Uzbeks Force Closure of Soros Foundation

bloombergGeorge Soros
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- The Uzbek government labeled George Soros' foundation as "undesirable" Monday, a day after the philanthropist slammed human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and said new registration rules were forcing his group's office here to close.

"If Soros was not accredited, that means the foundation's activity in Uzbekistan is undesirable," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilkhom Zakirov, adding that Soros was a "private person", so whether he liked Uzbekistan was his own business.

On Sunday, U.S. billionaire financier Soros said the Uzbek branch of his Open Society Institute -- which aims to build free societies around the world -- was being forced to shut down after the government refused to renew its registration. In a rejection letter from the Justice Ministry last week, the government claimed OSI was trying to discredit its policies and that materials supplied to universities "distort the essence and the content of socioeconomic, public and political reforms."

Soros said the foundation, which has spent more than $22 million here since 1996, planned to appeal and called on the United States "to re-examine its relationship with the Uzbek government" -- its closest regional ally.

He also slammed the government, long criticized over allegations of torture, lack of civil liberties and crackdowns on Muslims who worship outside state-run mosques.

"Uzbekistan is stifling civil society and has a horrendous human rights record," Soros said in a statement, claiming that OSI staff in the country had suffered threats and intimidation.

He said the only other country where OSI had been forced out was Belarus. Earlier this month, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said it would limit investment in Uzbekistan due to the country's lack of progress on democratic and economic reforms. Soros praised the bank's decision.

The government imposed new registration requirements on civil groups late last year following the ouster of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze, a close friend of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, accused Soros of funding the uprising that ousted him. Western officials in Tashkent said the government fears international organizations are training opposition forces to stage a Georgia-style revolution. OSI appeared to be the only foundation whose registration was not renewed.

Under the new rules, foreign organizations must register with the Justice Ministry instead of the Foreign Ministry, submit detailed financial records and notify Uzbek officials of planned seminars.

Uzbek officials have claimed the changes were simply an administrative shift of responsibilities and not political. But Allison Gill, Human Rights Watch researcher in Uzbekistan, said Monday that the decision against OSI proves the new requirement "was not a benign regulatory move."

"It's a law that allows the government to weed out organizations they don't like for political reasons," she said.