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Uzbekistan: EBRD Chief To Meet Karimov Amid Criticism On Board Meeting In Tashkent

The latest "Transition Report" by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) confirms that Uzbekistan ranks alongside Turkmenistan and Belarus as one of the most tightly controlled republics in the former Soviet Union. Despite Tashkent's poor record on both economic and democratic reforms, the EBRD is, for now, still planning to conduct its annual board meeting in the Uzbek capital next May. But RFE/RL that EBRD President Jean Lemierre is conducting a personal investigation of the situation in Uzbekistan during a three-day visit to the country that starts tomorrow.

Prague, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The decision of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to conduct its annual board meeting in Uzbekistan next May has opened the London-based institution up to strong criticism from human rights groups.

That's because the EBRD has a mandate to foster democracy and market economics within the 27 former communist countries that it operates. Yet according to the EBRD's own latest data -- which was released this week in the bank's annual "Transition Report" -- Uzbekistan continues to rank alongside Turkmenistan and Belarus as the former Soviet republics that have the worst reform records.

Sources within the EBRD told RFE/RL today that bank President Jean Lemierre will personally investigate the political, economic, and human rights situation in Uzbekistan during a three-day visit to the country that starts tomorrow.

Lemierre is scheduled to meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The agenda of those talks includes Tashkent's poor record on economic and political reforms, as well as next May's EBRD board meeting. One EBRD official, who requested anonymity, told RFE/RL that the human rights situation in the country will be discussed in "broad terms." That EBRD official stressed that there has not been any decision to move the board meeting away from Tashkent. The official said that if there is a decision to cancel the Tashkent meeting, it will not be announced until after Lemierre's visit this week.

EBRD Chief Economist Willem Buiter told RFE/RL yesterday that the newly released "Transition Report" shows the bank is not downplaying concerns about the lack of reform in Uzbekistan. "We did point out in the specific section of the ["Transition] Report" that deals with Uzbekistan -- and elsewhere in the report -- that Uzbekistan had not made any reform progress this year, at any rate, and very little for quite a long time now. [Also] it pointed out that [Uzbekistan] is amongst the least advanced of the transition countries [that are] our 27 countries of operations. We made that very clear and very open. We are not mincing our words there."

Buiter said it would be wrong for Karimov's regime to suggest that the bank's board meeting in Tashkent signals EBRD support for the record of Karimov's regime on democratic and economic reforms. He also said it would be wrong to suggest that having the meeting in Tashkent is the result of pressure from Washington to reward Uzbekistan for the role it played in the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.

"In the 11 years that the bank has been operating, we have never had an annual meeting in Central Asia. And it was time. We decided this [before 11 September], but I think the events of 11 September point out that the region doesn't just have human and economic significance, but it has also got global strategic significance. So an annual meeting in Central Asia was overdue. The center, the core of Central Asia, is Uzbekistan. It has 25 million people. That's as much as the rest of the region combined. So that was the place to go. We are going there not to approve or disapprove. We say very clearly what our views are on the economic development in the country. We also will very clearly bring our message to the country that political pluralism and successful economic reform go hand in hand. There can be no sustained growth [or] sustained development in the economic sphere that is not also reflected in the political sphere."

New York-based Human Rights Watch is one of several groups that has been trying to convince the EBRD to use the meeting in Tashkent as a way to pressure Karimov's regime into changing oppressive practices. Marie Struthers, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Moscow who has conducted extensive field research in Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL today that she thinks it would unrealistic to expect the EBRD to change the location of the meeting at the last minute.

But Steve Crawshaw, who directs the London office of Human Rights Watch, said that the EBRD should, indeed, threaten to move the meeting elsewhere if Karimov's regime doesn't immediately bring an end to the use of torture and arbitrary detention against potential political opponents and activists. "It is extraordinarily important that if this meeting is to go ahead, it must not be perceived as an endorsement -- let alone that Islam Karimov, the Uzbek president, should be able to use this as an endorsement of his regime and all that is happening there. We are very worried that the EBRD -- that the bank-- is at the moment allowing this [board meeting] to go ahead believing that this will go in the direction of democracy. What, in practice, is happening is the regime is taking this as an endorsement of its appalling behavior which already exists."

