S. government is giving grants to Uzbekistan."

Rights activists are increasingly pushing Washington to reexamine its relationship with Tashkent, which has benefited from substantial U.S. aid since its decision to support the U.S.-led antiterror campaign in Afghanistan.

The U.S. administration is due to decide soon whether to certify Tashkent for continued economic assistance. All direct U.S. assistance to Uzbekistan will be suspended if Tashkent is decertified due to lack of political and economic reforms.

A U.S. State Department report on human rights released in February accused Tashkent of committing "numerous serious abuses."

(Khurmat Babadjanov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and NCA's Ron Synovitz contributed to this report.)
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