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Central Asia: U.S. Official Says Engagement Key To Reform

Washington's relations with Central Asia have changed dramatically since the war on terrorism started last fall. But as the U.S. steps up its military engagement with the region's authoritarian governments, the key U.S. diplomat to the region says America will also continue to press for human rights and democratic reform.

Washington, 12 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The chief U.S. diplomat in charge of relations with Central Asia says the war on terrorism is helping Washington make progress in prodding the autocratic governments of Central Asia toward economic and political reforms.

But Elizabeth Jones, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told a briefing yesterday that Central Asia's road toward democratic and economic reforms and respect for human rights is bound to be long and bumpy -- but that the U.S. must travel it to the end.

Recently back from a two-week tour of Central Asia, Jones said she had extensive talks with leaders and senior officials of the region's five governments, all of which have lent key military, logistical or humanitarian assistance to the U.S.-led war on terrorism in nearby Afghanistan.

Jones said that despite serious problems, there are increasing signs that dialogue is improving and that long-term engagement is possible with all Central Asian nations. And she said that after the last few months of cooperation, the dialogue has become more open -- even on prickly subjects like human rights and political reform.

Jones summed up the new feeling this way: "The biggest difference is that we actually can have a civil conversation about the importance of all these things."

Reiterating previous U.S. statements, Jones said neither America nor any Central Asian countries want to establish permanent U.S. military bases in the region. Jones also said the U.S. presence in Central Asia is not upsetting Russia and that Washington's goal is to be as transparent as possible in its moves in the region.

So far, she said bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been vital to supporting U.S. aircraft operating over Afghanistan, adding that 40 percent of all humanitarian aid to Afghanistan since October has been channeled through Turkmenistan.

But she said that while the U.S. seeks to build a long-term security relationship with all Central Asian countries, Washington is stressing that respect for human rights, democracy, and economic reform is indispensable to security and stability.

Jones rejected charges that U.S. military engagement in Central Asia has resulted in a diminution of American concern for alleged human rights abuses and lack of progress toward political reform. In fact, she said the opposite is true.

"There's a lot of talk about how, because we have new military relationships with several of these governments, that somehow we're giving a bye to human rights and democracy. In fact, the opposite is the case," Jones said. "And we are finding it easier -- because we have so much more contact -- we have an easier time discussing each of these issues with the governments of the region, particularly Uzbekistan and particularly Kyrgyzstan."

Jones said that in the case of Uzbekistan, the U.S. has noted progress. She said President Islam Karimov recently granted amnesty to 2,800 political prisoners and agreed to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect Uzbekistan's pre-detention centers. Policemen were also convicted for beating a prisoner to death.

But she did not refrain from mocking Karimov's reply to U.S. charges that a recent referendum extending his term in office was not democratic, calling his answer disrespectful to the Uzbek people.

"President Karimov's answer to that is, 'We have to keep things under control because people aren't mature enough to understand how to do this right,'" Jones said.

But Jones, while urging Karimov to allow the United Nations special envoy on torture to inspect Uzbek prisons, was upbeat about other possible reforms by Tashkent. She said the U.S. is hopeful the government will allow non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to register officially. And she added that Karimov wants real market reforms and is softening his resistance to Western economic integration.

"They now believe, starting with the president, that the time is right for Uzbekistan to loosen up on its economic reform," Jones said. "They are talking in terms of allowing convertibility within the next six months. They're talking in terms of exchange rate reform to bring all the different layers of exchange rates to one exchange rate."

However, Jones acknowledged that U.S. officials are painfully aware that each side has a different idea of what engagement with Washington means. She said most leaders in the region -- especially Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov -- don't seem to understand America's concern that religious rights must be respected.

Jones said cracking down on Muslims only makes radical groups like the IMU, or Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, more enticing to the disaffected: "You can't arrest people for being devout Muslims. The worst thing you can do is go into a mosque and arrest a bunch of kids for praying. All you've done is create more IMU adherents. You can go after them only on the basis of terrorist activities, planned or completed."

As for other countries in the region, Jones said the key issue in Kazakhstan is to expand on the democratic foundations already laid by allowing further participation in politics by the media and NGOs. She also welcomed a decision to allow a member of the Democratic Choice party to join the government.

As for Kyrgyzstan, Jones said the U.S. still hopes President Askar Akaev will return the country to the democratic ways of the early 1990s, when Bishkek was called a model for democratic transition in the region. She expressed deep regret that journalist Sheraly Nazarkulov, the deputy head of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan, recently died after a hunger strike to protest the arrest of an opposition lawmaker.

Asked what leverage the U.S. will have over Central Asian countries if they choose to forgo reforms while welcoming increased U.S. engagement and aid, Jones said U.S. officials will continue to press them.

She added that the U.S. -- although it is tripling its outlay to Uzbekistan to $160 million in next year's budgets -- gives almost all of its money to private civil society groups and non-governmental organizations and virtually none to the governments themselves.