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Uzbekistan: EBRD Freeze On Aid Praised By NGOs

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has suspended most of its funding for public-sector projects in Uzbekistan, saying the Central Asian state has failed to meet democratic and human rights reforms required by the bank's charter. In London, where the EBRD today is conducting its annual board meeting, nongovernmental organizations are welcoming the freeze.

Prague, 19 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The human rights record of the government of Uzbekistan has come under criticism at this week's annual board meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London.

The EBRD announced earlier this month that Uzbekistan had failed to make adequate progress on several "benchmark" reforms during the past year -- including human rights, the strengthening of civic society, and specific market-economic policies.

Several nongovernmental organizations that had been critical of the EBRD's lending policies told RFE/RL today that they welcomed the bank's decision to cut most of its funding to the Uzbek government.

Alexi Pasyuk, the coordinator on Central Asia for the CEE Bankwatch Network, said the EBRD's criticism of Uzbekistan's human rights record lends support to what human rights activists are saying on the sidelines of the bank's London board meeting.

"Indeed, we are very pleased to see that the EBRD was strong on its position and that the assessment they've given on the progress of the human rights situation in Uzbekistan was exactly the same as the Uzbek activists who are also here [in London for the EBRD board of governors meeting]," Pasyuk said. "Of course, we are glad that this benchmarking system has worked. We appreciate the EBRD decision. We know it was not so easy for the bank to decide like that."

Pasyuk said that CEE Bankwatch is pleased the EBRD will continue to fund the sort of programs that help ordinary Uzbek citizens.

"We also like the approach that the EBRD is not going to give funding for the government of Uzbekistan," Pasyuk said. "However, there is a common understanding that it is good that they are getting involved still [in] small and medium-sized [enterprises]. So it is something that comes, really, to the people of Uzbekistan."

Veronika Szente-Goldston, a researcher for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, commended the EBRD for what she called "a principled decision."

"We are very pleased to see that the bank stayed firm on its course. Obviously, this year ahead will be a big challenge. The bank made clear that they will be keeping the benchmarks alive, continuing to work actively in the year to come to press the Uzbek government to make progress on these benchmarks," Szente-Goldston said. "So, it will be extremely crucial that the EBRD and, in particular, that its shareholder governments will be integrating these benchmarks into all of their bilateral dialogues with the Uzbek government. And that the international community as a whole will be sending a very coherent and coordinated message to the Uzbek authorities about the need to reform."

The most vocal criticism of Tashkent at the London board meeting came from George Soros, the American financier who has spent millions of dollars trying to help build up civic institutions in Uzbekistan. Soros told the EBRD meeting yesterday that the government in Tashkent forced the closure of the Uzbek branch of his Open Society Institute. He said the government is stifling civil society and has "a horrendous human rights record."

Soros explained that his Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation, like other civic organizations, was told to reregister in a process that would have given the Uzbek government an effective veto over its activities. Soros said a decision was therefore made to close the organization, which has spent $22 million on a range of projects in the country since 1996.

In Tashkent today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilkhom Zakirov responded to Soros's remarks by labeling Soros's foundation "undesirable." Zakirov also said that Soros is a "private person," so whether he likes Uzbekistan or not is his own business.

EBRD spokesman Jeff Hiday told RFE/RL today that the treatment of Soros's foundation is just one example of why the EBRD is cutting back on its funding in Uzbekistan.

"It's not Soros pulling out. It's Soros being kicked out. That's pretty clear," Hiday said. "And this is one of the chief reasons why we were quite critical of the Uzbeks. It was one of the benchmarks -- which was the extent to which they permit open movement and speech by NGOs. It's just one additional signal that the society there is not as open as we would like it to be. Soros was quite upset. We'd had some signals that they were going to be forced out, and we were disappointed to see that it actually happened."

Hiday said the EBRD will continue to watch developments in Uzbekistan and will consider any progress made on reforms when a new EBRD country strategy is drafted on Uzbekistan in the spring of next year.

"We're going to continue the same type of monitoring and policy dialogue that we've had up to now," Hiday said. "We've simply applied a bit more pressure by saying that we are disappointed with the amount of progress so far, and by also saying that we're not going to conduct business as usual. We've cut back a bit on the public-sector side of things. But the other thing that we're telling them is that we do want to continue talking and to continue working."

Uzbekistan is a key U.S. ally in Central Asia. Tashkent has allowed Washington to establish military bases in Uzbek territory that have been critical to operations in Afghanistan since late 2001. In return, the Uzbek government has received hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid. But concerns about Uzbekistan's human rights record have surfaced since the United Nations in recent years accused authorities in Tashkent of using systematic torture against political opponents.

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