Our Uzbek Problem, and Theirs

A week after Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov crushed a protest in the eastern town of Andijan – ordering riot police to fire directly into a crowd, killing as many as 1,000 – the death toll is rising and the reaction is growing.

Inside the country, demonstrations continue just down the road in the town of Kara Suu, where locals rose up, took over government buildings, kicked the mayor out of town, and took matters into their own hands. The standoff between riot police and hundreds of protesters is ongoing, as the rest of the world wonders what fresh horrors are about to be unleashed by the increasingly desperate dictator. The Kara Suu rebellion was characterized as an “Islamist” uprising by Karimov and much of the international media, but the BBC managed to interview the leader, one Bakhtior Rakhimov before he was arrested and whisked away to the regime’s torture chambers, and he sounds more like Donald Trump than Osama bin Laden:

“There was certainly an operatic intensity about the man that marked him out from everyone else in the teeming Uzbek bazaar. His fine cotton tunic was dazzlingly white. His beard fastidiously trimmed, the ceremonial dagger in his belt elegantly curved, and he strode through the market like a fairy-tale king. The bazaar ran down to a rusty iron footbridge. The bridge spanned a racing blue-green torrent. On the other bank lay Uzbekistan’s neighbour, Kyrgyzstan. And across the frontier flowed an endless stream of goods, TV sets and fridges, consignments of shoes and bales of spring onions.

“Bakhtior Rakhimov strode down to the bridge, surveyed the free trade and saw that it was good.

“And well he might be pleased for Mr. Rakhimov, a prosperous farmer and businessman, had supplied the crane that made it possible just four days earlier to repair the bridge deliberately broken by the Uzbek government to restrict cross-border business.

“For four days the bridge had been open again.

“For four days, Korasuv – the little town on the Uzbek bank – had been free.”

The source of popular anger directed at the Uzbek government was summed up by what one protester told the London Telegraph:

“We have a saying at home: if you want to see heaven, watch Uzbek television, if you want to see hell, go to Uzbekistan.”

What drove the residents of Kara Suu to attack government buildings, administer rough justice to local officials, and rebuild a bridge leading to a thriving bazaar on the Kyrgyzstan side of the border wasn’t Islam, but resistance to the regime’s crazy attempt to choke off trade. The dismantling of the bridge by state decree epitomizes the government’s destructive economic policies: onerous regulations forbidding the sale of imports, high tariffs, and a host of draconian regulations that all but forbid commerce. Rakhimov’s crime, like that of the 23 businessmen whose arrest set off the Andijan rebellion, appears to have been too much commercial success: Rakhimov’s sock factory employs 200 people in a region where unemployment is massive, and it was his crane that made it possible to rebuild the bridge.

“He did everything for the people; he’s not against the government,” said Aziza Ulukhodjjayeva, one of the protesters calling for his release. “He gave people jobs and a way to make money.” Obviously a dangerous “subversive” – in the neo-Communist world of America’s staunchest Central Asian ally, that is.

In spite of all the triumphalist chest-beating by the regime-changers of Washington about the democratic “wave” supposedly sweeping the world – a direct result, we are led to believe, of the “liberation” of Iraq and our strenuous efforts to install pro-Western regimes in Ukraine, Georgia, and Lebanon – this is one revolution that is giving official Washington a major headache. American policymakers have been noticeably evenhanded in calling for “restraint” from both sides and voicing concern about possible “terrorist” influence among the protesters. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has perfunctorily condemned the killings, called for Uzbekistan to cooperate with an international inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the Andijan massacre, and threatened to withhold American aid, the seriousness of this threat has to be questioned in the light of history: the last time Uzbekistan was busted for human rights violations, and denied $18 million in aid, the money was promptly restored by the Pentagon – to the tune of $21 million.

Remember that the U.S. ambassador to Syria was recalled to Washington on the strength of the unsupported – and increasingly dubious – assertion that Damascus was behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri. In the face of irrefutable evidence that Karimov has committed mass murder, however, our man in Tashkent will no doubt stay put.

The somewhat noisier remonstrations of British Foreign Minister Jack Straw only serve to underscore London’s hypocrisy: it was the British Foreign Office, after all, that replaced Craig Murray, Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, when he too insistently and visibly raised the issue of Karimov’s rule-by-torture. However, on the hypocrisy scale – with a 1 meaning no big deal, and a 10 signifying metaphysical and moral Machiavellianism – a recent piece in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, co-authored by William Kristol and Stephen Schwartz, gets an 11.

Here we have the editor of a magazine that promoted and defended the Uzbekistan-American alliance, and a writer – Schwartz – who hacked out an impressive number of articles praising Karimov‘s madhouse as an aspiring “young democracy” and denigrating efforts by human rights activists to call attention to the regime’s brutality, teaming up to vent their moral outrage at a dictator they actively supported all along. Oh, but that was then – this is now:

“The character of the Karimov regime can no longer be ignored in deference to the strategic usefulness of Uzbekistan. The Taliban has been defeated, and, with the liberation of Iraq, the nature of the global struggle to which the Bush administration is committed is no longer exclusively focused on the destruction of terrorist redoubts. We are now committed to a democratizing effort that challenges tyranny along with terror as threats to peace and freedom around the world. The Uzbek regime that was part of the solution in 2001 is now, with its bloody suppression of protests, part of the problem.”

