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Uzbekistan: Opposition Figure Appeals For Democratization Aid

Uzbek dissident Muhammad Solih at a 30 June RFE/RL briefing A leading Uzbek opposition figure, Muhammad Solih, is urging the United States and the European Union to expand their support for democracy activists in Uzbekistan. Solih says the events in Andijon in May demonstrate that democratization is the only way to ensure a peaceful transition in power from the regime of President Islam Karimov. But a U.S. State Department official says Washington does not want to be seen as an agent for revolutionary change in the region and is working with all parties to bring about gradual reforms.

Washington, 1 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Muhammad Solih is seeking to use his visit to Washington to build broad-based support for embattled democracy activists in his country.

Solih, the exiled leader of the Erk party, told a briefing at RFE/RL on 30 June that the violent events in Andijon last month underscore the erosion in patience of the Uzbek people toward the government.

Hundreds of mostly unarmed people are believed to have been killed after an uprising triggered by a trial of businessmen in Andijon. Solih said he hoped those events will move the West closer to embracing the democracy movement in Uzbekistan as the only path toward a stable transition of power.

"We do not ask for a lot from the West," Solih said. "We want the West to aid the legalization of political parties in Uzbekistan. We would like the West to aid the leaders of the opposition to function in Uzbekistan, to ensure the conduct of fair elections in Uzbekistan and the participation of the opposition in those elections and to ensure the existence of a free press. This in and of itself is enough to ensure the peaceful removal of this anti-democratic regime."

Solih announced that some key Uzbek opposition leaders have united and formed a new group -- the United Uzbek Democratic Coalition -- to press their cause. Solih was named their head.

Solih, who will be in the United States for several weeks, has held meetings with influential members of Congress such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican, Florida) of the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee. He has also met representatives of key nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from the United States, such as the National Democracy Institute, the International Republican Institute, and IFES, a Washington-based election-assistance organization.

He was also due to meet with officials of the Bush administration's National Security Council.

The State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Europe, Eurasia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus is Matthew Bryza. He told RFE/RL on 30 June that the United States remains intent on guiding democratic reforms in Uzbekistan. But he made clear that Washington is not planning to focus its interests on opposition activists despite concerns over the actions of the Karimov government.

Bryza said Solih's visit to Washington was coincidental and did not reflect new ties with the Uzbek opposition.

"We work across the board with all Uzbek people -- with the government, with the political opposition, with people in the middle. We want to work with the entire society, as we do in the neighboring broader Middle East," Bryza said. "And that's an enduring interest of ours, so we haven't grown any more active in our engagement with all Uzbekistan society. Maybe the world is paying more attention to our engagement now."

The Bush administration has repeatedly called for an independent international inquiry into the events in Andijon. It has also talked of possible diplomatic measures, including action at the United Nations, but has not made any specific threats.

Solih said in testimony on 29 June before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a human rights monitoring agency, that Karimov's departure would not result in a takeover of power by fundamentalist Muslims -- an argument Karimov himself has made.
"We will not bring the people out into the streets until we are sure that the Andijon events will not be repeated."

Solih later added that his movement is dedicated to peaceful change and will not condone acts by violent extremist organizations. And he told the RFE/RL briefing on 29 June that he has made contacts with Uzbeks linked to government security agencies to try to ensure that any future demonstrations are not met with violence.

"We will not bring the people out into the streets until we are sure that the Andijon events will not be repeated," Solih said.

Meanwhile, a co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Congressman Christopher Smith (Republican, New Jersey), says he is introducing this week the Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Act. It will aim to set conditions for all non-humanitarian U.S. assistance, both economic and military, to individual governments in the region.

Such assistance would be conditioned on whether each government is making "substantial, sustained and demonstrable progress" toward democratization and full respect of human rights.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service Director Adolat Najimova contributed to this report.)

See also:

Is Uzbekistan Headed For Regime Change?

For RFE/RL's full coverage of the recent violence in Uzbekistan, see "Unrest In Uzbekistan"