Uzbekistan’s growing tilt toward Russia and China could make it harder for Western nations to pressure the Central Asian country to improve its human rights record, Uzbekistan watchers said, pleading for greater Washington involvement in Tashkent’s affairs.
“Rapprochement with Russia and China can allow [Uzbekistan] to tighten its grip as those countries will not object,” said Daniel Kimmage, a Central Asia regional analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, speaking Thursday at a conference at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of International Studies.
The same day, Uzbek President Islam Karimov met with leaders of China, Russia, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — members of a regional security group called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Moscow and Beijing use the security alliance to counteract U.S. influence in the region.
Mjusa Sever, Uzbekistan project director of Freedom House, an advocacy group for democracy and freedom around the world, said the country “is opening and the major problem is the West doesn’t know how to deal with it.”
“Uzbekistan suffers from terrible isolation and longs for the West,” Miss Sever said. Western countries, who tend to see engagement with Uzbekistan’s repressive government as “immoral,” would be “missing out on an important opportunity” to engage a predominantly Muslim country, she said.
Mr. Kimmage noted that while Russia has been courting the former Soviet republic with financial offers, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has “made a conscious decision to disengage” from Uzbekistan, the most populous nation and one of the poorest in the region.
In early April, the EBRD withdrew investment from Uzbekistan’s state sectors after the country made “very limited progress” in improving its political and economic situation, according to the EBRD Web site.
Soon afterward, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Uzbekistan, holding talks with Mr. Karimov in what was “a very warm summit that signaled a very real rapprochement with Russia,” Mr. Kimmage said.
The Russian oil company Lukoil signed a $1 billion contract with Uzbekistan, and Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly, also is believed to be gearing up to sign one.
Washington is making a decision to continue aid but “the amounts of U.S. aid is in the tens of millions, not the hundreds [of millions] and not the billions, which is what the potential Russian investments on the table are,” Mr. Kimmage said.
Uzbekistan has come under frequent criticism in the West for its poor human rights record.
A report by Freedom House said that in 2003, Uzbekistan “continued its repressive policies against human rights defenders, independent journalists, opposition political activists and suspected members of banned Islamic groups in an attempt to silence dissent.”
The Uzbek Embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment on the report.