Considering the tight press controls that exist in Uzbekistan, Crawshaw said he expects the Uzbek media to characterize an EBRD board meeting in Tashkent as a sign that the international community approves of the behavior of Karimov's regime. "The EBRD still believes somehow that by going ahead with the meeting it will send the right message. We think that under present circumstances, that is absolutely wrong. It is extraordinarily naive of the bank -- which, after all, has had dealings with many of these kinds of regimes over the years -- it's extraordinarily naive not to understand how a regime like that will use [the EBRD's meeting.] It will be top of the TV. [State-controlled broadcasters will say,] 'Isn't it marvelous. All these limousines are appearing in town.' [And they will] link it precisely to [claims by Tashkent that it has made progress on] democracy. The fact that the bank says [the meeting] is not meant as an endorsement will absolutely be swallowed up. You're not going to hear that from the Uzbek regime."

Human Rights Watch isn't alone in its criticism of Uzbekistan's poor record on democracy and market reforms. The United Nations Committee Against Torture last May released a highly critical report charging that Tashkent is in violation of the international convention against torture. The UN group has demanded an investigation into thousands of cases of arbitrary arrests and the alleged torture of individuals who have been critical of Karimov's regime.

A U.S. State Department report issued this year widely echoes the findings of the UN committee. It charges that Uzbek police and the country's National Security Service have routinely used torture and mistreated detainees to obtain confessions or incriminating statements. The U.S. State Department says Uzbekistan's record on human rights is very poor and that officials in the country continue to commit serious abuses.

It says citizens of Uzbekistan face difficulties if they try to exercise the right to change their government peacefully. It notes that the Uzbek government does not permit the existence of opposition political parties. It also says the Uzbek government severely restricts freedom of speech and the press -- and that an atmosphere of repression stifles public criticism about Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his government.

On economic reforms, the U.S. Department of State notes that Uzbekistan's banking system remains closely controlled by the state through a complex set of regulations, decrees and practices. It says most loans are directed by the government, financed through the Central Bank of Uzbekistan and guaranteed by the Ministry of Finance. There are few private banks, and those that exist are very small.

Another study critical of Uzbekistan's record on economic reform is the "Index of Economic Freedom," which was released earlier this month by the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation and "The Wall Street Journal." The "Index of Economic Freedom" ranks Uzbekistan near the bottom of its list -- placing it 149th out of the 156 countries surveyed. The authors of that study categorized Uzbekistan as "repressed" in terms of economic freedom.

The "Index of Economic Freedom" says Uzbekistan's trade policies reveal a "very high level of protectionism." It says the country's banking and finance sector suffers from a "very high level of restrictions," which discourage foreign investment. Regulations faced by emerging private businesses also were described as "very high." It also says protections for those who own private property in Uzbekistan are weak. It also notes a high level of corruption and black-market activity in the country.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), elaborating on the issue of corruption, has described the Uzbek judiciary as "subordinate" to Karimov's regime. It says Uzbekistan's judicial procedures fall far short of international standards -- and that this "contributes to widespread corruption."

The EIU also warns that reforms in Uzbekistan's agricultural sector have been undermined by prohibitions against private ownership of land, which can only be leased. Indeed, there is no land market in Uzbekistan. And although leasehold rights are legally permanent and inheritable, they often are curtailed by local authorities who have considerable discretion over the rights of private farmers.

Last month, the British-based "The Economist" magazine published a report about the EBRD's choice of Uzbekistan for next year's meeting under the headline "European Bank for Repression and Dictatorship?" That report asked rhetorically what the EBRD's leadership could have been thinking of when they decided upon Tashkent for its next meeting.