Uzbek privatization plans cast doubt

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Still, analysts say there is a growing awareness by the Uzbek government of the need to modernize its economy to keep up with neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan, which has been a magnet for foreign investment in the energy sector.

“For the first two decades [of independence from the Soviet Union], the country wanted to focus on homegrown industry and then open up the economy when it’s ready,” Ms. Gevorgyan said. “But they have become isolated from the rest of the region and the West.”

Changing times?

Others point to the U.S. lifting sanctions against Uzbekistan in January as a factor, noting that Uzbekistan — along with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan — signed agreements with NATO this week for the use of transit routes for coalition troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

“At the moment they’re seeing the prospect of an awful lot of money from the Americans in terms of the transit out of Afghanistan,” said Mr. Murray, the former ambassador. “My guess is that these liberal economic noises are a part of Karimov trying to give the United States the impression that something is changing, when in fact nothing is changing.”

The international community imposed sanctions against Uzbekistan in 2005 after several hundred Uzbeks were killed when security forces opened fire on protesters in the city of Andijan. The crackdown followed public demonstrations over the arrest and torture of a group of local businessmen on what human rights activists say were trumped up charges of belonging to an illegal religious group.

“The Andijan massacre is clearly illustrative of the link between human rights violations and business in Uzbekistan,” said Claire Tixeire of the European Commission on Human Rights in Berlin. “Even ordinary citizens were demanding transparency and accountability from the government.”

Organizations such Human Rights Watch say Uzbekistan remains one of the world’s most repressive societies, and analysts say a fundamental shift is needed before the country can nurture private enterprise.

“The idea that economic power should not be under central control is something that [the Uzbek government] doesn’t get because economic and commercial autonomy or independence tends to lead to independent political thought, creating an independent middle class, all of which they regard as a threat to the state,” said Mr. Murray. “[Privatization] would just be inconsistent with everything they are actually doing.”

Janelle Dumalaon reported from Berlin.

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