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Central Asia: Albright Discusses Security And Other Issues

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright finished her three-country tour of Central Asia on 19 April. Before she left for Washington, Albright held a press conference in Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent and spoke with Arral Azizullo of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Our correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that Albright addressed a wide range of issues concerning Uzbekistan and the region.

Prague, 20 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's main concern during meetings in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan was regional security.

Security became the dominant issue for the region last year, when a series of insurrections and terrorist attacks shook the confidence of several Central Asian governments. In February 1999, terrorists planted bombs in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in an apparent attempt to kill President Islam Karimov. In August, hundreds of mainly Uzbek Islamic militants, believed to be the same group, crossed from Tajikistan into southern Kyrgyzstan, seized villages, and took hostages in what became a two-month standoff. The threat of further acts of terrorism and the chronic problem of drug trafficking have also caused tensions among countries in the region.

Albright said the United States will help governments in the region fight terrorism. She spoke to RFE/RL about the aid available to Uzbekistan.

"We intend to provide approximately $3 million in assistance for equipment and training to help Uzbekistan combat terrorism and the illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, conventional arms and narcotics and the assistance will be provided through the State Department's anti-terrorist assistance program, non-proliferation export control and border security assistance programs and counter-narcotics and law enforcement training programs."

The same amount and type of assistance will also go to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Albright also spoke about recent problems in demarcating national borders in the region. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have all complained in the last year that Uzbekistan has unilaterally marked its borders, often well inside what the other countries consider their territory.

"I think it's important for these countries to work together to resolve these conflicts and to understand that their borders, particularly many of which go through mountains and have difficult terrain, that they be delineated in a way that helps to solve problems and not create new ones."

Western and Russian media have increasingly been speculating that Russia and the United States are competing for influence in Central Asia. Both countries have offered help to the Central Asian states in countering the terrorist threat in the region. But Albright denied there is any such competition.

"First of all, we are not involved in a zero-sum game with the Russians. The Russians are neighbors and we have no problem, obviously, with good neighborly relations with Russia."

Turning specifically to Uzbekistan, Albright called for economic reforms, such as working to make the national currency, the sum, convertible. The Uzbek government sets the rate for the sum and has not changed it significantly for several years.

"The president and I also had an in-depth review of economic issues, including ways to make Uzbekistan more attractive to foreign investment. Nothing would do more to bring in more investment than establishing full currency convertibility. In today's global economy, a non-convertible currency is a huge handicap to economic growth."

Human rights groups have complained that the Uzbek government has mistreated its opposition. Uzbek authorities arrested hundreds of people after last year's terrorist attacks, including many peaceful Muslims. Conditions in jails are said to be abominable, and the government has a poor record of cooperating with human rights organizations trying to investigate charges of abuse.

Albright raised this question in her meeting with Karimov Tuesday and spoke about it at a press conference later that day.

"We had a frank discussion of the importance of meeting international norms on a variety of human rights issues. Uzbekistan would move closer to those norms by cooperating with international humanitarian organizations to arrange visits to Uzbekistan's prisons, by expanding the registration of human rights organizations, and protecting human rights defenders."

Earlier during her visit to Uzbekistan, Albright had warned that government repression of political and religious opposition can lead to terrorist activity by compelling moderate forces to take radical actions.

Albright's visit to Central Asia comes at an important time. The countries of the region are extremely worried about Islamic extremists. High-level visits by those who can offer substantial help may prevent the tendency of governments in Central Asia to resort to excessive means to solve their problems.

(Arral Azizullo of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)