This week’s decision by the U.S. State Department to cut up to $18 million in aid to its staunchest anti-terrorism ally in Central Asia is being welcomed by human rights activists, who called the move long overdue.
The slap at the government of President Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron hand since even before it became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, should add at least some credibility to the Bush administration’s claims that it is serious about supporting democratization in the Islamic world.
But at the same time, the move, which was expected since Washington issued a warning about Karimov’s human-rights performance last December, is unlikely to prompt any major downgrading of bilateral relations, at least for the moment, and even rights groups say Washington should continue to be engaged with Tashkent to encourage reform.
The United States now has some 1,000 U.S. troops deployed to a military base in Uzbekistan, the remnant of a much larger force that played a key role in the military campaign that ousted the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001. It also has been buying up nuclear-related equipment and weapons stockpiles left over from Soviet times, under a long-standing aid program that is not affected by the aid cut.
A spokesman at the Uzbek embassy here assured reporters his country remains “united with the United States in the war against terrorism, and we will continue our strategic partnership,” a theme echoed by the State Department statement that announced the cut.
“Uzbekistan is an important partner of the United States in the war on terror, and we have many shared strategic goals,” said spokesman Richard Boucher. “This does not mean that either our interests in the region or our desire for continued cooperation with Uzbekistan has changed.”
The State Department based its decision on a 2002 law that made U.S. aid to the Uzbek government conditional on its efforts to improve its human rights record and institute political, judicial and other reforms.
For aid funds to be made available, the administration of President George W Bush has to certify the Uzbek government is making “substantial and continuing progress” in meeting its commitments under the joint U.S.-Uzbek Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework, which was signed during Karimov’s visit to Washington in March 2002.
Even at that time the honeymoon period of the U.S.-Uzbek courtship the Bush administration displayed unusual sensitivity about Karimov and his government’s human-rights performance, widely regarded as the worst possibly next to Turkmenistan’s in Central Asia.
Instead of being feted with a state dinner, or even offered an extended photo opportunity with Bush, Karimov was discreetly invited for afternoon tea at the White House and then quickly whisked away from the cameras and reporters’ questions.
Still, Karimov’s co-operation in the Afghan campaign was much appreciated by Washington, and the alacrity with which the Uzbek offered access to his bases and other support after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, was duly rewarded.
In a nationally televised speech Sept. 18, Bush himself denounced the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a violent anti-Karimov group accused of a series of bombings and hit-and-run attacks as an affiliate of the al-Qaeda terrorist group of Osama bin Laden and hence a common enemy of both countries.
While the IMU, which was based in Afghanistan, was effectively dispersed by the Taliban’s ouster, Karimov’s rule has not become any less heavy-handed, according to regional experts, who were not surprised last March when nearly 50 people were killed over three days in Tashkent and Bukhara in attacks which included at least two suicide bombings by women by Islamist militants against security forces.
While Tashkent blamed the violence on the work of “international terror” and on members of a nonviolent Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Washington took a somewhat more nuanced view typical of its balancing act between, on the one hand, supporting Karimov as a strategic ally in the ‘war on terrorism’ and, on the other, trying to steer him toward political reform.
“These attacks only strengthen our resolve to defeat terrorists wherever they hide and strike,” the White House said, while, at the same time, the State Department stressed, “more democracy is the best antidote to terror.”
One week later, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 319-page report entitled “Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan,” detailing what its Central Asia director, Rachel Denber, called “a merciless campaign against peaceful Muslim dissidents.”
The report estimated that some 7,000 Muslims, most of them associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir, were serving often-lengthy sentences in prison, where many were subject to torture and other abuses.
A particularly notorious case came to light in late 2002 when a shopkeeper, Fatima Mukhadirova, persuaded the British Embassy in Tashkent to investigate the August 2002 death in custody of her son, Hizb adherent Muzafar Avozov. An independent examination carried out by the University of Glasgow concluded the father of four had died after being immersed in boiling water.
For her efforts, Mukhadirova was sentenced to six years of hard labor, although she was released after an international outcry on the eve of a visit to Tashkent by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in February this year.
The HRW report detailed numerous cases of prisoner torture which it found to be “routine” by methods such as beatings, rape, electric shock, asphyxiation, burning and suspension by the wrists or ankles.
This record provoked groups like HRW, Amnesty International and Freedom House to call for cuts in western aid to the regime which, despite repeated exhortations by visiting Bush officials, was slow to react, although in recent weeks it invited international observers to help investigate two other in-custody cases and set up a permanent commission on the problem.
But despite those moves, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which had expressed strong concern about torture during its annual meeting in Tashkent last year, announced in April that it would limit new investment in Uzbekistan.
The State Department, however, based its decision not so much on the torture issue as on the government’s failure to make “progress on democratic reform and restrictions put on U.S. assistance partners on the ground.”
Instead of making it easier for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and opposition parties to organize and operate, the Uzbek government has actually increased their regulation and made it much harder to receive foreign funding, including some of the $18 million in U.S. aid, according to Maria Brill Olcott, a Central Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
While the amount of money involved is relatively little, some analysts said the move might reflect some strategic reassessments by both countries. “This is a sign that Central Asia is less important (to the Bush administration) than it was three years ago,” said Olcott, who noted that U.S. military access to the air base in Uzbekistan is less critical strategically now that Washington has several bases in Afghanistan.
“Will it make Uzbekistan move closer to Russia? It probably will,” she added, noting that Karimov, who already has close ties with China, has been moving in that direction for some time.
S. Frederick Starr, a Central Asia specialist at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), told the Washington Times the move was self-defeating because it would strengthen the hand of “the worst troglodytes in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and police,” who were themselves targeted for some of the aid that has been cut.
(Inter Press Service)