Clearing up after the party

No expense was spared at year's European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) annual meeting in Uzbekistan.

The country's capital, Tashkent - one of the oldest cities in Central Asia - played host to the investor's lavish three-day conference last week. It focussed on "project financing for banks, industries and businesses in countries that are committed to democratic principles."

But many worry that it might be the Uzbek people who now have to foot the bill for the gathering, both in economic and humanitarian costs.

In the Japanese garden outside the five-star Hotel Inter-Continental, the Khokim (Mayor) of Tashkent, the Honourable Shoabdurakhmanov Rustam Mavzurovich, threw a lavish party for conference delegates.

Russian businessmen in dark glasses with statuesque escorts on their arms networked beneath fairy lights, gulping champagne and brandy.

On the lake in front of the garden, Uzbekistan’s trendiest pop stars entertained on a floating stage, while dancing girls moved among the crowd, bopping with the red-faced foreign businessmen.

All Tashkent was lit up for the conference. Policemen walked the streets at night, to make sure the locals did not steal the light bulbs. The cost of the conference must have been phenomenal, especially for a country with the lowest level of foreign direct investment of any transition economy.

Aziza, a 40-year-old entrepreneur in Samarkand, wonders what practical benefit it all had. “After all”, she says, “it is the people who will pay for it.”

Disquiet before the conference was as much an issue as afterwards. Delegates were forewarned to be vigilant of Uzbek civil rights protestors who could use the conference platform to criticise president Islam Karimov’s regime.

EBRD’s decision questioned

The EBRD’s decision to hold its meeting in Tashkent was always controversial. Uzbekistan has been criticised by many international institutions for its corrupt economy and its poor human rights record.

The Uzbek government took the brave step of allowing a UN inspector on torture into the country in May 2002. He was not allowed into all the prisons, but he still declared in his report that torture was "systemic" in the country.

Uzbekistan has also been criticised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for its currency convertibility regime. The government set an artificially low dollar conversion rate for the local currency, the "soum," in 1996. Very quickly, a much higher rate developed on the black market. This situation, of having an official rate and a shadow rate, has been allowed to continue to the present day, mainly because the black market rate is controlled by a cabal of politicians who are using it, in the words of one Uzbek businessman, as “a license to print money."

The failure to reform this situation, despite repeated promises to do so, has led the IMF to suspend all lending operations to the country. It is the main reason why foreign direct investment is so low.

The EBRD, which has a commitment to support human rights in its mandate, defended its decision to hold its conference in Tashkent by saying it would help focus the international community’s attention on the country, and act both as a catalyst for reform, and a platform for free political discussion.

The conference certainly provided the latter. The first panel, on human rights, was chaired by Michael Ignatieff, professor of human rights at Harvard University, and featured a lone Uzbek foreign minister heavily outnumbered by NGO representatives. Local Uzbeks took the unprecedented opportunity to confront the government freely and bombarded them with question after question. One lady demanded to be told where her son’s body was buried, and asked why the police officers who tortured him to death were not prosecuted, but promoted.

These local NGOs took a great risk by publicly confronting their government. Civil rights protestors often disappear in Uzbekistan. One frequent protestor has been put into a mental asylum and heavily drugged on three separate occasions, despite having documentation from independent psychologists in Russia that say there is nothing wrong with her.

The EBRD expected that such pressure from local and foreign NGOs and the lure of increased foreign investment would lead president Karimov to make a public statement distancing himself from torture. However, president Karimov, who refused to meet with foreign journalists, did not mention torture in his speech at the conference.

President of the EBRD, Jean Lemierre, said in his reply: “Some of us may have expected words on human rights and on economic progress.” But Karimov would not have heard him; he took off his interpreter headphones before Lemierre began talking.

In part, Karimov's refusal to make a public statement on the matters reflects differences in culture. As a local Uzbek, Khairullo, says: “Being publicly criticised like that is a big loss of face for an Asian leader.”

Another Uzbek journalist adds: “Torture is a word that does not exist in our state." Indeed, when the EBRD first challenged Karimov on the issue of torture, the local interpreter initially did not translate the word until EBRD officials insisted.

Lemierre says that privately, at the dinner after his speech, president Karimov made more positive noises on the issue, and said he would like to meet with the UN human rights inspector to discuss implementing his reform proposals.

But in the meantime, many of the delegates are wondering what will happen to those Uzbek civil rights protestors brave enough to stand up and be counted by secret service officials at the conference.

As Michael Ignatieff said: “Everywhere you look there are spooks. They must be the biggest employer in the country.” The danger is that there will be a crackdown as soon as the last delegate departs.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch group, says: “The EBRD’s own credibility is on the line here. It needs to monitor the situation closely.”

The EBRD’s Lemierre says such a crackdown “must not happen. Nobody should be harassed because they have spoken freely.” He adds that the EBRD has set the country key economic and humanitarian tests which must be passed within one year if the bank’s lending is to continue.

Some, however, believe the most effective pressure for change would come from the United States, which has forged strong links with Karimov's regime since September 11,2001, and has used the country as a base for its military operations in Central Asia.

The United States has been reluctant to use its influence to push reforms in Uzbekistan. The US assistant secretary of commerce, William Lash, came away from a visit to the country in November 2002, saying: "Uzbekistan is our ally, and no ultimatums are issued to our allies."

The conference certainly succeeded in forging greater links of friendship and information between Uzbeks and the outside world.

Delegates commented on the incredible hospitality of ordinary Uzbeks, many of whom are eager to integrate their country further into the West, and are increasingly critical of their government’s mendacity and failure to improve living standards.

Indeed, Samarkand - the second largest city in Uzbekistan - had its first public demonstration two months ago following the dismissal of a progressive professor at the local university. Two thousand students spontaneously took to the streets. It was a small but important sign of change against a continued backdrop of inertia and corruption in the country’s political elite.