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The Annual Meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)
commencing on 3 May 2003 is an opportunity to assess frankly and honestly the records of the
governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. If the chance is
grasped to push for reform in a more coordinated and concerted way, the controversial decision to
hold this meeting in Tashkent will prove well justified. If it is not, and any impression is left
that the location of the meeting is a mark of approval for Uzbekistan's current policies, there is a
major risk of further deterioration in both the economic and security climate in Central Asia.
Uzbekistan was certainly a difficult choice for the annual meeting of a major
international financial organisation committed to democratic principles and open economies. According
to the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, it ranks 149th out of 156 countries in
terms of economic freedom, worse than Burma, although slightly better than Cuba. In Freedom House's
rankings of political freedoms and civil rights, it is termed "not free", with a ranking of 6.5 out
of 7 (Saddam Hussein's Iraq scored 7, as did Turkmenistan).
Instead of enjoying the transition to democracy and open economies as experienced
in much of Central Europe, in Uzbekistan as elsewhere in Central Asia a different type of political
and economic system has begun to emerge, closer to authoritarian feudalism than democracy. Economies
have remained largely closed to free competition and frequently distorted by government intervention
The reality of these systems is seldom recognised by the international community,
which has too often taken government rhetoric about democratisation and reform at face value. The
problem is not just a lack of political will to pursue reforms, but in many cases active political
actions in opposition to reform, while retaining a façade of pro-Western rhetoric to maintain the
flow of credits and grants.
Central Asian states can sometimes appear to be relatively stable on the surface,
but this stability is a dangerously thin veneer over a host of unresolved tensions. The issue at
stake is not merely the economic prosperity of Central Asia, but its political stability and the
potential for future unrest that would have a huge impact on the wider region.
All the states of the region face tremendous challenges:
Now is a good time to reassess the problems and prospects of Central Asia. The EBRD
meeting offers just such a chance but it needs to take a realistic view of the real problems that
the five states face and offer practical solutions that will make a difference.
The EBRD has set out some broad themes for discussion at the meeting, addressing:
This briefing provides an overview of the issues and suggests some ways in which
the pressure for change from organisations such as the EBRD could turn into real reform.
Osh/Brussels, 29 April 2003