Recent revelations that the United States successfully
blocked a call by NATO for an international investigation of the May 13 massacre
of hundreds of civilians by the government of the former Soviet Republic of
Uzbekistan serves as yet another reminder of the insincerity of the Bush administration's
claims for supporting freedom and democracy in the Islamic world and the former
A recent report from Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with scores of
eyewitnesses, determined that government troops in the city of Andijan used
''indiscriminate use of lethal force against unarmed people,'' killing more
than 500 people. And, while HRW noted that a small number of armed men were
apparently present among the demonstrators, the report asserted that the Uzbek
government's use of force against the crowd was ''neither proportionate nor
appropriate to the danger they posed.''
By contrast, rather than condemning the massacre, the Bush White House called
for "restraint' from both sides in an apparent effort to convince
Americans that unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators were somehow just as guilty
as the those who shot at them. A Bush administration spokesman also claimed
that Islamic "terrorist groups" may have been behind the protests
that prompted the shootings.
Such claims are contradicted by those familiar with the political situation
in the eastern Uzbek city as well as by the Human Rights Watch report, which
noted that there was "no evidence that any of the speakers at the protest
promoted an Islamist agenda. According to numerous witnesses, their grievances
were overwhelmingly about poverty, corruption, and government repression."
Similarly, Amnesty International reported that ''The vast majority of the thousands
of protestors gathered in the town's main square calling for justice and an
end to poverty were unarmed and peaceful."
Uzbek troops reportedly killed an additional 200 demonstrators the following
day in the nearby city of Pakhtabad and still more civilians were shot while
attempting to flee into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The British newspaper The Independent
reported that Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov had flown from the capital or Tashkent
into the area Friday morning "and almost certainly personally authorized
the use of...deadly force."
Dictators and Double Standards
The massacres took place not long after an overseas
trip in which President George W. Bush extolled the democratic revolutions in
the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia. American NGOs which supported
these pro-democracy movements, such as Freedom House and George Soros'
Open Society Institute, have been threatened and expelled by Uzbek authorities.
The ongoing U.S. support for the repressive Karimov regime, then, stands as
yet another example of the crass double-standards in U.S. policy.
Such double-standards are not new. During the Cold War, both Republican and
Democratic administrations would bewail the human rights abuses of Communist
and other leftist governments while sending arms and economic assistance to
even more repressive right-wing allies. In Central Asia during the 1980s, the
U.S. government was even willing to back extremist Islamist groups as part of
its anti-Communist crusade.
Now, however, the United States is using Communists to fight Islamists.
Karimov became leader of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989 and backed the unsuccessful
coup by Communist Party hard liners against reformist Soviet leader Mikhail
Gorbachev in 1991. Soon after Uzbekistan became independent later that year,
he banned leading opposition parties and has since held onto power through a
series of rigged elections and plebiscites. Though acknowledging such votes
"offered Uzbekistan voters no true choice," the Bush administration
has yet to call for free and fair elections. And while supporting "human
rights training," the U.S. government has refused to give the kind of support
to pro-democracy groups challenging the pro-American dictatorship in Uzbekistan
as it did for similar opposition groups challenging less compliant regimes in
Ukraine and Georgia.
The Karimov dictatorship has received over one billion dollars in U.S. aid,
the vast majority of that coming under President Bush, who has justified the
U.S. invasion, occupation, and ongoing counter-insurgency wars in nearby Iraq
because of the need to promote democracy in the Islamic world. An estimated
1,000 American troops are currently stationed in Uzbekistan and U.S. forces
have engaged in military training exercises with Uzbek forces as far back as
Karimov was invited to the White House in March 2002, where he and President
Bush signed a strategic partnership agreement, which included an additional
$120 million in U.S. military aid. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has
praised Karimov for his "wonderful cooperation" with the U.S. military.
President Bush's former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill spoke admirably
of the dictator's "very keen intellect and deep passion" for
improving the lives of his people.
George Bush's 'Man in Central Asia'
Uzbekistan is the largest country in Central Asia
in population and its capital Tashkent is the region's largest city, with a
subway system and an international airport built during the Soviet era. As an
independent state under Karimov's rule, Uzbekistan remains one of the poorest
of the former Soviet republics despite its generous natural resources, including
one of the world's largest sources of natural gas and sizable but largely untapped
oil reserves. Karimov pockets virtually all of the revenue generated by the
country's natural endowments. Corruption is rampant and his brutal militsia
routinely engage in robbery and extortion. Businessmen who refuse to pay bribes
are frequently labeled as Islamic extremists and then jailed, tortured and murdered.
Uzbekistan's jails hold more than 7000 political prisoners, where torture
is widespread and systematic. Not long after the Bush administration provided
Uzbek police with $79 million worth in assistance in 2002, two prominent political
prisoners were found to have been boiled to death. The elderly mother of one
of the victims was sentenced six years of hard labor when she protested.
Despite this, Craig Murray, who served as the British ambassador to Uzbekistan
from 2002 until last year, observed how "Karimov is very much George Bush's
man in Central Asia" and that no Bush administration official has ever
said a negative word about him.
As a result of growing criticism for its support for such repression, the Bush
administration reduced its support for "security and law enforcement"
last year to $10 million, though much larger amounts of indirect funding from
the American taxpayer continues to flow. The State Department has emphasized
that, despite the reduction in U.S. aid, Uzbekistan remains "an important
partner" and has pledged "continued cooperation."
Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials have privately confirmed widespread reports
that the Bush administration has been sending suspected Islamic radicals arrested
in third countries to Uzbekistan for detention and interrogation.
As a result of the Karimov regime's imprisonment and torture of nonviolent
Muslims who dared to worship outside of state controls, a radical armed group
known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has emerged to challenge the regime.
The Bush administration blamed a series of IMU suicide bombings in Tashkent
last year on al-Qaeda, though British and other intelligence sources report
no direct links between the IMU and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
Attacks by the dictatorship's armed forces have resulted in widespread
civilian casualties, not just within Uzbekistan, but also in neighboring Tajikistan
and Kyrgyzstan. Amnesty International documented widespread human rights violations
during a 2001 counter-insurgency campaign, where "villages were set on
fire and bombed, livestock were killed, houses and fields destroyed." By
contrast, the Bush administration went on record supporting what it called "the
right of Uzbekistan to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity"
and praised the army's measures "to minimize casualties and ensure
the protection of innocent civilians."
Since even this spring's massacres have not led to a lessening in the Bush
administration's support for the Karimov regime, it is unlikely that there will
be a change in policy until the American people demand it. Campaigns in recent
decades against U.S. support for repressive regimes in Latin America and Southeast
Asia were often successful in limiting or cutting off aid to dictators. Similar
campaigns could emerge to challenge the Bush administration's support for dictators
like Karimov. Indeed, given that the U.S.-led counter-insurgency wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq and U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank have been
justified in the name of advancing the cause of freedom and democracy, the Bush
administration is perhaps more vulnerable to criticism than previous administrations
for its support of autocratic regimes in the Middle East and Central Asia. The
question is whether the American people care enough to make it an issue.