Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbek Capital Gears Up for EBRD

Human rights groups voice concerns about accolade EBRD meeting will give Uzbekistan.
By Ulugbek Khaidarov

In the run-up to a meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD, Uzbekistan has come under renewed criticism for its poor human rights record.


The EBRD's annual meeting in Tashkent on May 4-5 will be the first the bank has held in Central Asia. As such it is something of a coup for the Uzbek government, which has had a rocky relationship with international lenders as well as human rights groups.


At least 2,000 participants are expected to attend, and although the meeting is not actually about Uzbekistan, the government is clearly hoping it will be an opportunity to attract investment. "The choice of Tashkent… means that it is taking on the role of an international financial centre not just in the Central Asian region, but outside it as well," economics minister Rustam Azimov told a press conference.


Not everyone agrees that Uzbekistan was a wise choice of venue for EBRD. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on May 2 criticising Uzbekistan's record on human rights and questioning the EBRD's judgement. "The bank has justified the choice of Tashkent as an incentive for reform," said Elizabeth Andersen, head of the organisation's Europe and Central Asia division.


"But talk of future improvements will be empty if at the same time the Uzbek authorities are harassing, beating and arbitrarily detaining people."


The EBRD's mandate says that it must only work in countries that are committed to democratic principles. Its latest strategy paper for Uzbekistan, published in March, raises concerns about systematic violations of human rights, arbitrary detention and torture, and the development of multi-party democracy. According to Human Rights Watch, it should use the meeting to push for reforms in Uzbekistan.


"The bank squandered important leverage by not making the need for human rights improvements a condition for the meeting. Bank officials should speak out about human rights concerns at the meeting and engage in serious and sustained follow-up after it," Andersen said.


Within Uzbekistan, human rights activists are just as critical.


"We think that by cooperating with the government of Uzbekistan, where people are imprisoned for their beliefs and human rights activity, the EBRD is breaking its own regulations," said Talib Yakubov, head of the Human Rights Society for Uzbekistan, HRSU.


Yakubov thinks the EBRD should make investment policy conditional on improvements in human rights.


About 10 human rights activists demonstrated outside the prosecutor's office in central Tashkent on April 29 at the start of six days of planned protests. They carried placards demanding changes to government policy and the release of HRSU members Tursunbai Otamuradov, Jura Muradov, Musulmankul Khamraev and Norpulat Rajabov. All four were arrested last May.


The authorities are clearly concerned by the possibility that the showcase event will be disturbed. The Tashkent mayor's office said police are on high alert.


"The number of police in the city will be increased by 10 per cent, and the sites of EBRD meetings and hotels will be heavily guarded," said press officer Dilshod Nazirov.


At least a week before the forum was due to start, Uzbek police began controlling entry to the city and checking everyone's passport. There are reports that the city will be completely closed to non-residents during the meeting.


The authorities have done their best to make Tashkent look tidy. Roads have been repaired and flowers planted along them, and buildings have been spruced up.


In a matter of months, hotels that had long stood neglected have been transformed into opulent establishments, and have changed their old Soviet names to new western ones. The Tashkent Hotel is now Le Meridien Tashkent Palace, and the Hotel Russia is the Grand Mir. The facelift was embarked on in a hurry when officials realised that the city had good quality hotel capacity for 700 people, compared with the 2,500 guests who might turn up.


To meet the deadline, labourers worked on building sites in three shifts, 24 hours a day. Many of them were recruited from the countryside and virtually lived in the hotels as they were being rebuilt, eating and sleeping on the sites.


However, many people in Tashkent are asking who will stay in the revamped hotels once the visitors have left. They have had millions of dollars invested in them, and may yet prove to be white elephants. Managers at the two existing luxury hotels, the Inter-Continental and the Sheraton, say they are usually only 45 per cent full.


At the same time, ordinary Uzbeks who could afford the hotels when they were still dingy and unreconstructed will find they have nowhere to stay when they come to the capital.


Ulugbek Khaidarov is an IWPR contributor in Tashkent


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