Russia conquered Uzbekistan in the late 19th century. Stiff resistance to the Red Army after World War I was eventually suppressed and a socialist republic set up in 1925. During the Soviet era, intensive production of "white gold" (cotton) and grain led to overuse of agrochemicals and the depletion of water supplies, which have left the land poisoned and the Aral Sea and certain rivers half dry. Independent since 1991, the country seeks to gradually lessen its dependence on agriculture while developing its mineral and petroleum reserves. Current concerns include insurgency by Islamic militants based in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, a non-convertible currency, and the curtailment of human rights and democratisation.
Update No: 273 - (06/10/03)
The British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, a 45 year-old Scotsman, has spoken out of turn in criticising the regime for its human rights violations. This has angered not only Tashkent itself, but Washington and London, who are prepared to condone an unpleasant regime in return for geopolitical advantages, namely the use of an air base on the Afghan border, Khanabad near
He has returned to London "for medical reasons." A Chargé d'affaires is standing in for him. It is not clear whether the stated explanation for his absence is the real one.
A year ago, after only two months in the job, he fired off this broadside: "This country has made very disappointing progress in moving away from the dictatorship of the Soviet Union," he told an
audience in Tashkent. "Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy. The major political parties are banned; parliament is not subject to democratic election; and checks and balances on the authority of the electorate are lacking.
"There is worse; we believe there to be between 7,000 and 10,000 people in detention who we would consider as political and/or religious prisoners."
The uncomfortable thing about these remarks is that they are true. The regime of Islam Karimov, the president of the country, is as repressive as any in Central Asia. The excuse given is that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism makes it necessary to be severe.
In April Mr Murray was asked to explain himself at the Uzbek Foreign Ministry. He did not desist from his blunt line of attack. In May he lamented "the intense repression here combined with the inequality of wealth and the absence of reform." In August he said that there was "no freedom of speech, mass media, movement and so forth."
By this time the British embassy, in stark contrast to other Western diplomatic missions, had become a hotbed and magnet of dissent. On one occasion it received photographs of two Islamic prisoners who had been boiled to death after they refused to stop their prayers.
Alarm bells in Washington and London
Mr Murray's forthright behaviour has made him a local hero; but it has not endeared him to his employers in London or their allies in Washington. He has been condemned as being "too undiplomatic."
"He was a victim of his own ethical foreign policy," one British source who regularly visits Uzbekistan said. "I'm not surprised he was brought back. He was running amok. He was not reflecting British foreign policy." Some influential figures in the diplomatic service felt that he had gone too far.
Nevertheless, he has his supporters. James Mc Grory, a British businessman close to Mr Murray, co-signed a letter with 15 other expatriates to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, defending the ambassador. The letter said that he had "promoted British culture and political ideals to an extent not previously known here and increased British prestige."
Mr McGrory has his own interpretation of events. "The common belief is that Mr Murray is being sacrificed to the Americans. The rumours flying around are that the US embassy objected to him disturbing their work in Uzbekistan. They certain loathed him.... The US embassy makes no effort to conceal its dislike of the way he repeatedly and unequivocally slams (the country's) human rights record." Diplomacy and veracity are not bed-fellows.
Consternation among human rights advocates
The return of Mr Murray is seen as a grave setback by the human rights organisations. Although his wife, Fiona, remains in Tashkent, the Foreign Office has appointed Adam Noble as Chargé d'affaires and acting ambassador, indicating that the envoy's absence may be prolonged, if not permanent.
Human rights organisations are naturally perturbed. Craig Murray is an outspoken advocate of human rights, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, said. "His analysis of Uzbekistan was spot on. What is important is that British foreign policy continues to reflect his clear stand."
The Foreign Office said that it fully supports Mr Murray's stand and pointed out that his criticisms of Uzbekistan's human rights violations were quoted at length in its annual human rights report published at the end of September.
It is not only the diplomatic community that is in disarray about Uzbekistan. It is rumoured that President Karimov is gravely ill and a huge succession problem looms. But there is, as yet, no confirmation of this delicate topic.
AVIATION & SPACE
Lufthansa Technik signs deal with Uzbekistanaviateknik
Lufthansa Technik AG, a Germany-based airline, announced it has inked an agreement with the company Uzbekistanaviatekhnik, a member of Uzbek Airlines, Lufthansa Technik's Regional Director for Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, Dmitri Zaitsev, told a news conference, Interfax News Agency reported. The agreement was inked at the 6th international air show in Zhukovsky. A member of the Lufthansa group, Lufthansa Technik specialises in repairing and servicing commercial planes.
Russia builds helicopters for Uzbek and Tajik presidents
This year  Kazan helicopter plant is going to finish the construction of two Mi-172 helicopters meant for the presidents of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the plant administration spokesman has said, Tatar-Inform News Agency has reported.
A Mi-172 helicopter is an updated version of Mi-8. It can carry a maximum load of 5,000 kg. It is able to fly at a speed of 262 km per hour and reach a maximum height of 6,000 m. The regular Mi-172 helicopters are designed to carry 26 passengers.
Nestle-Uzbekistan in loan deal with EBRD
Nestle-Uzbekistan, a joint venture between Switzerland and Uzbekistan and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) recently inked a credit deal worth US$7.5m, Interfax News Agency reported, quoting an EBRD source in a statement.
The money will be used to get financial operations off the ground, including for paying for goods purchased from local farms. The EBRD offers the credit without government guarantees, the source was quoted as saying. The financial agent for the loan is
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