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Uzbekistan: Independence Has Not Translated Into Prosperity

The Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan declared its independence eight years ago on Sept. 1. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at what has changed and not changed in the former Soviet Republic during that time.

Prague, 2 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan has come farther than any of the other former Soviet republics in Central Asia in breaking its dependence on Moscow.

The country is self-sufficient for its energy needs, supplies nearly all of its own grain and produce needs and still exports great quantities of cotton, which guarantee a steady income.

But so far, independence has not translated into prosperity for the country's 24 million people. Wages remain low and prices for basic goods are high. And the villages help feed the urban populations but do not receive much in return.

One reason for Uzbekistan's poor economic showing is the strong premium it has put on security in a region where security is often a rare commodity. Tashkent has spent extravagantly on building up its defense forces. The buildup has seemed justified by a five-year civil war in neighboring Tajikistan and the ever-present conflict in Afghanistan, and it also has helped distance Uzbekistan from Russian power. But it has often come at the expense of infrastructure development programs.

By building up its military, Tashkent has seemed to declare its intention to become the leading military power in the region in the wake of Moscow's widespread withdrawal of its troops from Central Asia.

Yet the quest for security has also had political costs. President Islam Karimov has used the threat of instability from neighboring states to justify a rigid internal policy that tolerates no opposition. He remains the only president the country has known since it changed status from a Soviet republic to a separate country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Still, all Karimov's efforts at containing political opposition appear to have failed as the very threat he has most often used to excuse his harsh policies -- Islamic extremism -- has grown to become the country's biggest security concern.

In February, suspected Islamic extremists tried to kill Karimov in Tashkent. Despite a wave of arrests in spring and highly publicized trials where heavy justice was handed out this summer, the Islamic militants have not been frightened away. On the contrary. Today, they are fighting in the hills of southern Kyrgyzstan not far from the border with Uzbekistan. The extremists are citizens of Uzbekistan. They say they want to come home and change the government.

Karimov has called the rebels enemies of the state and common criminals. But no matter how Karimov presents them, the fact remains that they will continue to pose a genuine threat to Tashkent for the foreseeable future. The militants may be in Kyrgyzstan, which celebrated its Independence Day August 31, but some have likely already crept back into Uzbekistan. And others probably never left Uzbekistan but remain in hiding, waiting for a chance to strike against the government.

Uzbekistan has done what it can to contain this threat inside Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbek military fulfilled a request by Kyrgyzstan to send in bombers and eliminate the militants. Unfortunately, to date the only sure casualties from Uzbek bombs have been three Kyrgyz civilians killed in a mistaken attack on Sunday, as well as several dozen farm animals killed in mid-August when Uzbek planes bombed Tajikistan.

Some of the air strikes may have hit militants, but there is no way to confirm this in the rugged terrain of southern Kyrgyzstan. Since receiving protest notes from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the Foreign Ministry in Uzbekistan has suspended further air attacks.

How serious a regional problem the militants have become can also be seen by some of the guests who arrived in Tashkent for Independence Day. One, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, had just spent the last two days in Moscow in security talks with Kyrgyzstan's deputy prime minister and new defense minister.

The Kyrgyz officials were seeking Russian support in combating the militants, despite the strong desire among all the newly independent Central Asia states not to rely on Russia for their security.

So far, Russia seems in no hurry to inject troops into the conflict in Kyrgyzstan. Sergeyev told the Kyrgyz representatives that special equipment will be made available to the Kyrgyz military, but he advised the Kyrgyz delegation to find regional support for solving the problem in the country's south.

That may please Karimov, who long has been against relying on Russian troops in Central Asia. Several years ago, he even went so far as to say that counties that rely on Russian troops to guard their borders are, in effect, slaves to Moscow. At that time, Uzbekistan was the only Central Asian country in the CIS not to have Russian border guards stationed on its soil.

Now, in the absence of Russian troops and with the conflict still flaring in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan seems to have an opportunity to prove it is the region's leading military power. Bishkek appears reluctant to fight an enemy that is holding both Kyrgyz and foreign citizens hostages. It also seems to feel the conflict with the Uzbek rebels is not really its fight. That increasingly may -- in the eyes of the region's other states -- put responsibility for both the start and finish of the conflict squarely on Tashkent.

But with responsibility also comes a challenge. Success could propel Uzbekistan into the role of regional leader, which Karimov has long hoped to play. But failure could raise widespread questions among ordinary Uzbeks about whether all his expenditures for security have been worth the economic sacrifices.