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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Since October 2001, Uzbekistan
has been a key ally of the U.S.
in the military campaign in Afghanistan.
A U.S. base has
been established and a far-reaching Agreement on Strategic Partnership was
signed in March 2002. Uzbekistan,
however, sits uncomfortably in a campaign known as "Enduring Freedom." It is
one of the most authoritarian of the post-Soviet states, with a poor record on
human rights and an economy that still owes much more to Soviet central
planning than the market.
The new relationship with the U.S.
seemed to open up the possibility of a wide range of political, and economic
reforms. At the beginning of 2002, many suggested that Uzbekistan
had a 'window of opportunity' through which to push reforms in a favourable
international environment. This report concludes that reforms have largely
failed so far and that present international policies are unlikely to persuade
the government to change course significantly in 2003.
Many Soviet structures have been preserved from repressive
law enforcement agencies to an economic system still dominated by the state.
There is very little press freedom, elections are entirely under executive
control, there is no legal political opposition, and there is widespread
persecution of regime opponents. At least 7,000 people are imprisoned for
religious or political beliefs; torture and brutality in police custody and in
prisons are commonplace.
The repressive political apparatus is matched by an economic
system in which a small elite manages key export sectors, ensuring personal
enrichment in the process. But the overall economy does not allow the growth of
a significant private sector. Businessmen face a hostile bureaucracy,
government interference, high taxes, and a constantly-changing legislative
environment. The judiciary provides little defence of contracts, and the
multiple exchange-rate system for foreign currency ensures that access to U.S.
dollars is possible only for a few favoured businessmen linked to government
The state still dominates agriculture, and much of the
product consists of state-order cotton. Almost no profit from export crops
remains with farmers. Poverty is growing fast, and with it a sense of
hopelessness, especially among young people. Illegal migration of the
unemployed to cities is reaching record levels and producing a marginalised,
embittered minority. This social discontent threatens to undermine stability
and provides fertile ground for Islamic radical groups. Only labour migration
abroad provides something of a safety valve.
This report examines the promises made by the Uzbek
government to change the system. While political reforms were outlined in the
agreement with the U.S.,
economic reforms have been the subject of a detailed plan drawn up with the
IMF. This report examines how far the government has met its public
commitments, and how much farther it has to go.
Political reform has been largely non-existent. A referendum
in January 2002 was not monitored by international organisations, but observers
concluded it was largely rigged in favour of the government. The electorate
approved a two-year extension of President Karimov's rule and the creation of a
new bicameral parliament to replace the one-chamber, rubber-stamp body, but
with no indication that parliamentary elections due in late 2004 would be more
There have been some small positive human rigthts steps,
with a decline in arrests in early 2002 and the registration of one human
rights group in March 2002. But arrests on the basis of political or religious
ideas have continued, with hundreds sentenced in 2002 after trials that did not
meet international standards. Several well-publicised cases of torture and
killings in prisons have undermined positive moves, such as the visit of the
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. Other human rights groups seeking
registration have been refused, and a number of human rights activists were
arrested during 2002. Strong rhetoric on judicial reform by President Karimov
has not yet translated to real improvements.
An IMF Staff Monitored Program (SMP) agreed in January 2002
was supposed to lead to major agricultural reforms, improvements in the banking
system, trade liberalisation, and moves toward foreign exchange convertibility
by July 2002. The government met none of the key targets, although it did
achieve some less difficult technical requirements. The centrepiece – progress
on foreign exchange liberalisation and convertibility of the Uzbek som – was
not met, although there was some devaluation of official exchange rates and limited
relaxation of the exchange regime.
After the government failed to take advantage of an
extension of the reform program for an additional two months, an IMF mission
departed in September 2002, offering to return only when the main planks were
achieved. This failure was accentuated by bad government decisions, including
new tariffs on imports and extra documentation requirements on private traders
that seriously damaged cross-border trade and emptied bazaars across the
country. Further decrees undermined the legal basis of privatised companies,
suggesting they could be nationalised, and placed capital restrictions on
import-export companies that ensured small and medium-sized companies would be
unable to trade.
The reasons why the government failed to take advantage of
an improved external environment and widespread international support to move
on reform are complex but mostly relate to a political system dominated by
vested interests at all levels that have a considerable investment in retaining
the status quo. A bureaucratic machine that fears change and lacks the capacity
to implement reforms has also slowed any program. A people with a long history
of authoritarian rulers has also been slow to take independent action and
struggle for new freedoms.
Visiting Western legislators and officials tended to take
President Karimov's pro-reform rhetoric at face value. Few openly criticised
the regime’s appalling human rights record and hardly any commented publicly on
the lack of a functioning parliament or free press. While some compromises are
necessary in an era of military action, this blindness to the problems of the
system does not help those in the elite who have long pushed quietly for reform
from inside. They are few in number and lack the clout to effect real change.
