Uzbekistan: The Revolution Betrayed

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe the United States government would react with anything but unmitigated outrage if 500 to 750 demonstrators in, say, Russia, had been mowed down in cold blood by government troops. Yet here we have in Uzbekistan the biggest massacre since Tiananmen Square, and the Americans are saying… what? Practically nothing. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher set the tone with his “balanced” reaction to news of the massacre:

“I think you have seen in our human rights report and elsewhere, we felt that the tag of ‘Islamic extremist’ has been used too broadly by the [Uzbek] government, and that there needs to be more respect for people who want to peacefully exercise their religion.

“On the other hand, no one can deny that Uzbekistan has faced a problem of terrorism by real extremists who are violent, who are trying to overthrow the government and kill people, and those people need to be dealt with as well.”

Our NATO allies aren’t exactly seething with righteous rage, either, as they were when the far less heinous massacre at Racak – which sparked the Kosovo war, and which, by the way, turned out never to have happened – was getting huge headlines. According to the Los Angeles Times:

“NATO’s Central Asia envoy, Robert Simmons, urged a peaceful resolution to the unrest and called on the Uzbek government to increase democracy, but refrained from laying blame for the past week’s bloodshed.”

Condoleezza Rice was her usual lightweight self as she lied unconvincingly that the U.S. had recently rebuked its Uzbek client “in no uncertain terms” and went on to say:

“Now, as to the most – the latest events that have just taken place, I do think that we – and we would hope that the Government of Uzbekistan would be very open in understanding what has happened there. It is quite clear that a lot of people lost their lives and that is always a cause for concern because it should just not be the case that innocent people lose their lives.”

Our not-so-bright secretary of state can be sure that Karimov understands exactly what has happened here – it’s called mass murder. That’s why he’s trying desperately to spin the whole thing as an attack by “terrorists,” and stoutly maintaining that only armed “bandits” were killed. That’s why he is rushing journalists to Andijan without letting anyone see the actual scene of the crime: the road near a schoolhouse where police fired into a crowd of some 3,000 protesters. That’s why he’s no doubt speed-dialing his buddies in the Pentagon, trusting that Washington will lie low until the whole thing blows over, and these recent comments by Ms. Rice give him good reason for hope. Yes, it’s “always a cause for concern” when the blood and brains of hundreds of innnocent civilians are spread all over the street – but, given the “balanced” view handed out by Boucher, the chief concern seems to be that we don’t do anything to upset Karimov’s increasingly shaky apple cart.

The reason for the moral and political ambiguity of our “democracy“-promoting foreign policy officials is not too hard to discern. Karimov has been a faithful ally of the United States, and sits at the crossroads of a region rich in oil and strategic possibilities. The Karsi-Khanabad airbase, so crucial to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is Karimov’s insurance policy. This is why the American response to one of the worst massacres since 9/11 is being downplayed by U.S. government officials, and it is why, even after the Andijan slaughter, at least one neoconservative outlet is still promoting his regime as a bulwark against “terrorism.” State terrorism, you see, doesn’t count – unless the state involved happens to be one of the Bad Guys, like Iraq under Saddam.

The irony is that the United States is here propping up one of the last surviving authentically Communist regimes on earth: Karimov became the leader of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989, and when the Soviet Union imploded and Moscow “stopped taking his phone calls,” as one commentator put it, Comrade Karimov struck out on his own, leading the Uzbek nation to independence in 1991 and simply changing the name of the ruling party. The Uzbek state is set up exactly on the old Soviet model, complete with fake “democratic” parties – all founded by the government, a government-controlled media, and a phony “constitution” announcing the existence of all sorts of “democratic” rights that do not, in fact, exist. Last time I checked, around 6,000 political prisoners languished in Uzbekistan’s jails – although the number has undoubtedly risen recently.

