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Central Asia Report: February 10, 2004


10 February 2004, Volume 4, Number 6

WHAT IS PROGRESS? MEASURING UZBEKISTAN AGAINST EBRD BENCHMARKS. A delegation from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) arrived in Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent on 2 February for a five-day monitoring mission to assess the country's progress in the fields of governance, market liberalization, and human rights.

Specifically, the delegation, led by the chairman of the EBRD Board Steering Group, Torsten Gersfelt, and accompanied by EBRD Secretary-General Johnny Akerholm, aimed to measure Uzbekistan's progress against seven benchmarks set by the bank in March 2003. The political benchmarks are political liberty, the ability of NGOs and the media to function freely, and respect for human rights. 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 reforms, and progress in adjusting public-utility tariffs. The benchmarks were established by the bank when it was under pressure for deciding to hold its annual Board of Governors' meeting in Tashkent in May 2003. Critics demanded that EBRD loans should be made conditional on political and economic progress. The bank said that it would evaluate Uzbekistan's progress towards meeting those benchmarks after one year, and then determine whether to continue or suspend lending on that basis.

The delegation met with top government officials, including Foreign Minister Sodyq Safaev on 3 February, businessmen, diplomats, representatives of local and international NGOs, and opposition and human rights activists. The message from the last group was that no progress had been made in eradicating torture in prisons or registering political parties, RFE/RL reported on 3 February. According to Tolib Yakubov, who heads the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, the delegation "wanted to know whether there has been real change in Uzbekistan since the [EBRD] annual meeting in May. All nine organizations participating [in] the gathering agreed there has been no change" (see "Uzbekistan: EBRD Delegation To Assess Progress On Benchmarks," rferl.org, 5 February 2004). That assessment matched that of the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch, which issued a 25 November 2003 report, posted at hrw.org, titled "Uzbekistan: No Progress on EBRD Benchmarks."

It is not true, however, that Uzbekistan has made no progress at all on any of the benchmarks. Most notably, it reintroduced currency convertibility last autumn (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 17 October 2003). The government also regularly touts its latest steps in privatization. As Interfax reported on 2 February, citing the State Property Committee, the country's privatization campaign in 2003 yielded some 56 billion soms (about $58.8 million) for the state coffers, or 1.3 percent more than in 2002. Although these numbers are pretty small, they are better than nothing -- and better than nothing is arguably one definition of progress.

Rather, it is in the areas of democratization and human rights that President Islam Karimov's regime most patently falls short. No opposition parties have been legalized, nor will any be able to take part in the December 2004 parliamentary elections if their registration applications are not approved by the 6 April deadline. Last month the opposition party Birlik (Unity) submitted registration documentation to the Justice Ministry for the third time in two years: the ministry turned down the two previous registration attempts on technicalities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004). However, it is possible that the EBRD delegation will agree with Human Rights Watch and others that the regime has not met its democratization and human-rights benchmarks, yet give Tashkent credit for slight improvements in economics and finance and recommend on those grounds that lending continue. At stake are cumulative investments in Uzbekistan standing at 527 million euros ($664 million). There are 22 projects currently being implemented in the country that have some EBRD backing, worth a total of about $1.4 billion, Uzbek Radio commented on 3 February. Akerholm told journalists after that the delegation will report its findings to the full EBRD board of directors in London, and that the board would, within a few weeks, consider the future course of the bank's relationship with Uzbekistan. The EBRD is scheduled to review its Uzbekistan country strategy in March 2004.

Meanwhile, last week furnished a rare view of two top American envoys appearing to be publicly lobbying on Uzbekistan's behalf. Washington highly values Tashkent's contribution to U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts and regional security; American financial support to Uzbekistan in 2003 amounted to just over $420 million, Interfax noted on 3 February. At his first press conference in Tashkent on 2 February, the new U.S. ambassador, John Robert Purnell, denied that American assistance to Uzbekistan had been reduced as a result of negative evaluations by the U.S. State Department on the country's democratic progress (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2004). Furthermore, Purnell provided a ready-made retort to anyone contending that Uzbekistan had not made progress, pointing out that U.S. laws linking aid to improved respect for human rights "are open to interpretation. For example you often see the question raised, 'Has Uzbekistan made progress in a certain area?' Well what does the phrase 'to make progress' mean? Reasonable people can differ over whether a particular decision or particular action represents progress or not," the ambassador said, according to the official transcript posted at http://www.usembassy.uz. The government mouthpiece uzreport.com, in its description of the news conference on 3 February, was savvy enough to recognize the propaganda value of this sound bite and singled it out of all of Purnell's comments. In fact, uzreport.com went farther and attributed to the ambassador the following: "Under the word 'progress' one can understand improvement of a normative-legal base and concrete measures. 'Progress' may also mean debates conducted between the governments." With those measures -- talking and buffing up good-sounding laws -- Uzbekistan has indeed demonstrated progress. However, these words do not appear on the official transcript of Purnell's remarks.

