zbek Official Says Karimov Fully Committed to Creating Modern Democracy
Savaev, who also serves as the special envoy of President Karimov on Afghanistan, spoke on March 7 with Paul Joyal, who made his interview available to EurasiaNet. The text of Safaev's interview follows:
Joyal: Since the United States announced the global war on terrorism, Uzbekistan has become familiar to America as never before. What changes have occurred in the US-Uzbekistan relationship since the events of September 11?
Savaev: Uzbekistan has taken no U-turn in its policy toward the United States. Uzbek President Islam Karimov made clear from the very beginning that Uzbekistan would support the United States in its struggle against global terrorism. In fact, Uzbekistan has voted 100 percent with the United States in the United Nations on controversial issues. Our relationship has been very productive and beneficial for years. We were pleased to be able to contribute to President Bush and the efforts of the United States to protect itself and the entire international community from this threat of radical Islamic fundamentalism.
Joyal: What has been the internal implication of these decisions?
Savaev: First of all I can say that the vast majority of our people back our policies with the United States in the war on terrorism. Our country has also experienced terrorism. Bombings have occurred in the capital and people were killed. But still there has been some resistance to our policy. Uzbekistan is ninety percent Muslim but a decidedly secular nation. In one case leaflets were distributed in Tashkent claiming that Uzbek President Islam Karimov is a Jew.
Uzbekistan has made and is committed to building a new secular state. It will not happen overnight but many steps have been taken to realize this. Uzbekistan was the first country in the region to open the prisons to the International Committee of the Red Cross. There are no restrictions on citizens for travel. In the past ten years, many young students have been educated in the West. The government of Uzbekistan is the leader in the former Soviet states providing scholarships for Western education worth $18 million per year. This will ensure that its future leaders have a broad perspective.
All this shows both the tendency and the commitment to a secular democracy. This will ensure that the future of our country will be built upon an international perspective.
The population of Uzbekistan is very young. Seventy percent is under 30 years old, while 50 percent of them are under 18 years old. We must increase the international perspectives for our young people.
Joyal: How would you describe the threat today? Has it diminished?
Savaev: The military phase of the conflict has not ended. The threat to the world continues. Afghanistan is far from over. The threat to Uzbekistan from terrorism remains high. It is important that we do not become complacent.
Drug trafficking is the number one concern in Uzbekistan now. This provides funds for the terrorist actions. Today, 90 percent of heroin in Europe comes from Afghanistan.
The amount of money this produces is enormous. If you buy 1 Kilo of heroin in Afghanistan it equals $1,000. If you buy the same kilo in Tashkent it costs $10,000. If you buy the same kilo in Moscow, the cost is $100,000. By the time it gets to London, the cost is $240,000. The money is enormous but it is more than just a fund-raiser. This pushing of heroin is part of the radical Islamic terrorist strategy of narcotic aggression. The goal is to create as much disorder as possible. The purpose is to weaken states and encourage corruption of these states, especially Western countries.
Today, there are a number of addicted countries. Three come to mind with huge sections of their population addicted to drugs. Fortunately Uzbekistan is not one of these countries.
Joyal: What about Uzbekistan? How do drugs affect your country?
Savaev: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan's main aim was to centralize the narcotics trade in their hands. This allows them to fund terror. When the terrorists were arrested after the bombings in Tashkent, evidence was discovered that confirmed this. The United States Department of State admits in its Annual Terrorist Review that there are problems dealing with underground Islamic terror groups in Uzbekistan. The government of Uzbekistan has attempted to attract the terrorist back into our society. President Karimov granted amnesty to members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) if they would turn in their weapons. Seventeen guerrillas decided to turn themselves in and come back. They were slain and found in a mass grave in Tajikistan.
Joyal: How would you describe the relationship of the government Uzbekistan and the Muslim population of Uzbekistan? Some claim that it is hostile and that being a pious religious follower will get you on a watch list or arrested.