Having followed the Weekly Standard‘s advice all these years, and, in Schwartz’s phrase, having openly sought to rebut and “repudiate the blandishments of the human rights industry,” Karimov now finds himself on the outs with his former fan club in the U.S., bringing to mind John Laughland‘s starkly cynical view of how American neoconservatives operate:

“Washington is unforgiving towards people who think loyalty is a two-way street, and the Uzbek president is about to learn the lesson learned by Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Eduard Shevardnadze and scores of others: that it is better to be an enemy of the Americans than their friend. If you are their enemy, they might try to buy you; but if you are their friend they will definitely sell you.”

It seems like only yesterday that Schwartz’s effusive praise for Karimov’s phony elections on the Tech Central Station Web site had blogger Brad DeLong wondering aloud if “bloodthirsty Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov” is “a client of the DCI Group lobbying operation,” which funds TCI. (DeLong’s theory, by the way, seems borne out by this post-Andijan TCI defense of Karimov.) Which only goes to show that some hos have a higher time preference than others: Schwartz and Kristol are betting that the Uzbek government won’t be cutting TCI checks for much longer.

In this context, the Kristol-Schwartz recantation is a real hoot: rather like something out of Pravda around the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, or George Orwell’s imagination. “We did little to help promote political freedom there,” they moan – without acknowledging that they were the two most active promoters of Uzbekistan as a bastion of stability, secularism, and even “transitional” democracy.

It was Schwartz, writing in the pages of the Weekly Standard, who recounted his interviews – in the company of an Uzbek government minder – with formerly imprisoned dissidents who had recanted their views and confessed to their “terrorist” ties. The whole point of the piece was to praise Karimov for repressing dangerous “extremists,” with Schwartz making a special point of reporting that these “defectors” unanimously hailed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Torture or the threat of it can get most people to say anything. Yet Schwartz and his buddies at the Weekly Standard were not above retailing quotes from Karimov’s terrified subjects as valid testimony freely given – when it served their purposes.

Why did they support a dictator as wacky and bloodthirsty as Karimov to begin with? It was a question of shared hatreds – and since hatred is the main motivating force of politics, especially neoconservative politics, Karimov and his American fan club didn’t part ways until the international spotlight illuminated his crimes so glaringly that the Uzbek mini-Stalin became an embarrassment. Operating on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Schwartz and Kristol showered praise on this retro leftover from the Soviet era because he is not only anti-Islamic, but also rabidly anti-Russian.

The need to differentiate the Uzbek national identity from the “colonialist” Russian influence led Karimov to invent a rather exotic state ideology, much as the Bosnian government – another of Schwartz’s weird enthusiasms – did in the wake of the Yugoslav breakup. The promulgation of the myth of an Uzbek “golden era” in the empire of the legendary Tamerlane is one element in this oddly eclectic mix: the Uzbek government’s promotion of Sufism, a sect of Islam based on mysticism and esoteric rituals, is another instrument through which Karimov seeks to exert control over the religious life of the people and present a more secularized alternative to traditional Islam.

Schwartz, a convert to Sufism, tirelessly promoted Uzbekistan as a model of religious toleration. A little over a year ago, even as he was characterizing the jailing and torture of gay journalist and activist Ruslan Sharipov by Karimov’s thugs as the equivalent of “the death of a butterfly,” Schwartz was exulting in Insight magazine that

“Uzbekistan takes pride in its seven Jewish communities, including the Farsi-speaking Bukharan Jews, who have lived in peace with their neighbors for 2,500 years. The country’s Christian population includes 62 Korean Protestant churches, as well as 24 Evangelical Baptist, 20 Full Gospel, four Lutheran and four New Apostolic congregations. It also has five Roman Catholic churches. …

“Uzbekistan is dominated by the Sufi tradition, which emphasizes inner cultivation and seeks to avoid conflict. Devotion to Sufism, as much or more than repression by the authorities, has helped Uzbekistan defeat the IMU. The State Department declares that if Uzbekistan continues to receive U.S. military aid, Karimov must implement ‘a far-reaching democratic transformation.’ But what other country in the world has managed such a feat overnight or by fiat? Rumsfeld is correct in praising Uzbekistan for its cooperation, which is indeed wonderful.”

It isn’t just that Karimov is a “wonderfulally when it comes to fighting “terrorists” like the nonviolent Hizb ut-Tahrir, said Schwartz: “The world desperately needs Muslims of the Uzbek kind, as much or more than the United States needs an ally on the borders of Afghanistan.” We need more Karimovs – yeah, that’s the ticket!

