Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
November 27, 2002
U.S. Engagement in Central Asia: Successes
Since September 11, 2001, increased U.S. assistance and engagement have been instrumental in persuading the states of Central Asia to implement economic, political, and human rights reforms. Although the record is still mixed, the overall trend has been positive. The following are a few concrete examples of how U.S. assistance and engagement have been used to encourage these governments to undertake reforms.
The United States provided $53 million in Fiscal Year 2002 assistance funds for programs that support market reforms in Central Asia. We continue to hold intensive consultations with these countries on economic reform. Some specific successes are:
- The Government of Uzbekistan renewed its relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) by signing a Staff Monitored Program (SMP) Agreement in December 2001. In accordance with the agreement, Tashkent has implemented ambitious macro-economic reforms, including currency conversion and agricultural reforms. In September 2002, however, the IMF judged Tashkent's performance in the SMP as "uneven". Since then, the Government of Uzbekistan has taken additional reform steps and has assured the IMF that it will implement the reforms needed to begin negotiations on a Stand-By Agreement -- an agreement to provide financial support to the Uzbek government as it undergoes the market transition.
- The Government of Kyrgyzstan and the World Bank have developed, and are implementing, a comprehensive development strategy aimed at reducing poverty and generating economic growth. In December 2001, the IMF approved a $98 million Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility loan. In March 2002, the Paris Club of creditor countries restructured Kyrgyzstanís external debt, reducing debt service during 2002-2004 from $101 million to $5.6 million. President Akayev and his government are undertaking a serious effort to improve the investment climate and expand exports.
- The Government of Kazakhstan has made the most economic-reform progress of the five countries in Central Asia. The U.S. Department of Commerce designated Kazakhstan a "Market Economy" in March 2002 of this year on the basis of achievements in the following statutory factors: the degree of convertible currency, free wage-rate determination, openness to foreign investment, degree of government ownership or control of production, and degree of government control over the allocation of resources.
- Like Uzbekistan, the Government of Tajikistan has also renewed its relationship with the IMF through a Staff Monitored Program, and its performance has been excellent. It revised its commercial law, privatized significant portions of its struggling economy, and created a new Ministry of Revenue and Duties with the mandate to increase revenue and eliminate corruption. Government of Tajikistan officials have promised to continue the pace of reforms and are working toward a Stand-by Agreement.
Political reform continues slowly, but there are indications that the governments of Central Asia have begun to allow more independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and political parties to operate. Many of the successes in this area can be attributed to U.S. engagement with these governments and capacity-building assistance to NGOs and political parties. Examples of successes in the political arena follow:
- President Akayev of Kyrgyzstan has reaffirmed his intention to step down in 2005 at the conclusion of his current and final term in office. His dialogue with the opposition is laying the groundwork for a smooth constitutional transfer of power.
- Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Council convened in September 2002 has made recommendations to broaden the sharing of power among the branches of government, improve the judicial branch, and develop local self-government. The public will vote on the proposed constitutional amendments in a national referendum in late 2002.
- The banned Birlik opposition party in Uzbekistan has held seven regional party congresses. These congresses -- the first in ten years -- are meant to prepare for a national congress, a legally required step to gain government registration. Birlik intends to file registration papers sometime in 2003. One year ago, Birlik would not have attempted to hold congresses, given the general political environment.
- The Government of Uzbekistan registered the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (IHROU) on March 4, 2002. This is the first time Tashkent has registered an independent indigenous NGO working on human rights issues. The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent worked closely with IHROU to ensure that the application would be technically complete and is working closely with other similar NGOs on their applications; however, divisive tendencies within these organizations are slowing progress.
- Prior censorship of the print media was abolished by the Government of Uzbekistan in 2002. Although self-censorship is still the norm in the Uzbek press, some outlets have begun publishing more critical articles, for instance on government corruption. Changes have also been made to the regulatory system for broadcast media, increasing the independence and freedom of private TV and radio.
- Despite Kazakhstan's introduction of a new law in July 2002 raising the bar for political party registration, the new political party Ak Zhol has already conducted a successful nationwide membership drive and claims to have surpassed the 50,000-member minimum needed to register. This summer, Ak Zhol began publishing two new weekly newspapers that fairly and objectively report controversial issues like allegations of official corruption.
- Tajikistan has somewhat eased restrictions on freedom of speech. In August 2002, the Government of Tajikistan licensed Dushanbe's first independent radio station, Asia Plus, which commenced broadcasting immediately. This station is in addition to several independent stations located in northern Tajikistan.
