Visiting Officials Don`t Offer Specifics on US-Uzbek Relations Future
Despite the fact that a series of US delegations have passed through Uzbekistan in January, no concrete framework for future US-Uzbek relations can be discerned from American leaders public comments. About the only thing that seems certain is that the United States is interested in establishing a long-term presence in Uzbekistan.
The recent visit to Tashkent by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was typical of how US officials are approaching the subject of future US-Uzbek relations. Speaking at a January 18 press conference, the South Dakota democrat spoke of the establishment of an "environment of cooperation" following Uzbekistans decision in October to grant basing rights to US military forces.
"It is important now that we build on that level of cooperation and our success as we look at the presence and relationship in the long term," Daschle said. His comments conformed to statements made by US legislators and Bush Administration officials during earlier visits.
The senator noted that US-Uzbek relations, particularly economic ties, are dependent on greater reform in Uzbekistan, and these issues were stressed in the delegations meetings with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and with the Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.
"I think we would all agree that we have not seen as much progress as we would have hoped," the senator said, citing Uzbekistans track record in the areas of economic and political reform. Wary of the "magnitude of work that needs to be done," Daschle expressed the hope that Uzbekistan "will continue to find ways to assure the world community that they will build upon the progress that it has made thus far."
The commitment of the Uzbek government to reform seems uncertain. There are neither concrete plans nor any clear indicators that large-scale changes will come any time soon, despite the plethora of visiting US officials.
In 2002, like every other new year since the closing of the economy in 1996, rumors abound that in the upcoming year the Uzbek currency will once again become convertible and that the US will help foster this process by convincing the International Monetary Fund to resume its dealings with Uzbekistan. The IMF closed its Tashkent office in frustration last April, citing a lack of progress on economic reforms.
In the near term, uncertainty over reform is illustrated by the upcoming popular referendum that was announced in early December, shortly before a visit by US Secretary of State Colin Powell. The referendum will ask citizens to approve the transformation of parliament from a unicameral into a bicameral legislature. It will also seek popular approval for an extension of the presidential term from five to seven years.
It is this second question that many Uzbek citizens and observers find troubling. Karimov, who before becoming president served as the countrys Communist Party boss, has exhibited growing authoritarian tendencies over the years. International observers lambasted the governments conduct of the last presidential election in 2000. In that vote, Karimovs only challenger publicly announced that he was voting for the incumbent. The US State Department termed the election "neither free nor fair."
The sudden shift in Central Asias geopolitical environment has prompted the United States to reevaluate its stance on Uzbek domestic politics. The State Department has refrained from commenting on the Uzbek referendum. Within the country, there has been next to no public discussion in the Uzbek media about the possible extension of the presidential term.
Many Uzbeks seem weary of the countrys history of predictable electoral politics that goes back to Soviet times. One human rights activist in Tashkent has said that, "the Soviet Union never collapsed, as they say, rather, it only became smaller - to the size and shape of Uzbekistan."
Karimovs administration has pointed to the parliamentary question in the referendum as proof that it is moving forward with the type of democratic reforms that Washington seeks. A statement from the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that the resolution is "another proof of the fact that democratic reforms being realized in the country are irreversible."
In general, the tightly controlled media in Uzbekistan avoids discussion of contentious topics, such as the constitutionality of extending Karimovs tenure in office. An Uzbek journalist with the State Television-Radio Company, presented with the opportunity to get exclusive comments with Senator Daschle, completely dodged this issue when bringing up the referendum. Rather than asking a question about the legitimacy of the referendum, the journalist sought comment on the move towards a bicameral parliament.
Daschle responded that either a unicameral or bicameral legislature could work. However, he stressed: "the question is whether or not you can make it representative, whether or not its open, its transparent, its free, whether or not it allows for broad participation. Its more those questions than what kind what form of government you have that are basic to democracies around the world."
Some local observers are concerned that the US officials will not follow up on their statements linking improvements in the human rights climate with economic assistance. The also worry that the high-profile visits by US political leaders will bolster Karimovs authority, and diminish the Uzbek leaders desire to implement reforms.