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

Uzbek Leaders Gloss Over Reform Calls

EBRD urges improvements in human rights and economic policy, but Uzbek government shows no sign of budging.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

The annual meeting of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, EBRD, ended on May 5 amid criticism of the bank's strategy for encouraging reform in the host country, Uzbekistan.


The Uzbek government had hailed the two-day meeting as proof of its acceptance into the international community. But well before the meeting started, the EBRD was under fire for according it this credibility.


The bank justified its choice by saying the meeting would be used to extract promises of reform from the Uzbek government, and pressed President Islam Karimov to make a speech publicly condemning the use of torture and other violations of human rights.


The EBRD's approach came under criticism during the event itself. Speaking on day one, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth noted that the choice of venue "has been controversial because Uzbekistan does not come close to meeting the EBRD's political or economic goals".


Roth welcomed the participation of non-government organisations, including local human rights groups, with whom Lemierre had a meeting. "Admitting local NGOs was a positive step, but the EBRD was unable to work out arrangements to gain greater concessions from the government before the meeting in Tashkent," he said.


Contrary to expectations, Karimov merely used his speech to enumerate the "radical democratic changes" introduced by his parliament in recent months, such as the restructuring of parliament and the abolition of formal censorship. Yet he failed to acknowledge or address the fundamental patterns of abuse carried out by law enforcement agencies and the judiciary.


Analysts in Tashkent said that Karimov's bland, non-committal remarks put the EBRD leadership in an awkward position. An announcement containing real changes would have demonstrated the effectiveness of the EBRD's strategy of engagement, they said.


Renunciation of torture was central to the European bank's demands, following a visit in December by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Theo van Boven, who described the use of torture as "systematic".


When IWPR questioned EBRD president Jean Lemierre on why Karimov did not talk about torture, he said, "What we have heard does not meet the conditions for fulfillment of the benchmarks the board of the bank has made public. There is explicit mention in the benchmarks of the UN report on torture."


Lemierre restated the bank's strategy, first announced in March, to set seven benchmarks for progress on political and economic reform. Uzbekistan's performance on all seven - including economic liberalisation as well as ending torture and increasing political freedoms - will be measured over the next year, after which the EBRD warns it will restrict new lending if no progress has been seen.


The EBRD is serious about this process, Lemierre stressed, "The trend with regard to all the benchmarks will be crucial. Then the board of the bank will take a decision either to move on, or to reduce the exposure to the risk we take."


Human Rights Watch's Roth warned that the bank might fail to live up to these tough promises. He said there was a danger that it might announce that progress had been made even if little had actually been achieved.


The bank's mandate makes commitment to democracy and market economics preconditions for lending to a country. Uzbekistan's commitment to both are widely questioned, yet the EBRD has been a significant lender to Uzbekistan, earmarking 612 million euro to date. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund has not lent the Uzbeks anything since it suspended its credit line in 1996 over concerns about stalled economic reforms.


At the meeting, Uzbek officials and the EBRD remained as far apart on economic matters as on human rights. The bank's chief economist Willem Buiter told journalists that if the government fails to undertake reforms and instead continues its current economic policies "Uzbekistan will be the poorest country in the region".


These reforms include ending controls on the exchange rate, liberalisation of trade, privatisation, banking sector reform, and allowing farmers to sell their produce freely rather than to the state.


According to Buiter, Uzbekistan is failing to attract foreign direct investment, earning just 150 million dollars last year. "Foreign investment in Uzbekistan in 2002 came to 6 dollars per capita, which is even lower than in Turkmenistan," said Buiter.


Yet Uzbek finance minister Mamarizo Nurmuradov said, "Uzbekistan has achieved very high results in the area of economic reform, and all the conditions for foreign investors have been created."


Nurmuradov's audience of journalists laughed out loud when he suggested said that the minimum subsistence level of about 11 dollars for a month was not as bad as it seemed because, "You're forgetting that Uzbek citizens also have vegetable patches."


David Lewis, an expert on Central Asia with the International Crisis Group, doubts the Uzbek government will make serious attempts to address the EBRD's list of demands, either political or economic. He told IWPR that the government may make some cosmetic changes, registering some non-government organisations or amnestying some prisoners. On the economic front, he sees no chance that the authorities will liberalise currency exchange or trade.


His pessimism is based on what was said - or not said - at the meeting, "During the EBRD meeting the Uzbek authorities did not make a single announcement about how the government plans to implement these changes."


Lewis said the EBRD meeting did represent a change in that it was the first time the government had had to deal with such an onslaught of criticism.


"But sadly, this criticism did not get through to the public," he added.


Reporting in Uzbekistan's state-controlled media was uniformly upbeat, if inaccurate. For example, one news report on Uzbek television said, "The EBRD is prepared to cooperate with Uzbekistan. Jean Lemierre said the investment climate of Uzbekistan was excellent for foreign investors."


Nor did the media report a protest by around 20 human rights activists outside the building where the EBRD meeting was held. Uzbek authorities allowed the protest to take place, but often had more uniformed and plain-clothes security men on the scene than there were protesters.


Talib Yakubov, head of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, warned that things could worsen once the spotlight is off the country, "We are… afraid that the government will ensure that the EBRD turns its back on us, and then dark days will begin for Uzbekistan - although things can't be any worse than they are now."


The coming year will show whether the EBRD is prepared to tackle the Uzbek government head on as it presses for political and economic change. If the bank is serious about its demands, this week's meeting shows how far the government has to go in even recognising that there is a problem.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR director in Uzbekistan


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