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The More Things Change...

By Nat Parry
October 29, 2001

George W. Bush has said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed everything, especially how the United States defined who was a friend and who was a foe, either a country aided the U.S. war on terrorism or it was with the terrorists.

The post-Sept. 11 world indeed has seen many changes, but the historic tendency to build alliances of convenience, rather than principle, is one reality that hasn’t changed. It's only been reinforced. A case in point is Uzbekistan, one of Washington's new best allies.

Uzbekistan, a landlocked Central Asian nation of about 23 million people north of Afghanistan, has offered the United States use of Uzbek airspace and an airfield. About 1,500 American troops have set up shop in the former Soviet republic. Little known to Americans seven weeks ago, Uzbekistan suddenly has become a key partner in the U.S. war against the Taliban regime and its al-Qaeda terrorist allies in Afghanistan.

In an Oct. 12 joint statement, the United States and Uzbekistan expressed their common “commitment to the elimination of international terrorism and its infrastructure.” The statement cited a classified agreement between the two countries that established a “strong basis for bilateral cooperation” and a “qualitatively new relationship based on long-term commitment to advance security and regional stability.” [Financial Times, Oct. 15, 2001, or]

The cooperation against terrorism included the need to consult on an urgent basis about appropriate steps to address "a direct threat to the security or territorial integrity of the Republic of Uzbekistan,” according to the Oct. 12 statement.

The new U.S. policy is not an explicit promise to guarantee the security of the Uzbek government and its authoritarian leader Islam Karimov. But it is clear that there is a new status in the relationship between the two governments and a strong signal that Washington is prepared to protect Karimov much like the United States has backed other authoritarian pro-U.S. leaders in the region.

Even before the agreement's announcement, the new relationship was apparent with the arrival of U.S. troops in Uzbekistan in late September. Bush also identified the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – a chief threat to the Karimov government – as one of the targets of the U.S. anti-terrorist campaign.

A Concession

Bush may have singled out the IMU specifically as a concession to Karimov's government. Bush's declaration against the IMU also suggests that Washington is ready to make Karimov's enemies U.S. enemies, by portraying the Uzbek Islamic fundamentalist group as part of Osama bin Laden’s international network of terrorist organizations.

Yet, this assertion may exaggerate the IMU's role. The Muslim fundamentalist group mainly has conducted small-scale armed attacks, including car-bombings, in Uzbekistan. While the group also is active in neighboring Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, there is no public evidence of the organization engaging in terrorism on a global scale. Its membership is estimated in the hundreds and its activities mostly have been limited to remote mountain terrain and border areas.

Still, Bush's declaration that the IMU was one of the targets in the U.S. worldwide anti-terror campaign was certainly welcomed by Karimov, who has ruled in the capital, Tashkent, for 11 years. For many of those years, he has been trying to defeat the IMU, which has as its stated goal the overthrow of Karimov's government. Government authorities have responded with increased repression, banning opposition parties since 1993 and forcing many members of political groups to go underground.

As part of the campaign against the IMU and other militant Islamists, the Karimov government has gone after anyone deemed a threat to its authoritarian powers. Some of the perceived threats have been peaceful political dissidents as well as practicing Muslims, human rights activists and journalists who have criticized government policies.

One of the latest victims of Uzbek repression was Shobriq Rusimorodov, a former parliamentarian and activist with the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. Rusimorodov had criticized the government for convicting Uzbeks for allegedly collaborating with armed insurgents. He was arrested on June 15 and held incommunicado for three weeks. His body was delivered to his family on July 7. He is believed to have been tortured to death.

His case was not unique. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have criticized the Uzbek government for persecuting Muslims as well as using “anti-terrorism” as a cover for crushing legitimate democratic opposition.

'Anti-State Activity'

There are thousands of political prisoners in Uzbekistan, serving sentences up to 20 years for “anti-state activity,” human rights groups say. In the prisons, torture is used routinely and death in police custody is commonplace. The government even organizes “hate rallies” to intimidate the families of political prisoners.

Practicing Islam is enough to get individuals thrown in jail. While George Bush denounced the Taliban for imprisoning men for not wearing Muslim-style beards, the Karimov government imprisons men for wearing them – and women for wearing Muslim scarves.

The Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan claims that anyone accused of a crime who attempts to prove his or her innocence may be subjected to torture to extract a confession. Torture techniques include systematic beatings, hanging, electric shocks, suffocation, rape, cauterization – the use of hot irons – and pain inflicted through dentistry. The Human Rights Society has documented cases of prisoners who died as a result of torture and other people who have disappeared without a trace.

