SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan -- With President Islam Karimov leading the way, Secretary of State James A. Baker III whipped through the capital of Tamerlane's 14th century empire yesterday after an opposition leader bluntly told him that modern Uzbekistan remains a totalitarian regime despite the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Wrapping up his post-independence tour of the new governments of Central Asia, Mr. Baker obtained a promise from Mr. Karimov that Uzbekistan would brush up its human-rights record and institute genuinely democratic politics.
Mr. Karimov, a former Communist Party stalwart, won 86 percent of the vote in December in a contested presidential election. He blamed reporters and diplomats based in far-away Moscow for spreading unfavorable reports accusing his government of suppressing dissent.
But Abdurahim Pulatov, leader of the major nationalist political group that was kept off the December ballot, said Uzbekistan is not yet a democracy. "Politically, we have no freedom at all," he said. "The totalitarian regime has been destroyed in Moscow, but in the localities such as Uzbekistan and specifically in Tashkent this totalitarianism continues to exist."
Nevertheless, Mr. Pulatov urged Washington to extend diplomatic recognition and establish an embassy in Tashkent.
U.S. officials said Mr. Pulatov believed that U.S. diplomatic presence would make it more difficult for the government to crack down on the opposition.
U.S. government analysts say that Uzbekistan has no free press and no freedom of assembly, although the government has licensed one opposition party and permitted it to run a candidate in the last presidential election.
The State Department's annual human rights report, issued late last month, said that the Uzbek government has stifled demonstrations, jailed an opposition member of Parliament and prevented Birlik, considered the largest nationalist opposition group, from competing as a political party although it was legalized as a movement that cannot nominate candidates for office. The Islamic Rebirth Party was banned outright.