Signaling a deepening split with one of the United States' closest allies in the war on terrorism, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rebuked Uzbekistan on Monday for spurning appeals from abroad on human rights and called the Tashkent government "out of step" with political trends in the rest of Central Asia.
The United States can find alternatives to Uzbekistan to fight the war on terrorism, Rice told reporters as she flew to the region for a tour that is pointedly avoiding the country. Uzbekistan has provided a base at Karshi-Khanabad, known as K-2, for military and humanitarian operations in neighboring Afghanistan since shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Bush administration is seeking to retain overflight rights for warplanes and shipments of relief goods, U.S. officials say. But Washington has now virtually given up on any further cooperation from President Islam Karimov, who in July ordered U.S. forces to leave K-2 within six months. He also quietly ended cooperation on counterterrorism programs, U.S. officials have said, effectively walking away from a broad agreement for cooperation on terrorism issues signed when Karimov visited President Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Uzbekistan is out of step with what is happening in this region as a whole," Rice told reporters on the first leg of her flight to Central Asia. "The ability of Uzbekistan to progress economically and politically is going to depend on the freedom and creativity of its people, and that's not happening."
"As to the issues we have had with Uzbekistan on military access to K-2, we have been very clear: We will continue to fight the war on terrorism. We will continue to do it effectively. We have many ways to do it," Rice said. It was the toughest and bluntest language from a top Bush administration official since relations began to deteriorate after Uzbek security forces staged a bloody crackdown against an uprising in the city of Andijan in May.
Karimov rejected U.S. and European calls for an independent inquiry, and Rice expressed concern that the long-standing Uzbek leader is no longer listening to the outside world.
On Rice's first swing through Central Asia as secretary of state, the Bush administration is pointing to Kazakhstan as the new regional model. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan -- which at roughly the area of Western Europe is the world's ninth-largest country -- since before the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, but Rice called him a reformer.
"The Nazarbayev government has a chance to be a real leader in Central Asia on both economic and political reform," Rice said. "I believe he is someone who can be persuaded to use his leadership and his considerable popularity to move Kazakhstan to the next level and then lead this region."
Rice's trip, which will also take her to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, comes at a time of mixed signals in oil-rich Kazakhstan, with national elections now less than two months away. Opposition groups have come under new government pressure, with some leaders imprisoned or exiled. The Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan was banned this year, according to a State Department official.
Last month, the company that had produced seven newspapers sympathetic to the country's fledgling opposition coalition -- For a Just Kazakhstan, which is fielding a single candidate against Nazarbayev -- refused to print the papers. "Scared of growing democratic forces, and on the eve of crucial presidential elections, the authorities have decided to eliminate the opposition media in the best Soviet tradition: phone calls from above and undercover games," the coalition said in a published statement.
Parliament this year passed two tough laws, one criminalizing extremist and opposition activity as a threat to national security and one banning foreign nongovernmental organizations. A constitutional court later rejected the law against the foreign groups, but U.S. officials said more than 30 American and international organizations had been harassed.
Rice said she would press Nazarbayev to ensure that the upcoming election is free and fair, by allowing international observers and ensuring all candidates have access to the media.
The State Department is now portraying Central Asia as a region of new opportunities, particularly since Kyrgyzstan's street revolution this year against another leader who had ruled since the Soviet breakup. "It's an extremely important time to go to Central Asia," Rice said, as the region is in the midst of a historic transition.
"I will say to all the Central Asians that the United States looks forward to broader, deeper, stronger relations and to be a partner as they reform economically and politically and as we fight the war on terrorism," Rice said.
Central Asia is increasingly important to the Bush administration, as reflected in a reorganization planned at the State Department that will group the five Muslim former Soviet republics together with South Asia. Former State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher is slated to head the division.
But Rice is also treading carefully during her Central Asia debut. She will not hold major meetings with political opposition figures, talking to them only on the sidelines or having one of her deputies handle the talks.
said Uzbekistan is "out of step" with political trends in Central Asia.