U.S. set to give Uzbekistan a free hand to repress its people

Thumbnail image for Karimov_Rumsfeld.jpg

[Image: AP/Wide World Photos - Donald Rumsfeld and Islam Karimov]

Sabrina Tavernise wrote yesterday in the NY Times about how the U.S. is starting to remember that Uzbekistan is resource-rich and strategically located while starting to forget that its government slaughtered hundreds of its own citizens three years ago at Andijan. 

Western governments say further ostracizing Uzbekistan by extending sanctions -- America's come up for consideration in June -- will cause it to close back up, increasing instability in a region of vital energy transportation routes and strategic proximity to the war in Afghanistan.

A newly softened tone has already paid political dividends. After Andijon and a volley of criticism from Washington, Uzbekistan ejected the United States from a military base that was supplying the war effort in Afghanistan. Though there are not yet plans for the base to reopen, the Uzbeks have allowed the Americans limited access to a German base at Termez, and Uzbekistan recently offered NATO the use of its railway to ship goods to Afghanistan.

That highlights the difficult questions that relations with Uzbekistan raise for American foreign policy: How much influence should the United States try to exercise -- if any at all -- over another country's behavior? And will that country be receptive, given the abuse, indefinite detentions and closed tribunals that have been part of the United States' record in recent years?

Two points need unbundling here.  First, the U.S. can exercise influence through moral suasion, economic incentives or sanctions, or simply by example--all elements of "soft power."  Influence does not always involve the implicit threat of invasion or full economic embargo.  But when a government is killing its citizens, terrorizing and torturing them, our government should say something about it.  To remain silent in the hope of getting our military bases back or flyover rights or whatever it is that we want from the Uzbeks is a form of complicity.  Second, Tavernise raises an excellent point: any influence we might have is undercut by our own human rights abuses--not just those of recent years, but those of the past century or more. 

As the gateway to Afghanistan and Iran, and an area where both China and Russia vie for influence, the five Muslim countries of Central Asia -- the other four are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan -- have a strategic importance to the United States well out of proportion to their size. Uzbekistan is the region's heart, with its most religious population, and also, at 28 million, its largest.

The killings in Andijon tested that strategic bond for the United States. The government of President Islam Karimov acknowledged 187 deaths but dealt so viciously with those who gave information about it -- a gravedigger who spoke to an Uzbek journalist was stabbed to death shortly after publication, and the journalist fled the country -- that the true figure was impossible to establish. Human rights groups put the toll around 750.

Western nations pressed the government to allow an independent investigation. The European Union imposed a visa ban on officials involved in the crackdown, and the United States resettled a large number of refugees and is considering a visa ban of its own. Yet, three years later, the Uzbeks have not budged. In a five-part report in 2006 it said perpetrators of the uprising -- "terrorists" and "bandits" -- were responsible for the deaths of the 62 "civilians," or nonparticipants, who it acknowledged were killed.

. . .

So when European and American attitudes toward Mr. Karimov began easing late last year -- the European Union partly suspended the visa ban in October, and in January, Adm. William J. Fallon, the most senior American military commander in the region, visited Tashkent, the first high-level visit in two years -- many human rights advocates were bitterly disappointed.

"To be honest, they abandoned us," said one, a former ecologist who fled Uzbekistan in April because he believed that a criminal case was being prepared against him. He has not been identified for safety reasons.

Supporters of engagement with the Karimov government argue that punishing the country with sanctions leads only to less leverage over its policies.

"Uzbekistan is simply too important to ignore," said one Western official who said diplomatic rules forbade him to use his name. "People on the ground want contact with foreigners. They value it. Once you go into isolation mode, you lose the ability to engage with the rest of the population."

President Karimov, like Kim Jong Il, knows well the shallowness of U.S. commitment to human rights and how easily manipulable and craven its leaders are when dealing in parts of the world that have never sent emigrants in significant numbers to the U.S. or been targeted by the U.S. military.  Knowing well that U.S. actions in a place so unfamiliar to the American public will face little domestic scrutiny, the savvy, unscrupulous Karimov can calculate just which buttons to push to get what he wants. 