To give you some idea of what kind of society Comrade Karimov has created, here’s an account of an incident that occurred just before the Andijan events:

“A woman in Tashkent suffered serious burns on 13 April when she set herself on fire to protest a campaign to destroy small garden plots, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service reported. Irina Alekseeva, an ethnic Russian pensioner, was hospitalized in serious condition after she doused herself with kerosene and set herself on fire, fergana.ru reported. Tashkent city officials confirmed to the BBC’s Uzbek Service that small garden plots near residential dwellings are being removed in accordance with a cabinet decision, but said they knew nothing about Alekseeva’s case..”

No private garden plots allowed – get thee to a collective farm!

I note that the 23 men whose arrest was the proximate cause of the Andijan uprising were all businessmen, whose association of small companies employed thousands in the area. Typically, Karimov’s commies targeted the Uzbek version of an organization eerily similar to the Chamber of Commerce as a criminal conspiracy of “terrorists” and religious zealots, labeling them “Akramists.” What, the father of one of the detainees wanted to know, is an “Akramist”? He had never even heard the term.

What is happening in Uzbekistan? The Washington Times got it right in a recent news story:

“U.S. lawyers and others familiar with political conditions in Uzbekistan say riots last week that left several hundred dead were the result of a drive for greater free enterprise, not terrorism – as the government says. … The demonstrators had been protesting harsh prison sentences sought for 23 businessmen accused of membership in a terrorist organization and of trying to overthrow the government.

“But close observers of the case said by telephone yesterday that they thought the men had been prosecuted because the growing popularity of their free-market business practices had made them a threat to the government of President Islam Karimov. They said a stifling bureaucracy makes it extremely difficult to start a business without paying for protection by one of a handful of powerful groups intertwined with the government that effectively run the small part of the economy that is not in state hands.”

Draconian economic measures, high tariffs on imported goods, an onerous tax burden, and all the absurdities and injustices of a command economy have driven the people of Uzbekistan to take desperate measures, like that woman who set herself afire protesting the ban on private garden plots. As Fiona Hill wrote in the Wall Street Journal/Europe last year:

“In closing the economy, the Karimov government is now dependent on vulnerable cash crops and commodities to generate revenues. Welfare subsidies, state salaries and living standards have steadily declined. In rural areas, where almost two thirds of Uzbekistan’s population is concentrated, the economy is essentially cashless. In the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan’s cotton farmers are rarely paid. They subsist on flour handouts for bread, cotton stalks for fuel, and produce from garden plots. Many work as illegal day laborers in Kyrgyzstan. They steal cotton from the state and smuggle it into Kyrgyzstan to sell, along with fruit and vegetables in the bustling bazaars of Osh, Kara-Suu, and Bishkek. Crossing the borders is perilous – not just because of landmines. At Kara-Suu, Uzbek authorities destroyed their side of the bridge that spanned the border as part of their effort to keep people in, and out. Now people fall from an improvised rope bridge and drown in the fast-flowing river.

“In Uzbekistan today, poverty could easily be confused with government policy – as a tool for social control.”

The irony is that here, for once, is a real free-market revolution, one that deserves rhetorical support from an American president; however, Bush has yet to comment, and his underlings are not exactly jumping for joy at the prospect of losing their most reliable Central Asian satrap.

The U.S. gave unconditional support – including millions in U.S. tax dollars – to Viktor Yushchenko and his running mate Yulia Timoshenko, and now these two “orange revolutionaries” are going red by appointing a socialist to “review” previous privatizations of state property. Not only that, but they’re seizing control of the media, and going after their old enemies in the former regime with a vengeance. The “free market” veneer of the Western media’s favorite color-coded “revolution” has long since worn off, but don’t worry: Ukraine is on the fast track to NATO membership, and that’s what really counts as far as Washington is concerned.

All that palaver about “freedom” and “free markets” is just a lot of guff, window-dressing for the benefit of their conservative spear-carriers back home. What’s at play when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, and especially in this region, is pure power politics.

Can we use Yushchenko to prod and torture the Russian bear? Can we count on Karimov to give us a permanent military base and keep those damned towel-heads in line? These are the questions our rulers must answer in their own minds before they either unleash the winged monkeys of “democracy” or decide to keep them caged.

