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Uzbekistan: Leaders See Threat Of Islamic Extremism

  • Frank Csongos

Uzbekistan is holding parliamentary elections Sunday. On the eve of the balloting, top Uzbek religious leader Abdulrashid Kory Bakhromov traveled to Washington, his first trip ever to the United States, and spoke about the dangers of Islamic extremism in Central Asia. He was accompanied to a news conference by the Uzbek ambassador to the U.S., Sodyq Safaev. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 2 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Two prominent Uzbek leaders say Islamic extremism represents a threat to Central Asia.

Abdulrashid Kory Bakhromov, the Mufti of Uzbekistan, told a news conference in Washington Tuesday that Muslim militants trained by international terrorists are trying to undermine Uzbekistan.

Bakhromov, the top religious figure in his country, said Uzbek youths are getting modern weapons and training from international terrorists camped outside Uzbekistan.

"Some of the Uzbek youths who have been recruited from Uzbekistan have been trained in the military camps of the Chechen Republic."

Bakhromov said that is not the extent of the threat facing Uzbekistan.

"Parts of the recruited Uzbek youths have crossed into Afghanistan and they are trying to get some training in the military camps of Afghanistan and are trying to penetrate the territory of Uzbekistan."

The mufti said the most militant elements are trying to overthrow what he said was the existing order.

"They announced Jihad (holy war) against the government of Uzbekistan."

Bakhromov said it is obvious that Uzbek militants are getting outside help.

"How can these gunmen be armed by modern weapons and modern armaments if they can't get it by themselves? They're getting it from international terrorists in the territory of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Chechen Republic."

The Uzbek ambassador to the United States, Sodyq Safaev, also participated in the news conference. Speaking in English, he too addressed the issue of international terrorism.

"It is a very sensitive issue, as you know. I can tell you that we know for sure that many hundreds of young Uzbeks are being recruited from unlawful Islamic organizations in Uzbekistan were trained in the territory of Pakistan."

The charge that Pakistan has provided sanctuary to Uzbek militants was immediately denied by a Pakistani embassy official attending the press conference, who said it is not the policy of his government to aid such extremists.

Bakhromov said terrorism represents a danger not only to his country but to other nations in Central Asia. He urged the governments in the region to join forces in combating it.

"The fight of international terrorism should not be the only task of Uzbekistan because this problem is threatening the whole region. And that's why there should be cooperation between the governments of the countries within the region."

Bakhromov said extremism and intolerance have no place in the Islamic religion. He said the Koran, which spells out the teachings of Islam, stands for peaceful coexistence between peoples of different faiths and ethnic background.

Commenting on next Sunday's (Dec. 5) parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan, Safaev said the balloting will be the freest ever in his country's history. He noted that the elections will be monitored by representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE.)

The OSCE has said Uzbekistan's electoral laws are making it very difficult, if not impossible, to hold a fair vote. Uzbek opposition groups said they have been barred from participating in the vote and that all five parties vying for parliament are pro-government organizations.

But Safaev, a former Uzbek foreign minister, said it would be wrong to characterize all five parties as pro-government.

At the news conference, Safaev also denied allegations that Uzbekistan has been engaged in wholesale human rights abuses, including the torture of prisoners.

However, earlier this year, the U.S. State Department called Uzbekistan's human rights record poor and said the government continues to commit serious abuses in several areas.

In its annual report on human rights practices around the world, the State Department said citizens of Uzbekistan cannot exercise their right to change their government peacefully. It said that the Uzbek government has not permitted the existence of a real opposition party since 1993. The report said election laws were amended further to restrict the possibility of any new opposition parties arising or mounting a campaign.

Uzbekistan is a former Soviet republic with a population of a little over 20 million. The country has over 100 different ethnic groups. Its predominant religion is Sunni Muslim.

Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the U.S.-based Soros Foundation have been involved in bringing aid to Uzbekistan, which is considered to be an underdeveloped nation. Some of the efforts are aimed at helping small businesses in that country.

David Abramson, of the Watson Institute for International Affairs at Brown University, recently returned from the Central Asian nation where he investigated civil society and the politics of foreign aid to Uzbekistan.

In a lecture Tuesday night at Georgetown University in Washington, Abramson noted that civil society ideally entails the promotion of trust and accountability between different organizations and institutions and among their members who work to realize collective goals.

Abramson said Uzbekistan is a society where social networks are a highly valued resource. He said without them, very little is accomplished.

Abramson said those who think that Uzbekistan is already overly bureaucratized should think again. He said it is possible that the worst has yet to come

In his lecture, Abramson said that about one year ago Uzbek President Islom Karimov fired a high official in the state revenue service and issued a warning against lavish spending on social celebrations such as weddings. The tax official apparently was being blamed for throwing an extravagant ritual celebration, thereby contributing to a national trend that the majority of the Uzbek population could not really afford financially.

Abramson said all Uzbeks, indeed all Central Asians, use such celebrations to strengthen valuable social networks in the face of high inflation and many scarce resources. He said by inviting a government bureaucrat to a wedding and becoming friendly with this person, the Uzbek citizen can often avoid paying a bribe in the future for a necessary permit or for some other needed service.

Abramson said foreign aid often distorts the local wage scale in Uzbekistan because managers or even drivers hired by the NGOs pay wages 10 or 20 times higher than locally available salaries.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Abramson commented about the problems concerning foreign aid.

"Some of the obstacles to foreign aid in Uzbekistan include social networks which are seen as either nepotism or exclusive behavior or clannishness and also bribery."

Asked if foreign aid helps or hinders Uzbekistan, Abramson said:

"I think it's a mixed bag. In some ways it is creating more bureaucratization which undermines the way people get things done there."

Abramson said it is easy for members of the donor community and scholars studying Central Asia to dismiss social networks, clans and patron-client relationships as evidence of corruption and nepotism. However, he said it is important to keep in mind that they are nevertheless rational practices with their own cultural logic developed in response to expectations based on real life experience.