If words were as effective as deeds, then Uzbekistan's critics should have been more impressed by Foreign Minister Safaev's statement to European Union representatives in Brussels on 27 January, when he insisted that his government was cracking down on torture in prisons. "For the first time, the Uzbek civil code has a special article that recognizes torture as a crime," Safaev said, as reported by IRIN. He said that 15 people from the Interior Ministry were brought to justice and convicted for violating human rights in 2004, although he did not offer details about their alleged crimes or punishments. "We can't state that [torture] is systematic. Systematic means that there are no institutions to fight it, and the government is not serious in eliminating such unfortunate events, which still happen." A report by the UN rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, found in 2002 that the use of torture in Uzbek jails was "systematic." Rejecting that charge, Safaev insisted that his government was serious in its efforts to eradicate torture and said Uzbekistan was the only country in the Commonwealth of Independent States to have invited van Boven to inspect its jails (see "Uzbekistan: EU, Tashkent Reaffirm Need For Stronger Ties," 27 January 2004).

The second American envoy in Tashkent last week whose remarks, although not addressed to the EBRD monitoring mission, seemed tailored to meet its concerns about Uzbekistan's democratization progress was Carlos Pascual, the U.S. State Department's coordinator for assistance to Europe and Eurasia. Pascual, who paid an official visit from 5 to 7 February, met Safaev, Economics Minister Rustam Azizov, and other officials with whom he discussed American aid programs, Uzbek political reforms, the situation in Afghanistan, and regional cooperation, Uzbek Radio reported. On 6 February Pascual told a press conference that Uzbekistan had completed its "National Action Plan Against Torture," which would soon be made public, and hoped to win UN support for its reform efforts, RFE/RL reported. Pascual added he had been assured by Uzbek officials that van Boven would receive an open invitation to return and reassess the situation in the country. "In Uzbekistan we saw the serious dedication of the government to continue work on human rights," uzreport.com quoted Pascual as saying. Promises can generate interest, hopes may be invested, but Tashkent's word has a way of turning into a junk bond, as the EBRD knows better than most. At the 2003 Board of Governors' meeting the bank was left red-faced and humiliated when Karimov, who had pledged to denounce torture in his opening speech, reneged on his well-publicized promise and dwelled on the need for regional development instead (see "Uzbekistan: EBRD Meeting Ends Without Pledge From Karimov To Stop Torture," 5 May 2003).

AKAEV SHAKES UP THE GOVERNMENT. Last week in Kyrgyzstan saw an extensive government reshuffle -- not merely a rematching of people and posts, however, but a significant reorganization of the structure of the government itself.

At an extraordinary session of the People's Assembly (parliament's upper chamber) in the capital Bishkek on 6 February, Kyrgyz legislators approved structural reforms to the government proposed by President Askar Akaev. The proposed new structure of the government maintained the same number of ministries (14) but it changed or redistributed some of the functions of ministerial departments. It also merged some state commissions into existing ministries, Kabar and RFE/RL reported.

Most significantly, the Ministry for Foreign Trade and Industry was reorganized into a new super-ministry, the Ministry for Economic Development, Industry, and Trade. It will also comprise a new division handling state property management and take over some of the functions of the Ministry of Finance. A state commission on culture is to be established under the aegis of the Ministry of Education and Culture. A new national commission on state service was also set up. State commissions on business development and antimonopoly policy were abolished, their powers transferred elsewhere. The inspectorate for standardization and measurements was abolished, Kabar reported. Furthermore, parliamentarian Baiaman Erkinbaev proposed to the chamber that a special committee on water resources, separate from the Ministry of Agriculture, should be established in order to consider not only questions of domestic water use but export sales of water to neighboring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Radio reported.