Savaev: Our people tend to follow the Hanafi-Sunni tradition. We are a secular state and will protect the right of all religions to peacefully practice their religion. Uzbekistan wants to build its democracy and continue friendly relations with the US. But those who have survived are committed to destroying our secular state. It wants only the Koran to rule and to prevent other faiths from operating freely. This will not do. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was heavily damaged by the anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan but they remain a threat. In Afghanistan there were 40,000 Taliban. How many have been captured? Clearly most have blended back into the population. Other groups that seek an Islamic state continue to attempt at recruiting young students. After [being] recruited and trained they are formed into five-men cells. This is extremely difficult to break and identify.
Joyal: You are the representative of Uzbekistan for all problems related to Afghanistan - could you describe the threats to Afghanistan now? Are any of the neighboring or regional countries creating problems in Afghanistan?
Savaev: Without going into details, there are problems being created for the new government. The murder of the Transportation Minister is one clear indication. Without naming names, the problems being created today for the Karzai government are more than internal.
Joyal: What are the immediate needs of the Afghan government and how can Uzbekistan help?
Savaev: There are no railroads in the country. Communications are minimal. These can be combined in a joint project and Uzbekistan is interested in linking its railroad with the future Afghan railroad system. This could aid the entire region by providing new sources of revenue and vital trade links to bring commerce to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Hopefully, all countries can enjoy a positive relationship in Central Asia but not to the exclusion of any country. President Karimov has made clear the United States is not a threat to Uzbek security to our people and this has been accepted. There has not been one incident with American troops since their presence in Uzbekistan. The President sends his thanks to these soldiers' parents for growing them up so well.
Joyal: How is the United States perceived in Uzbekistan?
Savaev: The US is a factor of stability in Uzbekistan. There was a vacuum that needed to be filled and the United States has done this positively. Our cooperation is expanding. Two significant seizures of radioactive material have occurred. The US has pledged $6 million to clean the Island in the Aral Sea that manufactured and tested Anthrax. [For background, see the EurasiaNet environment archive]. The plant is a dangerous site. Plans to dismantle the plant are being developed. The island that the plant was built on is no more. The drop in the water table now links the island to the mainland and makes the plant accessible to people and possibly terrorists. The US funding will help us guard the site until it can be dismantled
Joyal: Is there a difference between the current US administration and the last one?
Savaev: We repeatedly tried to show the seriousness of many problems. This new administration is completely different and the cooperation has intensified, even before September 11. Decisions are being made today with us and not because of other considerations or because of other sensitivities. This has created a much greater level of cooperation and we are responding positively.
Joyal: How can Uzbekistan develop economically and attract the necessary foreign investments without a convertible currency?
Savaev: The government of Uzbekistan has made a firm commitment to create a [convertible] currency. Our target date is July of this year. In the near future advisors from the US Treasury Department will arrive in Uzbekistan to help us [with] this decision. Today, Uzbekistan has fulfilled over half the requirements set by the IMF. We hope to accomplish all these steps by July 2002.
Joyal: Could you sum up how Uzbekistan is moving into the future?
Savaev: Our goal is to create a modern secular democratic state. This will not be done overnight but we will build it. We are reforming our military. The US is helping us reform our Judiciary and Interior Ministry (MVD). 25,000 have been given amnesty. Police officers have been sentenced to 20 years for abuse of office. We now seek increased cooperation against drugs. Our commitment to education is one of our most important commitments. Uzbekistan spends 14 percent of its GDP and 38 percent of its state budget on education. 2,000 Uzbeks have been educated in the US alone. We are putting money where our words are. We are paying for our youth to be educated in the West to lead Uzbekistan into the future. We have far to go but we are committed and we are moving forward. The United States is our strategic ally and we will support the United States in all ways to win this war on global fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. It is for this reason that we are not charging any fees for the United States to operate from our military bases.
The time for Uzbekistan is now. We will move to create a more open society, a more open economy and strengthen the secular state and market economy. We have many challenges and improvements must be made, but our commitment to the future is irreversible. We will create our version of a modern secular society with your help.
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