- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

Uzbek President Islam Karimov will urge the United States during a visit to Washington this month to maintain its military presence in Central Asia because it guarantees regional stability and serves U.S. transportation and energy needs, senior Uzbek officials said yesterday.

Mr. Karimov, who will meet President Bush on March 12, plans to point out the hardships that the former Soviet republic, which borders Afghanistan, has endured from being on the front line of the war on terrorism.

But he will ask for no monetary compensation because "our understanding is that we are allies and we should go together in this war this is not a business for us," Rustam Azimov, Uzbekistan's first deputy prime minister, said in an interview.

The Uzbek leader, however, will ask Mr. Bush to encourage American investors to venture into the predominantly Muslim nation of 25 million people, whose territory is slightly larger than that of California.

"Our security relationship with the United States is in good shape," Mr. Azimov said. "Now we should pay more attention to our economic cooperation, which will help accelerate economic reforms and the flow of capital."

Mr. Azimov, who is in Washington to prepare for Mr. Karimov's visit, is the third-highest-ranking official in the Uzbek government after the president and Prime Minister Otkir Sultanov.

The United States will provide $60 million in assistance to Uzbekistan this year, plus a one-time contribution of $100 million, a State Department official said yesterday.

In spite of consistent pre-September 11 criticism by the United States of Mr. Karimov's autocratic methods of governing, Uzbekistan was quick to join the anti-terrorism coalition and opened its territory to U.S. aircraft and forces during the military campaign in Afghanistan, which began on Oct. 7.

A senior Uzbek official said his country had to pay huge amounts of money for airport insurance after U.S. planes started landing there. The American insurance company whose services the Uzbek government uses increased the premium about 60 times, he noted.

The Bush administration has repeatedly thanked Uzbekistan for its support in the global anti-terrorism effort while continuing to demand democratic reforms, freedom of speech and respect for human rights.

But the Uzbek official insisted Mr. Karimov is fully committed to bringing democracy and market economy to his country, which declared independence on Sept. 1, 1991.

"Unlike other former communist states, Uzbekistan never had a democratic tradition, so we had to start from scratch," the official said. "At the beginning, there was no rule of law and we were forced to be strong otherwise the forces that took over Afghanistan would have done so in Uzbekistan."

He said Mr. Karimov is "creating a system of democracy, which is a complicated process."

His country has chosen to side with the West and wants to educate its youth half the population is under age 18 in the spirit of the values that have been promoted by the United States as "the heart of the democratic world."

During his Washington visit, Mr. Karimov will also meet with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and congressional leaders, the official said.

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