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Uzbekistan: Will U.S. Decision To Withhold Aid Have Any Practical Effect?

The U.S. State Department announced yesterday that it is withholding up to $18 million in aid to Uzbekistan due to its poor human rights record. The United States is using a military base in Uzbekistan for antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan, and has long promised it would press Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record and speed up democratic reform.

Prague, 14 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government has made good on a promise to make part of its aid to Uzbekistan contingent on the country's progress in implementing democratic reforms and improving its human rights record.

Yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher announced that the United States is withholding up to $18 million in aid to Uzbekistan -- the first time the United States has taken such action against a Central Asian government. Boucher said Washington is "disappointed by lack of progress on democratic reform and restrictions put on U.S. assistance partners on the ground."

Vanessa Saenen, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch in Brussels, said her organization welcomes the U.S. announcement.

"We very much welcome this decision by the U.S. State Department to withhold assistance to Uzbekistan, because Uzbekistan is a country which has a very long tradition of a very poor human rights record," Saenen said.

Uzbekistan has come under increasing international scrutiny for its violations of human rights and democratic freedoms following the stationing of U.S. troops there as part of antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

In late 2002, the United Nations said torture was systemic in Uzbek prisons. Since then, rights groups say several more prisoners have died under suspicious circumstances in Uzbek jails. Rights groups and individual governments have also expressed concern that Tashkent's campaign against radical Islamic groups has resulted in the detention of thousands of peaceful Muslims. In addition, observers say no genuine opposition parties have yet been registered for December's parliamentary elections.

Last year, the U.S. gave Uzbekistan some $86 million in aid. Alex Vatanka, a senior editor at the London-based Jane's analytical group, says that, given that sum, the freeze announced by Washington will have little impact on Uzbekistan economically.

But he says the U.S. move does serve to symbolically alert Tashkent that there are improvements to be made.

"Eighteen million dollars in the Uzbek economy is an insignificant amount from a practical point of view," Vatanka said. "The implications for the Uzbek economy and government are not important. What is important is the symbolic aspect of it."

Human Rights Watch spokesperson Saenen said the cuts could be the start of a process that -- if followed by others -- could positively impact Uzbek government policies.

"If the U.S. and other organizations actually condition their aid to these tangible improvements in terms of human rights, I think there's a general hope for improvement [in Uzbekistan]," Saenen said.

State Department spokesman Boucher was careful to note yesterday that there has been "encouraging progress" in Uzbekistan with respect to human rights during the last year. And he left open the possibility of freeing up some of the $18 million if further progress is made.

The money in question had been earmarked for nonweapons-related military spending, as well as various economic projects. Funds intended to support democracy groups, health care, and to secure the country's nuclear-related sites have not been affected.

Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilkhom Zakirov said today that the U.S. decision will not seriously affect U.S.-Uzbek relations.

"This is their sovereign right, as a donor, so we cannot force them [to provide aid] if they don't want to," he said. "This is their sovereign right."

Vatanka of the Jane's group agrees that the decision is unlikely to affect bilateral relations, noting that both sides see an advantage in maintaining good ties. Vatanka predicts the Uzbek government will probably make some token changes, but none that would jeopardize the hold the current regime has on the country.

"[The Uzbek government is] willing to do something about it as long as it doesn't reduce the grip on power that President [Islam] Karimov has," Vatanka said. "Sure, you might see reform coming out of Uzbekistan, but it wouldn't be anything structurally significant as far as the state machinery is concerned. External pressure -- as important as it is in the case of Uzbekistan -- is not going to be the decisive factor. I think what will bring about reform in Uzbekistan will relate to the internal dynamics of policymaking in Uzbekistan."

The U.S. State Department noted that Uzbekistan remains an important partner in the war on terrorism, and that the two countries share many strategic goals.