I disagree with the view of John Laughland, who seems to think that allegations of a massacre in Andijan are exaggerated, and also points to evidence that the whole thing is being manipulated by so-called “nongovernmental organizations” – like Freedom House – that are, in reality, merely extensions of the U.S.-government and its European allies. He writes:

“People who reason that the US supports President Karimov, and will therefore turn a blind eye to his alleged excesses, do not understand the thrust of current American policy, which is to try to support and control all sides in any political equation. As in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan under former President Akayev, Uzbekistan is home to scores of western-backed NGOs that agitate politically for the opposition. For instance, Freedom House – a notorious CIA front and the main architect of the orange revolution in Ukraine – has an office in Tashkent.”

Okay, so Freedom House has an office in Tashkent – so what? The point is, that office was picketed by angry activists from four Uzbek human rights groups on March 28: the group demanded the resignation of Executive Director Mjusa Sever, whom human rights activists denounced as “an accomplice of Islam Karimov’s dictatorial regime who discredits the whole human rights movement.” The Uzbek freedom movement was irked that Freedom House was denying its promises to parties banned from the ballot and prettifying the completely fixed parliamentary “elections,” while Madame Sever, according to Ferghana.ru:

“Was granted an audience with Islam Karimov at his Aksarai residence on March 5, 2005. The president was quite content with F[reedom] H[ouse’s] participation in the democratic reforms the government was implementing in the country and particularly in preparations for election of the parliament of two houses. According to official reports, Sever in her turn thanked the president for the warm reception and emphasized the importance she was attaching to ‘a constructive dialogue with law enforcement agencies of Uzbekistan.'”

One of the handwritten placards the picketers carried branded Server a “provocateur” – a polite way to put it, for sure. Is Freedom House really behind the Uzbek upsurge? They seem rather more like an obstacle.

Laughland writes:

“Ostensible US support for a president like Islam Karimov, moreover, gives the Americans the very proximity to a regime that they need in order to buy off turncoats within the power structure when the time comes for regime change; to believe that the current unrest in Uzbekistan will lead to anything other than the consolidation of American power in this strategically crucial region near China’s border is to fail to understand how much US foreign policy under the neocons owes to the theory of permanent revolution. In the Soviet Union, even loyal party cadres lived under the constant threat of purge, and this kept them on their toes. Moreover, as in Romania, an excessive focus on a particular person, usually the head of state, causes the appearance of regime change to mask the reality of continued control over the system as a whole.”

It is Laughland, however, who fails to understand the significance of his own analogy. The point is that the “democratic” movements subsidized and controlled by Washington have no real value to their owners except as instruments of American foreign policy. If that policy means it’s time to tamp down the revolutionary dreams of the Uzbek people – who can’t even putter about in their own gardens without committing a subversive act – then that’s how it has to be.

Rhetorically, the United States government is committed to spreading “freedom” throughout the globe; in practice, however, the interests of the U.S. state are in direct and often deadly conflict with the radical libertarian rhetoric – never more so than today. Uzbekistan is a textbook example. A free-market revolution against a murderous neo-Communist dictator is going down in flames as the U.S. presides over the carnage with calls for an “investigation” – and a wink and a nod to Karimov.

This is why the United States government – not Russia, not China, not the various thugs who loom large in the pantheon of thuggery for a moment, then are quickly forgotten – is the main danger to liberty worldwide. Precisely because its leaders raise the banner of human freedom, and then dip it in blood, soil it with every imaginable crime, and carry it into battle for reasons that have nothing to do with their professed ideals, Washington stands in the way of the realization of human freedom everywhere. This is why we oppose America’s foreign policy of global intervention – not because we don’t favor the liberation of foreign peoples from the shackles of whatever tyranny besets them, but precisely because we do favor it. We realize, though, that the interests of the American state, qua state, can only drive it to betray and actively sabotage the very ideals of “freedom” and “democracy” it pretends to export.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].