When the U.S. raised a minor stink after the Uzbek government massacred its own citizens at Andijan, Karimov used the incident as an excuse to evict the unpopular U.S. from its military bases, whipping up a pleasingly distracting jingoism at home and edging closer to a resurgent Russia eager to exercise influence in the region again. 

Now when the U.S. predictably comes crawling back, finding itself in need of support in the region with two interminable wars going on nearby, Karimov will let them, but on his terms, which don't involve acknowledging any wrongdoing, past or present.  

This, unfortunately, represents the extent of U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. 

Indeed, some Uzbek human rights advocates say that Mr. Karimov has increased the pressure on them since the warming with the West began. In December the authorities arrested a poet, Yusuf Juma, on what human rights advocates and family members say were trumped-up charges, after he and his sons held up hand-lettered signs in a one-family protest against Mr. Karimov's candidacy. In April, Mr. Juma was sentenced to five years in prison.

In March the authorities broke up a small group of protesters who had been gathering for weekly demonstrations since last year. The government then seized the offices of the group, Human Rights Movement of Uzbekistan. Two members fled.

"The silence of the West gave a good opening to Karimov to arrest my father," said Alisher Yusufjon Ugli, the poet's son.

Andrea Berg, an expert on Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said that without the threat of sanctions, "Tashkent has no incentive to improve human rights."

But at a time when the United States is fighting an increasingly complicated war right next door in Afghanistan, some analysts argue that realpolitik must prevail.

"It's a really bad set of choices that the U.S. faces," said Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "If we didn't have a war in Afghanistan we might have the luxury to take a moral stance."

If one only takes a moral stance when one has the luxury of doing so, it's not a very convincing stance.  In a better world, analysts would say of our foreign policy, "If we didn't have moral obligations to the people of Uzbekistan, we might have the luxury of fighting wars of choice in the Middle East."

Nor is Uzbekistan quite the prison colony it is reputed to be. Despite the political arrests and brutality in prisons, the overwhelming majority of citizens are more concerned with making ends meet than with fears that the secret police will knock down their door.

"You can't compare Uzbekistan and North Korea," said a European who has lived in Tashkent for years, and who was not identified for safety reasons. "Not every right is violated all the time. It's not that systematic."

Since there is really no country (Burma?  Saudi Arabia?) that comes close to North Korea in the scale of repression of its people, this argument is simply an excuse to say and do nothing.  Having represented Uzbek asylum seekers in the U.S. and knowing the corrosive, pervasive effects of fear caused by limited but well-publicized immigration raids here, I know that not every right must be "violated all the time" for a policy of repression to have its intended effect.  Making examples of those who deviate from the norm will do much to keep everyone else in a state of anxious compliance. 

By the end of 2007, after Andijon and the ensuing crackdown on civil society, a large portion of foreign nongovernmental organizations and news outlets were forced to stop their work. Ms. Innoyatova, the human rights worker, estimates about 900 organizations closed. In an Orwellian twist, government-controlled nongovernmental organizations sprang up.

. . .

The Bush administration's counterterrorism practices since 2001 have eroded its moral authority with countries like Uzbekistan, analysts said. "The U.S. doesn't have the kind of leverage it had," said Sarah Mendelson, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "We've got this elephant in the room."

In Andijon, the policy of forgetting is rigorously enforced. On the anniversary, newspapers ran headlines about sports competitions and the grain harvest. Even those who took part in the uprising seemed to have rehearsed the government line.

"The past is in the past," said one participant, who lived in Baltimore as a refugee but returned to Uzbekistan in 2006. "People don't want to remember."

Some Uzbeks don't have the luxury of forgetting, and the rest just don't want to be locked up and tortured.  But it seems the U.S. government is no longer concerned about them.

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on May 30, 2008 7:55 AM.

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