Taken by surprise by the sudden and unexpectedly bloody repression in Uzbekistan, the administration of President George W. Bush appears to be backing away from its initial, reflexive support for its authoritarian ally in the war against terrorism, Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
Echoing Karimov himself, the White House expressed particular concern about the escape of "some members of a terrorist organization" during a massive prison break in Andijan in the strategic Fergama Valley last Friday.
The escape touched off clashes that local rights groups claim have killed nearly 750 people, the majority of them innocent demonstrators who were mowed down by government security forces in Andijan’s old town after gathering to protest Karimov’s rule. Scores more reportedly were killed trying to flee over the border to Kyrgyzstan over the weekend and hundreds of suspected dissidents reportedly have been rounded up.
Washington’s tone changed distinctly Monday when the State Department began playing up the urgency of implementing far-reaching political reforms.
"We have been encouraging the Karimov government to make reforms, to make the system more open," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday, adding that Central Asia’s most populous and wealthiest country "needs, in a sense, pressure valves that come from a more open political system."
On Tuesday, her spokesman, Richard Boucher, was more direct.
"We have made clear to Uzbek authorities that stability depends on reaching out to their citizenry and instituting real democratic reform and respect for rule of law," he told reporters. "Repression and violence will in no way lead to long-term stability but to the reverse."
That also is the analysis of independent experts, one of the most prominent of whom, Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), warned here Tuesday that in the absence of major reforms on both the political and economic fronts, Uzbekistan could easily slip into civil war of the kind that effectively paralyzed Tajikistan in the early 1990s.
"I do believe that Uzbekistan is at a tipping point," Olcott said, adding that the weekend’s demonstrations were far more about "economic reform and social justice" than Islam. Although force appears to have worked in quelling the weekend’s challenge to the rule, if similar uprisings should take place simultaneously in three cities or more, "force won’t work, and the regime will crumble from within."
Moreover, given Uzbekistan’s central location and its status as the region’s most populous country with the most powerful armed forces, its plunge into chaos could destabilize the entire region.
"This can potentially create tipping situations elsewhere," Olcott said. Neighboring Tajikistan already had seen civil war and just last month, opposition forces in Kyrgyzstan ousted a longtime authoritarian leader in a largely peaceful upheaval.
"These are very fragile states," agreed Nancy Lubin, a Central Asia expert who runs JNA Associates, a consulting firm that advises governments, companies, and nongovernmental groups on operations in the region. "If this breaks into violence or even civil war, it will have repercussions in all of the surrounding countries, even including Afghanistan," she said.
Washington already has a great deal at stake in Uzbekistan itself.
While long concerned about Karimov’s iron grip he has ruled the country since even before its 1991 independence from Moscow the U.S. has cultivated friendly ties with the regime since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The relationship became significantly warmer shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon when Karimov opened the strategic Karshi-Khanabad air base for U.S. military use during and after the war in Afghanistan.
Tashkent was rewarded with sharply increased military and economic aid; Bush’s public declaration that Karimov’s most dangerous foe, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), would be treated as a branch of al-Qaeda; a White House meeting with Bush; and frequent visits by senior defense officials.
While the Defense Department has been especially enthusiastic about the Uzbek leader, however, other parts of the government have grown increasingly frustrated by his refusal to implement far-reaching political and economic reforms.
In addition, Karimov’s controversial human-rights record international human rights groups continue to describe as "routine" torture, particularly of thousands of devout Muslims whom he has imprisoned became increasingly embarrassing to the Bush administration, particularly after a former British ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray, publicly confirmed that at least one dissident had been boiled to death.
Last July the State Department, declaring that Tashkent had failed to implement political reforms to which it had committed itself, announced that it would cut up to $18 million in aid in 2005. That represented a small percentage of Washington’s total aid program but enough to draw a protest and a special allocation of $21 million ostensibly to help the government there dispose of Soviet-era biological weapons from its friends in the Pentagon.
Despite continued aid and Tashkent’s close partnership with the Defense Department (and with the Central Intelligence Agency, which "rendered" terrorist suspects for detention and interrogation to Uzbekistan), U.S.-Uzbek ties became slightly more distant over the past two years, particularly as Karimov, apparently wary of Bush’s "pro-democracy" rhetoric after the Iraq war, drew closer to Russia.
That cooling, according to Olcott, has reduced Washington’s leverage with Karimov and makes it more difficult to persuade him to implement reforms. "He doesn’t like just being scolded, [and] he’s surrounded by sycophants," she said. "We have to think of some carrots, as well as sticks."
She also said economic reforms may be more important than political ones and suggested that increasing prices for this year’s cotton crop and easing the tax burden on poor farmers could buy the regime some time. Permitting greater freedom of assembly and purging "power ministries," including those that control the security forces that carried out the repression, also could reduce unrest, she said.
In some ways, according to Lubin, U.S. aid has been counterproductive. Its focus on strengthening military and security forces has, in the absence of effective oversight, "raised a lot of questions" among the population, she said, some economic measures, such as improving tax collection and instituting a sales tax, failed to take account of the political implications for "extremely poor people who can barely eke out a living."
"Very often, we inadvertently help the very corruption we are trying to address and legitimate structures that we are trying to change," she told IPS.
"We’re still focused on finding the bad apples, but we’re not paying attention to the barrel," she added. "This is a barrel where only bad apples can make it."
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