- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

The Bush administration faces a stark choice between national security and human rights as it nears a decision on whether to approve millions of dollars in aid to the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan.

B. Lynn Pascoe, deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will decide in the next couple of weeks whether to certify that the authoritarian government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov is making “substantial and continuing progress” on human rights and democracy.

Without the certification, about $18 million in aid to the Uzbek government will be halted. The spending law, in an unusual twist, does not give the administration the right to waive the human rights requirement on national-security grounds.

Uzbekistan, one of the largest and more powerful of the former Soviet Central Asian states, has provided what U.S. officials call critical support for the post-September 11 war on terrorism.

The Karimov government has offered major logistical support for the U.S.-led war against neighboring Afghanistan, has provided a military base for American forces at Karshi-Khanabad, and has signed an accord exempting U.S. nationals from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

Uzbekistan also has been rocked by recent terrorist attacks blamed on Islamist militant groups, although Mr. Karimov’s critics say his crackdown on moderate opposition voices has spurred support for more extremist groups.

But Assistant Secretary of State Lorne W. Craner, the department’s point man on human rights issues, told a Capitol Hill hearing on Thursday that Uzbekistan’s human rights record was poor — and getting worse in many key areas.

“In the past few months, we have seen serious setbacks,” Mr. Craner told the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a federal human rights watchdog panel, “especially the backward trend of harassing and hampering the work” of U.S. private groups working to promote democracy, a free press and the rule of law in Uzbekistan.

The State Department and private human rights groups have detailed widespread human rights abuses under Mr. Karimov, from torture and the jailing of political and religious dissidents to strict control of the press and persecution of opposition political parties.

Even longtime human rights activists acknowledge that Uzbekistan’s strategic value makes the certification decision a delicate one.

“This is not an easy call,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and one of most vocal human rights advocates on Capitol Hill.

Veronika Leila Szente Goldston, who monitors Central Asia for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, argued that the Bush administration must block the aid package to preserve America’s reputation as a global champion of freedom and democracy.

“If the U.S. wants to make progress in the fight against terrorism, if it wants to discourage the spread of violent ideologies, it should be more worried about alienating the Uzbek people than alienating the country’s leadership,” she said.

But Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asian scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the costs of an aid cutoff “far outweigh any benefits.”

She said quashing the aid package would be welcomed by Russia, when President Vladimir Putin has been energetically courting the former Soviet republics.

“Even the partial or seeming withdrawal of the U.S. from Uzbekistan that an aid cutoff would represent would likely be used by Putin to Russia’s advantage — and to the disadvantage of those seeking a democratic Uzbekistan,” she said.

The United States approved $55 million in assistance for Uzbekistan in the current fiscal year, but only $18 million of that goes to the government and would be affected by decertification.

The State Department’s Mr. Pascoe told lawmakers this week that “there has never been an administration that liked inflexible sanctions” and the spending law sets a difficult deadline for measuring Uzbekistan’s progress.

But the administration, in the end, “will follow the law,” he said.

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