During the 1990s, the Clinton administration kept the Karimov government at arms length, even as U.S. businesses expanded their investments in the energy-rich region. Washington pressed for improvement in democratic standards and human rights. Last year, the State Department criticized Uzbekistan as an “authoritarian state with limited civil rights.”

Nevertheless, the Clinton administration supported Uzbekistan’s efforts to fight terrorism. The State Department classified the IMU as a "foreign terrorist organization" in September 2000, but stressed that anti-terrorism should not be an excuse for human rights abuses.

The Clinton administration's policy maintained that combating terrorism and building democratic institutions were both necessary for establishing security and stability. That principle was seen as part of a broader regional strategy to advance U.S. long-term economic interests, which are extensive in Central Asia. U.S. private investment in Central Asia, with its massive natural gas reserves and geo-strategic importance, has greatly exceeded that of other Newly Independent States or Russia.

Prior to the October classified agreement between Uzbekistan and the U.S., the Bush administration policy had continued the Clinton policy, according to Ambassador Elizabeth Jones, senior adviser on Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy. Jones said the U.S. would continue to support energy development in the region, but advised Central Asian leaders that the U.S. would not intervene militarily to help fight Islamic insurgents. [Eurasianet, July 25, 2001,]

New Commitment

Formulated in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the new agreement between the U.S. and Uzbekistan is almost certainly a departure from that stance.

Under the new relationship, the U.S. will likely back off its human rights pressure. “Our government will get full support from the West to fight those our government declares terrorists,” an Uzbek official said.

But the U.S. actions may have undesirable long-term consequences for Uzbekistan and the region. On Oct. 11, one month after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Amnesty International said the new alliance and the renewed campaign against Uzbek terrorist organizations could lead to worsening human rights in Uzbekistan. The region’s leaders might use anti-terrorism as a pretext to further criminalize legitimate opposition to authoritarian rule, the human rights group said.

There's already concern that Karimov has begun exploiting the crisis, by branding his political opponents “followers of bin Laden.” Members of the Khizb-ut-Takhrir party were charged with having connections to bin Laden and put on trial in Tashkent. Human rights activists said insufficient evidence was provided to justify this action. It's unlikely now that any overreaching by Karimov's government will draw much criticism from Washington.

Besides a deteriorating human rights situation, repression can have adverse political consequences. The clampdown has driven more individuals underground and further radicalized the opposition, a problem similar to what helped bin Laden recruit militants from other U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In the past year, IMU and other militant anti-government groups have grown in numbers. These groups can be expected to expand their popularity among the disenfranchised Muslims of Uzbekistan if government repression intensifies. Indeed, experts on the region argue that the repression is doing more to fuel armed opposition than to crush it.

Muslim Fears

Another concern is that the new U.S. alliance with an explicitly anti-Muslim government could feed deepening suspicions of Muslims that the U.S. war against Afghanistan is a modern anti-Muslim crusade. This is especially true if the U.S. does nothing to prevent the arbitrary persecution of Muslims in Uzbekistan. 

The new alliance also could add uncertainty to regional stability. Russia has always considered the former Soviet Central Asian states part of its backyard and could react negatively to expanded U.S. influence in the region.

Uzbekistan apparently has rebuffed the Shanghai Organization for Cooperation, where Russia, China and the Central Asian states are members. Uzbekistan failed to show up for an emergency meeting held on Oct. 10-11 to discuss the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan. Some members of the organization believe that Uzbekistan is preparing to ditch the SOC in favor of a bilateral partnership with Washington. 

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice assured Moscow that Washington is not attempting to co-opt the nations that Russia views as part of its sphere of influence. But the feeling in the region is that there is a restructuring of alliances underway and that Tashkent has re-oriented its political priorities since American troops landed in Uzbekistan.

As Kyrgyz parliamentarian deputy Ishenbai Kadyrbekov told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, “The immediate and strategic goals of the U.S. and Uzbekistan are currently the same.” However, Kadyrbekov added that the new alliance with the U.S. might embolden Uzbekistan to assert itself more aggressively and thus drive weaker nations in the region – particularly Kyrgystan – to seek protection from Russia or another powerful country.

Some observers also worry that a higher U.S. profile in the region could lead Russia to act in a destabilizing manner to reassert its dominance.

It is difficult to say how all of this will play out, or whether the American policymakers have considered all these potential ramifications of the new war on terrorism. What is clear is that the American campaign is changing the political landscape in Uzbekistan and Central Asia, with the possibility of unleashing a whole new round of dangers.

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