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
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,
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