But they are the potential future leaders whom Western partners of Uzbekistan
should be supporting, rather than the present corrupt elite that has little
interest in the success of any reform program.
Uzbekistan enjoyed a uniquely positive
environment in which to pursue reforms in 2002. The
longer they are delayed, the harder peaceful change will be. The need for
reform has only been accentuated by rumours of President Karimov’s ill health
that have gained increasing credence. There is a danger that infighting over
positioning for a succession could lead to serious instability in the absence
of any normal political process for change at the top and against a background
of sharp economic decline. Uzbekistan’s
future looks bleak unless serious economic and political reforms are
implemented. Economic growth hardly keeps pace with the population;
unemployment is rife, and poverty is deepening. Now is the time for these
reforms. Delay may mean that they will never be effected at all.
To the government of Uzbekistan:
On economic policy
1. Address the outstanding issues of the IMF Staff Monitored
(a) the devaluation and moves toward convertibility of the som
and liberalised access to foreign exchange; and
(b) serious measures to diminish the state's role in setting
prices for agricultural products, permitting farmers free choice in selling
cotton and grain.
2. Annul government decrees threatening re-nationalisation of
3. Annul decrees and regulations restricting cross-border
trade, in particular the decree on the minimum size of companies involved in
import-export business, and end the high tariffs on private traders.
On political reform
4. Begin moves towards greater political pluralism, including:
(a) permit all political parties, human rights groups and other
NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice; and
(b) reform the complicated process of registration and the
implicit threat it holds over independent organisations.
5. Advance parliamentary elections to early 2004, with a
package of measures designed to:
(a) guarantee that all registered social and political movements
will be permitted to register candidates for the election;
(b) reform the electoral law and the law on political parties to
make registration of candidates simpler, in line with existing recommendations
of the OSCE/ODIHR;
(c) implement new regulations allowing the financing of
political parties from independent sources;
(d) include representatives of all political parties on the
electoral commission; and
(e) reform the regulations of the parliament to ensure that
deputies have real access to information, to force ministers to appear before
public hearings, and to allow genuine opportunities for debate.
On human rights
6. Implement immediately measures to stem unwarranted arrests
and abuses of human rights by law enforcement agencies and implement the
forthcoming recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
7. Establish an independent commission to investigate all
complaints of police brutality and all deaths in custody and that has powers to
make public the results of investigations and launch criminal cases against
8. Use the amnesty announced on 6 December 2002
to release prisoners arrested on
religious or political grounds, ensuring that decisions on release are decided
by an authoritative commission and not prison officials.
On the media
9. End harassment of journalists over critical articles and
ensure that ministers hold press-conferences and face media scrutiny of their
10. Ensure that new laws on the media do not restrict access to
information or introduce new offences that would limit freedom of the press.
To the government of the United States:
11. Report publicly to Congress in March 2003 on the extent to
which both sides have met their obligations under the Agreement on Strategic
Partnership with Uzbekistan.
12. Use the democratisation elements of that agreement to draw
up with the Uzbek government a more detailed public document of political
reform measures that includes concrete benchmarks on electoral reform and the
holding of early elections to parliament.
To the IMF:
13. Continue to insist on real and full compliance with the
terms of the Staff Monitored Program (SMP) before any discussions of a stand-by
agreement can begin.
To other International Financial Institutions:
14. Continue to link all lending to macroeconomic change and
compliance with the IMF reform program.
15. Refuse new lending to the agricultural sector until serious
reforms have begun, including addressing child labour and the exploitation of
To the European Union:
16. Use the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan
to raise issues of democratisation, human rights and economic reform, and draw
up a timetable for reform in all three areas.
17. Prepare more common public positions with the U.S.,
and where appropriate, the Russian Federation,
to provide a united policy of support for reform.
To the EBRD:
18. Insist that the EBRD annual meeting in Tashkent
in May 2003 is conducted in an open manner that throws the spotlight on the political
and economic problems faced by Uzbekistan
and in particular:
(a) ensure that there is access to the annual meeting for
international and local NGOs and other independent groups, including human
(b) ensure that all journalists and delegates are provided visas
and accreditation and that independent experts are permitted to speak and take
part in the meeting as appropriate under EBRD rules; and
(c) arrange coverage of the meeting by an independent television
producer and for the resulting program to be shown on Uzbek television with a
full and correct translation.
To international donors:
19. Increase engagement with civil society, aiming particularly
at boosting advocacy efforts, formation of associations, legal assistance, and
attempts to put pressure on local and central government.
20. Increase support for media, including training for
journalists and backing for associations of journalists, but also support for
new, independent media outlets.
21. Increase training and defence for human rights activists,
and support a widening of their activities into spheres such as economic rights.
Osh/Brussels, 18 February 2003