Human Rights Reforms
Recognizing the need for improvement in human rights throughout Central Asia, the United States has vigorously engaged the governments of Central Asia in the past year on human rights. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Lorne Craner has made three visits to Central Asia this year to emphasize the importance of human rights to our bilateral relationship. All U.S. Government officials raise human rights issues during high-level visits, including military and Congressional delegations. As a result, there has been measured improvement in this area, underscoring the need for continued engagement and assistance. A few of the successes during the past year are:
- The Government of Uzbekistan will host a first-ever visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, in late 2002. In preparation for the trip, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held a roundtable on torture on November 7 in Tashkent with the support and participation of the Uzbek Government officials.
- This year, the Government of Uzbekistan has convicted eight police officers for torture and one for planting evidence. On January 16, an Uzbek court sentenced four policemen to twenty years each for the murder of a suspected member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. This was the first time we are aware of in eleven years of independence that any police or security forces had been convicted for violent acts committed in the course of their duties. On or about June 6, a police officer in Tashkent region was convicted to seven years for beating and attempting to extort money from a citizen in an ordinary criminal case. On June 7, the central military court in Tashkent convicted three officers of the National Security Service for the murder of a suspected member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Two of the officers were sentenced to fifteen years, and the third received four years. In February, an Andijan police officer was convicted of planting evidence on a suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir member. The Andijan office of the National Security Service reportedly initiated the case.
- At least 900 political prisoners were released by the Government of Uzbekistan in an amnesty implemented in the fall of 2001. This left some 6,500 political prisoners in Uzbek jails. The U.S. is actively pressing for all political prisoners to be released. In the past twelve months, the number of politically motivated arrests (mostly of suspected Islamic extremists) has declined by significantly more than 50%.
- The Government of Uzbekistan abolished the state enterprise UZPAK's monopoly over access to the Internet on October 18. The goal of this decree is to step up the pace of Internet development in Uzbekistan and to create a competitive environment for Internet providers. Local Internet providers are moving quickly to take advantage of this new, more open system.
- The Government of Turkmenistan abolished exit visas in December 2001. This major step was partly in response to U.S. Embassy efforts. The end of exit visas also removed a major obstacle for U.S. Government exchange programs, and has facilitated visits to the United Sates by Turkmen citizens.
- The Government of Turkmenistan released from prison and pardoned the popular mayor of the Caspian Sea port city of Turkmenbashi, who had been falsely accused of corruption and complicity in narcotics trafficking.
- After consistent pressure by the U.S. and other embassies in Ashgabat, the Government of Turkmenistan released in January 2002 Shageldy Atakov, a Baptist who had been imprisoned for his religious beliefs.
- Kazakhstan has taken a number of steps to improve its ability to address human rights problems. In September 2002, it established a human rights ombudsman. It has also transferred authority for its penal system to the Ministry of Justice, in accordance with international practice. The Ministry of Interior has participated in training seminars on international human rights standards in detention facilities.
- Kazakhstan added two new sections to its Criminal Code regarding trafficking in persons and is working on further comprehensive legislation on this issue.
- Other positive steps in Kazakhstan include abolishment of the Soviet-era exit visa requirement. Kazakhstan also cooperated with the international community not to return a prominent Turkmen dissident to Turkmenistan where he would have faced imprisonment. The lower house of Parliament in Kazakhstan has approved changes in the Criminal Procedures Code to humanize punishment in accordance with international standards; these changes are currently before the Kazakhstani Senate.
- Among recent improvements, the Government of Tajikistan has granted the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons and abolished exit visa requirements. The government in Dushanbe has also reduced the fee to register NGOs, allowing these essential building blocks of democracy to flourish.
- Like Kazakhstan, the Government of Tajikistan has taken steps to reform its legal system. President Rahmonov issued in July 2002 a Presidential Decree on the reform of the Criminal Executive System, transferring it (including the penitentiary system) to the Ministry of Justice from the Ministry of Interior, in accordance to international standards.
- As a result of intensive consultations on elimination of trafficking in persons, Tajikistan has developed an action plan, including new legislation and concrete programs to fight trafficking.
- The Government of Kyrgyzstan has taken a number of steps to include opposition politicians and human rights NGOs in its decision-making process. For example, they are participating in the Constitutional Council, which is recommending amendments to redistribute power more equitably -- and in accordance with international standards -- among the three branches of government.
- In Kyrgyzstan, a number of governmental sectors, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, have asked for assistance and training to bring their practices into accord with international standards. Responsibility for the prison system has been transferred to the Ministry of Justice, which has opened all facilities to international inspection and has sought assistance in improving conditions.
- Due to considerable pressure from civil society and the international community, the Kyrgyz government withdrew the restrictive Article 20 in May that would have required registration of all copiers and computer printers and a register of religious buildings.
Much remains to be done before the states of Central Asia meet international standards of political freedom and respect for human rights. For that very reason, the U.S. Government remains deeply committed to an intensive dialogue with the leaders and senior officials of these countries. We have told them that our new relationship is for the long haul. We believe that this firm commitment will continue to yield positive benefits that will eventually expand the rights and improve the lives of the peoples of Central Asia.