Finally, Akaev proposed changing the official name of the militia. "In accordance with the practice of most foreign countries, it would be in general agreement if we changed the name 'militiamen' to 'policemen,'" said the president as quoted by RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau, which noted that the term "militia" has taken on odious connotations since militia in southern Aksy Raion opened fire on protesters in March 2002, killing five people (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 21 March, 2003)

According to Akaev, addressing the People's Assembly, the rationale for the government restructuring was to be found in the reforms to the constitution -- he referred to it as the "new edition of the constitution" -- approved by referendum in early 2003 (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 6 February and 25 July 2003). The abolition of the current two-chamber legislature and the creation of a unicameral one were the most important changes in government structure endorsed by the referendum. However, Akaev has consistently maintained that the overall thrust of the constitutional reforms was to make government work better, and on that basis he argued on 6 February that the referendum had effectively given him a mandate to recast the system. "These proposals were submitted in accordance with the new edition of the Constitution...to upgrade the state administrative system, strengthen democratic principles, combat corruption and bureaucracy, eliminate the duplication of functions, and strengthen the local branches of power," Akaev told legislators. He added that some of his proposals were prompted by "the need to increase the efficiency of the executive branch," Kabar and Kyrgyz Radio reported. The reorganization of government was a first step towards implementing administrative reforms which were supported by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, and other donors and which would be complete by the end of 2004, Akaev said.

Akaev did not offer the parliament any direct explanation why it had suddenly become so pressing to shake up the government now, only saying that he considered 2004 a "key year" to consolidate progress achieved so far and resolve outstanding issues in the economic and social spheres, Kyrgyz Radio reported. It is suggestive, however, that the theme of an expanded-format government meeting on 7 February was the crisis of economic management in the country, exacerbated by government corruption, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Akaev lamented the decline of exports over the last 2-3 years, criticized free trade zones for facilitating tax evasion, and slammed the ministries of agriculture and industry for exaggerating their achievements by falsifying production data.

The announcements of personnel changes came in a sudden cascade. Although they were surely planned in connection with the government restructuring, there were still hints of improvisation about them, as if Akaev, instead of having thought out his decisions well in advance, was modifying them as he went along. For example, on 5 February he issued a decree removing Kurmanbek Osmonov from the post of justice minister, which he has held since January 2003, but keeping him in his concurrent position as first deputy prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2004). Yet within a day Akaev apparently had changed his mind. On 6 February he named Transport and Communications Minister Kubanychbek Jumaliev to be first deputy prime minister. This required Osmonov to relinquish the position, which he did. Instead, Osmonov was appointed to the chairmanship of the Supreme Court. That move required the incumbent, Nellia Beishenalieva, to step down. She resigned as chairwoman of the Supreme Court on 6 February, only to be assigned Osmonov's old job as minister of justice. This game of musical chairs came across to political observers more as a scramble than a carefully considered and well-executed plan.

Other new appointments were issued in a presidential decree on 7 February and included the following. Ularbek Mateyev, previously chief of the Energy Agency, became deputy prime minister for social mobilization, a newly-created post. His old job at the state energy agency was filled by Emil Uzakbaev, who had chaired the now-defunct commission on antimonopoly policy. The newly constituted Ministry of Economic Development, Industry, and Trade was taken over by Amangeldy Muraliev, a former prime minister who more recently had been heading the stock exchange.

Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Misir Ashyrkulov was relieved of his duty as Kyrgyz representative to the Central Asian Cooperation Organization. He was replaced by Bazarbay Mambetov, who has been serving as Kyrgyz representative to the Eurasian Economic Community, akipress.org reported. Meanwhile, Akaev has been revamping his own team. On 6 February, the same news agency said that Toychubek Kasymov, governor of Chuy Oblast, had become head of the presidential administration. Bolot Dzhanuzakov, who already runs the defense and security department in Akaev's office, was promoted to first deputy head under Kasymov. Alikbek Dzhekshenkulov, a former first deputy foreign minister who Akaev appointed last month to take over the foreign-policy department in the president's office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004), was also promoted last week to deputy head.

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