Given the extent to which Schwartz and the Weekly Standard openly shilled for such a monstrous regime, their typically weasel-worded turnabout is all the more astonishing in its utter shamelessness. And it wasn’t just the oddball Schwartz writing about his Sufi utopia. Here is a Weekly Standard piece from 2002, by managing editor Claudia Winkler, hailing one Muborak Tashpulatova as representative of the “Islamic Voice of Reason”:

“Speaking in Washington recently, Muborak Tashpulatova drove home the sense of danger felt across Central Asia while the Islamists of al Qaeda and the Taliban were working their mischief unchecked, back before September 11. The occasion was a ceremony honoring Tashpulatova’s work in civic education in Uzbekistan, a country of 25 million now in its twelfth year of post-Soviet independence. She said in part:

“‘Throughout the centuries, Islam coexisted in Uzbekistan with other religions and traditions. You can still go today to a Christian church in Samarkand, see statues of Buddha near the border of Afghanistan, or visit famous Jewish communities in Buchara.'”

More shuck and jive of the Schwartzian variety: Oh, glorious Uzbekistan, bastion of religious freedom! Madame Tashpulatova goes on to say:

“When the fanatical fundamentalists kill people and claim that he who is not with them is against them, they do not sound like God-loving Muslims, but like Bolsheviks, who already once destroyed our lives, our culture, our tradition, our families. Please remember that in democratic countries the fanatics, the fundamentalists, the terrorists are not such a threat as in dictatorships, and that is why we want to build a democracy in Uzbekistan. Only educated citizens can oppose fanatics.”

While Madam Tashpulatova was hailing the achievements of Uzbekistan’s government in the realm of religious tolerance, Muslims were being jailed and hideously tortured for the “crime” of practicing their faith. Winkler urges her readers to “click here” to get the full flavor of Tashpulatova’s remarks on the occasion of receiving the National Endowment for Democracy’s “Democracy Award,” and I urge my readers to do the same – and note that there is not a single word of criticism, even by implication, of Karimov’s criminal regime.

Tashpulatova is director of the Tashkent Public Education Center (TPEC), which the National Endowment for Democracy describes as “a group founded by Uzbek educators to conduct civic education activities, such as producing textbooks and teaching manuals, conducting trainings for more than 1,000 educators, and organizing ‘town hall’ style civic forums for parents, youth, and government officials. TPECs ninth-grade text book on Uzbekistan’s constitution has been adopted for use in all Uzbek high schools.”

Translation: Madame Tashpulatova was engaged in making propaganda for the regime. No one who opposes the government is allowed access to Uzbekistan’s public school system, which is used to indoctrinate students in the cult of Tamerlane and inoculate them against religious “extremism.” Her banal carpet-weaving and “civic education” activities, funded by NED, not only did nothing to threaten the regime, but actively bolstered it. One of the TPEC’s touted achievements has been the publication of The Constitution and Us, a textbook used in all Uzbek schools promulgating the myth that Uzbekistan’s “constitution” is worth the paper it is written on.

In the context of a piece published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty complaining that, while the old Soviet Union took care to provide educational facilities for all, in Central Asia today quality education only exists for the rich, Madame Tashpulatova is cited as saying that Uzbekistan’s educational system must be “democratized.” Gee, maybe if they stopped jailing, spying on, and boiling the parents alive, that would help.

Tashpulatova and her TPEC show every sign of going along to get along and framing “reform” in the context of discreetly appealing to Karimov to loosen the reins. It wasn’t until last year that she finally acknowledged any sort of adversarial relationship with Uzbekistan’s thug-ocracy: Asked by her NED interviewer [.pdf] about the elections being held in Uzbekistan, she made an analogy about the health of the body politic and said there are certain “diseases” that affect it. The disease was not named, but she went on to say:

“If we are talking about political rights, we have no political opportunities, no freedom of speech, no freedom of association. Since the government closed down political parties, there has been no political opposition. Of course, it does influence our work.”

Perhaps she now regrets not titling her textbook The Constitution Don’t Mean Sh*t, although I tend to doubt it.

Kristol and Schwartz title their excommunication of Karimov from the ranks of neocon-approved dictators “Our Uzbek Problem” – and they’re right, they do have an Uzbek problem. For years they have not only rationalized but – in Schwartz’s case – actually glorified the murderous Karimov and his odious government. As soon as his crimes come to wide attention, however, they want no truck with their former ally.

When Schwartz went to Uzbekistan and produced a flurry of articles hailing the “elections” staged by Karimov as a paradigm of the progress made by Uzbekistan’s “young democracy,” he noted ruefully that “the Uzbek authorities made extensive preparations to accommodate foreign journalists, who did not show up in substantial numbers.”

Perhaps that’s because they knew that the whole procedure was just a propaganda exercise staged for foreign consumption, and they didn’t want to be a part of Karimov’s Potemkin village. Schwartz lent himself to the charade, to his everlasting shame – if he had a sense of shame, which he doesn’t. Neither he nor Kristol could care less about Uzbeks, what they have suffered, and what they will no doubt continue to suffer as long as Karimov and his devilish legions retain their hold on the country. Kristol and Schwartz are scheming, lying weasels without a single moral compunction between them, and their reaction to the Andijan atrocity proves it: that is the real nature of their “Uzbek problem.”

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was 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].