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Uzbekistan: Karimov, Bush To Hold Talks Amid Concerns Over Ramifications Of Closer Ties

Uzbek President Islam Karimov says better relations between Tashkent and Washington will help Uzbekistan expand democratic freedoms. Karimov is in the United States and is to have talks later today in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush and other top officials. Uzbekistan has offered solid support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan and has been rewarded with increased aid and political prestige. But human rights groups say the lack of religious, political, and media freedoms in Uzbekistan should not be ignored for the sake of political expediency. Correspondent Zamira Eshanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service takes a look at the implications of Karimov's visit to the United States.

Washington, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov is due to meet U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House later today for talks expected to focus on the ongoing war against terrorism and widening cooperation between the two nations.

Karimov says his talks with U.S. leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, will touch on strengthening democracy, market reforms, and new approaches toward human rights and media freedoms. During his four-day visit, Karimov will also meet with members of the U.S. Congress, World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and business leaders.

Karimov spoke to reporters yesterday about the benefits of Tashkent's new relationship with the United States:

"The establishment of the new relationship between Uzbekistan and the United States, the relationship of strategic partnership, also serves the interests of the countries that want to see a peaceful and calm Central Asia that does not pose a threat [to other countries]."

Karimov's visit to Washington, however, is seen by many as more symbolic than practical, a political reward for Uzbekistan's prompt cooperation in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in neighboring Afghanistan. Some 1,500 U.S. soldiers are currently deployed on Uzbekistan's southern Khanabad air base, near the Afghan border. Other observers believe, however, that Karimov will be practically rewarded for his efforts in the form of new U.S. and World Bank aid programs and credits. The U.S. recently announced a tripling of foreign aid to Uzbekistan, to $160 million.

Robert S. Pace is executive director of the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce. He believes Karimov's meetings with U.S. officials and business leaders will be productive but that any real boost in the economic relationship between the two countries depends largely on the speed of reforms in Uzbekistan.

"I think our companies are expecting that the government of Uzbekistan will continue with its program of gradual, step-by-step reforms. And I would say -- speaking for those companies -- [that] they anticipate a long and positive relationship with the government of Uzbekistan -- the government and the country of Uzbekistan."

Will Uzbekistan's closer ties with Washington remain once the war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has ended and the strategic importance of the country's military cooperation has diminished?

Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think-tank. Lieven believes the partnership between Tashkent and Washington could be a long one, given the continued threat of Islamic extremism in the region.

"Well, I suppose the point is that the war on terror in some form is going to last for a very long time, in the sense that even if they eliminate Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, as we've seen, still the threat of Islamic extremism in the region is going to remain. In that sense, the U.S. is going to be more closely involved, whatever happens. So I think probably Uzbekistan can reckon on a closer U.S. interest for a long time to come, although once Afghanistan is more or less sorted out, of course, Uzbekistan will diminish somewhat in importance as far as the Americans are concerned."

But Lieven warns that U.S. interest in a region such as Central Asia, even when it is accompanied by economic aid, does not necessarily result in stability and prosperity. He cites previous close partnerships between the U.S. and nations in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

"There will undoubtedly be more U.S. aid [to Central Asia]. The question is whether the states involved are actually capable of using that aid effectively. There have been many examples around the world of how the United States has given aid which frankly has only ended up enriching members of the government in power. I suppose Mobutu [Sese Seko of the former Zaire] in Africa was the most extreme example of this. So I'm afraid this stronger U.S. interest doesn't necessarily mean that this will be good for Uzbekistan or any of these other countries, as a whole. It will undoubtedly be good for the regime in power, at least in the short term."

Ahead of Karimov's visit, the New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Bush to exert pressure on Karimov to improve the human rights situation in the country. HRW says Uzbekistan restricts peaceful dissent and forces the country's opposition groups underground. The group called for the release of religious and political prisoners in Uzbekistan and a reform of laws used to persecute Muslims and political dissidents.

In addition, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- better known as the Helsinki Commission -- also plans to present a letter to Karimov during his Washington visit, calling on him to meet international human rights standards. And the U.S. State Department itself, in its annual human rights report released earlier this month, criticized Uzbekistan for restricting people's rights to freedom of association, religion, and the press.

Lieven says the human rights situation in Uzbekistan will not significantly change while Karimov is in power. He says that even if Bush does discuss with Karimov Washington's concerns about Tashkent's human rights violations, such talk will only be what Lieven calls "lip service."

"I think it'll just be lip service, unfortunately. I mean, more sensible American strategists, of course, do recognize that -- as was the case in Iran under the Shah -- really serious repression of the kind we see in Uzbekistan, far from strengthening the regime, can in many ways weaken it. But unfortunately, I think the dominant forces in the U.S. administration by now have complete contempt really for the question of human rights, except where it serves their interests."

In one sign of progress, Uzbekistan's Justice Ministry for the first time last week formally registered an independent human rights group -- the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan. The group will now be permitted to legally organize events in Uzbekistan.

Lieven, however, says he believes such gestures are purely cosmetic.