US Caught Up Short by Uzbekistan Violence
by surprise by the sudden and unexpectedly bloody repression in
Uzbekistan, the administration of President George W. Bush appears
to be backing away from its initial, reflexive support for its authoritarian
ally in the war against terrorism, Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
Karimov himself, the White House expressed particular concern about
the escape of "some members of a terrorist organization"
during a massive prison break in Andijan in the strategic Fergama
Valley last Friday.
escape touched off clashes that local rights groups claim have killed
nearly 750 people, the majority of them innocent demonstrators who
were mowed down by government security forces in Andijan's old town
after gathering to protest Karimov's rule. Scores more reportedly
were killed trying to flee over the border to Kyrgyzstan over the
weekend and hundreds of suspected dissidents reportedly have been
tone changed distinctly Monday when the State Department began playing
up the urgency of implementing far-reaching political reforms.
have been encouraging the Karimov government to make reforms, to
make the system more open," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
said Monday, adding that Central Asia's most populous and wealthiest
country "needs, in a sense, pressure valves that come from a more
open political system."
Tuesday, her spokesman, Richard Boucher, was more direct.
have made clear to Uzbek authorities that stability depends on reaching
out to their citizenry and instituting real democratic reform and
respect for rule of law," he told reporters. "Repression and violence
will in no way lead to long-term stability but to the reverse."
also is the analysis of independent experts, one of the most prominent
of whom, Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace (CEIP), warned here Tuesday that in the absence of major reforms
on both the political and economic fronts, Uzbekistan could easily
slip into civil war of the kind that effectively paralyzed Tajikistan
in the early 1990s.
do believe that Uzbekistan is at a tipping point," Olcott said,
adding that the weekend's demonstrations were far more about "economic
reform and social justice" than Islam. Although force appears to
have worked in quelling the weekend's challenge to the rule, if
similar uprisings should take place simultaneously in three cities
or more, "force won't work, and the regime will crumble from within."
given Uzbekistan's central location and its status as the region's
most populous country with the most powerful armed forces, its plunge
into chaos could destabilize the entire region.
can potentially create tipping situations elsewhere," Olcott
said. Neighboring Tajikistan already had seen civil war and just
last month, opposition forces in Kyrgyzstan ousted a longtime authoritarian
leader in a largely peaceful upheaval.
are very fragile states," agreed Nancy Lubin, a Central Asia expert
who runs JNA Associates, a consulting firm that advises governments,
companies, and non-governmental groups on operations in the region.
"If this breaks into violence or even civil war, it will have repercussions
in all of the surrounding countries, even including Afghanistan,"
already has a great deal at stake in Uzbekistan itself.
long concerned about Karimov's iron grip he has ruled the country
since even before its 1991 independence from Moscow the U.S.
has cultivated friendly ties with the regime since the Soviet Union's
relationship became significantly warmer shortly after the Sept.
11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon when Karimov
opened the strategic Karshi-Khanabad air base for US military use
during and after the war in Afghanistan.
was rewarded with sharply increased military and economic aid, Bush's
public declaration that Karimov's most dangerous foe, the Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), would be treated as a branch of al-Qaeda,
a White House meeting with Bush, and frequent visits by senior defense
the Defense Department has been especially enthusiastic about the
Uzbek leader, however, other parts of the government have grown
increasingly frustrated by his refusal to implement far-reaching
political and economic reforms.
addition, Karimov's controversial human-rights record international
human rights groups continue to describe as "routine" torture,
particularly of thousands of devout Muslims whom he has imprisoned
became increasingly embarrassing to the Bush administration,
particularly after a former British ambassador to Tashkent, Craig
Murray, publicly confirmed that at least one dissident had been
boiled to death.
July the State Department, declaring that Tashkent had failed to
implement political reforms to which it had committed itself, announced
that it would cut up to 18 million dollars in aid in 2005. That
represented a small percentage of Washington's total aid program
but enough to draw a protest and a special allocation of
21 million dollars ostensibly to help the government there dispose
of Soviet-era biological weapons from its friends in the
continued aid and Tashkent's close partnership with the Defense
Department (and with the Central Intelligence Agency, which "rendered"
terrorist suspects for detention and interrogation to Uzbekistan),
U.S.-Uzbek ties became slightly more distant over the past two years,
particularly as Karimov, apparently wary of Bush's "pro-democracy"
rhetoric after the Iraq war, drew closer to Russia.
cooling, according to Olcott, has reduced Washington's leverage
with Karimov and makes it more difficult to persuade him to implement
reforms. "He doesn't like just being scolded, (and) he's surrounded
by sycophants," she said. "We have to think of some carrots, as
well as sticks."
also said economic reforms may be more important than political
ones and suggested that increasing prices for this year's cotton
crop and easing the tax burden on poor farmers could buy the regime
some time. Permitting greater freedom of assembly and purging "power
ministries," including those that control the security forces that
carried out the repression, also could reduce unrest, she said.
some ways, according to Lubin, US aid has been counterproductive.
Its focus on strengthening military and security forces has, in
the absence of effective oversight, "raised a lot of questions"
among the population, she said. Some economic measures, such as
improving tax collection and instituting a sales tax, failed to
take account of the political implications for "extremely poor
people who can barely eke out a living."
often, we inadvertently help the very corruption we are trying to
address and legitimate structures that we are trying to change,"
she told IPS.
still focused on finding the bad apples, but we're not paying attention
to the barrel," she added. "This is a barrel where only bad apples
can make it."
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service