Uzbeks back Yeltsin's drive for democracy

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THE Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan, the most populous and potentially the richest of the former Soviet Union's Central Asian republics, gave implicit backing yesterday to Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President, in his struggle with the country's parliament.

'We support a democratic Russia - one with no imperialist ambitions over the former Soviet Union,' said Sadyk Safaev, who left for Tashkent last night after leading his country's first official mission to Britain. 'At times of crisis, people yearn for a harsh, totalitarian regime. The Communist Party is now the biggest party in Russia. If it gets back into power, it will be the beginning of an irreversible process to restore the old USSR.'

Mr Safaev, 39, who became Foreign Minister last month, said it was vital that Russia's 'enormously complicated' political, economic and ethnic problems did not spill over into all-out conflict. Russian nationalism, and the internal threat of Islamic fundamentalism, were potential 'mortal dangers' for Uzbekistan. 'Fortunately, there are signs of a softening of positions at the moment (in Moscow), and we hope restraint will prevail.'

With 22 million of Central Asia's 50 million people, and ample natural resources, Uzbekistan is assuming a leading role in the region. Its capital, Tashkent, is the communications hub of Central Asia; the first British diplomat arrives there next month to set up an embassy.

In talks with businessmen and the Government, Mr Safaev was told of concern that Uzbekistan's former ruling Communists, who won the first elections after independence, have not shed old habits. Since retaining power in December's poll, President Islam Karimov has banned newspapers, harassed opposition parties and arrested political activists, frequently in the name of suppressing Islamic fundamentalism.

The Foreign Minister said there were 'difficulties in establishing all the processes of democracy' in such a short time. Uzbekistan, however, was the only Central Asian state which had had a presidential election with more than one candidate. He denied that any opponents of the government had been imprisoned without trial.

If Uzbekistan fears the ambitions of Russian nationalists, many of its neighbours are wary of Uzbek dominance. It is the only country to share borders with all four of the other Central Asian states, and in each the Turkic-speaking Uzbeks are the largest ethnic minority. The proportion reaches 27 per cent in Tajikistan, the only one of the five where Persian is the main language. Tashkent was the regional military headquarters in the former Soviet Union, and Uzbekistan has used its armed forces and inherited weaponry to help the former Communist administration in Tajikistan drive its Islamic opponents from the capital, Dushanbe.

Mr Safaev would not be drawn on this, but said Uzbekistan's policy in Central Asia and Afghanistan, where the Uzbek militia of General Abdul Rashid Dostam is the most effective force in the country's bitter power struggle, was to support existing borders and legally elected governments. Moves towards political and economic co-operation in Central Asia 'certainly don't mean any attempt to create a super-state'.

Uzbekistan is the world's fourth-largest cotton exporter and the sixth-largest gold producer. Western companies are also interested in its large reserves of oil and gas. Thanks to its geographical position in what Mr Safaev calls 'central Eurasia', the country hopes to attract aid and investment from East and West - it is a member of both the European and Asian development banks, as well as the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Britain is lagging behind other West European nations in establishing representation and seeking business in Central Asia, but the Foreign Minister said he hoped to enlist British 'authority and experience' in aiding the region's emergence.