Overthrowing Uzbekistan?

We may be seeing the seeds of another “revolution” in a post-Soviet state, courtesy of the US State Department.

In what the Boston Globe calls walking the “diplomatic tightrope,” US officials have agreed to consider asylum requests for refugees from Uzbekistan fleeing after the violent crackdown in Andijan in May. Uzbekistan has been an important ally of the US because it allows the use of one of the first US airbases in Central Asia, and because the US renders its terrorist “suspects” to the country’s torturers for interrogation and detention (New York Times). If it decides to validate asylum cases, Washington would be openly working against the govermnent of president Islam Karimov, not to mention publicly admitting that the crackdown contained human rights violations and political persecution.

While the State Department’s human rights reports have been relatively truthful on the atrocious record of Karimov, the US government in general was rather kind to the despot awarding him military aid and apologist rhetoric for his services. Until recently, the State Department’s Background Notes on Uzbekistan called the country “a strong supporter of US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and of the global war against terror….[The US] values Uzbekistan as a stable, moderate force in a turbulent region.” (Reference to the earlier version of the notes can be found in Asia Times.) Now, the notes (updated July) assert:

U.S.-Uzbek relations have flourished in recent years but have become strained over the Uzbek’s actions in Andijan in 2005…The tumultuous events in Andijan in 2005 and the subsequent U.S. condemnation of President Karimov’s actions render the future relationship between the nations uncertain. In June 2005, Karimov refused U.S. demands for a formal investigation of the Andijan massacre, exacerbating the divide between the two nations. To maintain strong relations, the United States urges greater reform in Uzbekistan to promote long-term stability and prosperity. Registration of independent political parties and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would be an important step.

The State Department calling US-Uzbek relations “strained” is more than just an attempt to assuage human rights and congressional critics of Bush’s cozy relationship with Karimov. The revised State Department language reflects a new reality. Karimov has recently said he might “evict” the US from its base at Karshi-Khanabad (ISN Security Watch), and has been showing unusual closeness with regional powers Russia and China (see earlier post). Russia is most openly offering its unconditional support to the Karimov regime, saying that outsiders should avoid “any one-sided assessment [of the Andijan events] which has only political considerations” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). Russian president Vladimir Putin furthermore agreed with Karimov that the Andijan uprisings were staged from “specially prepared bases in Afghanistan.” Karimov asserted that the demonstrations were “prepared in headquarters and centers where there are people who have carried out operations like this before on the territory of both CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] and other states.” In other words, the US fomented the demonstrations, like it did in the Ukraine (the Guardian) and Kyrgyzstan (Wikinews).

There is more than just alarmist talk in these accusations. It may not be the case that the US fomented the demonstrations in Andijan, but the State Department has made it clear that “long term stability and prosperity” can only be maintained in the country if “Registration of independent political parties and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs)” takes place. It’s not obvious if this is a threat, or just an assessment, but it looks like a little of both. According to the Washington Post,

The administration hopes to reach out to Karimov by month’s end to stress the importance of the U.S.-Uzbek strategic partnership — which has blossomed since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — while urging the authoritarian government to make a stark political choice so it does not meet the fate of the three other former Soviet republics [Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia], U.S. officials say.

“We hope one last push will get Karimov to see that repression leads to instability and the only way out is to embrace freedom. Otherwise, he’s on a descending spiral,” said a senior U.S. official involved with Central Asian policy who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy.

This echoes an analysis in Jane’s Intelligence Review (RFE/RL) that “Uzbekistan is now spiraling irretrievably towards violent regime change.”

It is quite possible that the US government is seriously considering supporting the anti-government movement in Uzbekistan, or has done so already, and is using this as a bargaining chip with Karimov. Washington is certainly warning Karimov that unless he does as he is told, the US will do nothing to stop an inevitable regime change.

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