In Uzbekistan: Repression Gets a Green Light

The war in Afghanistan may have removed the Taliban there, but it has thwarted hopes for democracy in Uzbekistan. With a population of 25 million and an abundance of natural resources, including cotton, gold, uranium and natural gas, Uzbekistan should be a Central Asian success story. But, like its neighbor Afghanistan, it is not.

Last fall President Islam Karimov handed over Uzbek military bases to the Pentagon, as launchings pad for the U.S.'s Afghan operation. In return, the U.S. promised $160 million in aid and sent back the International Monetary Fund representatives who last year left in a fit of frustration. IMF representatives are now back at work, positioning Uzbekistan as a regional hub for pipelines, transportation and communications projects that U.S. firms seek to lead.

The only problem is that such negotiations will do nothing to diminish Uzbekistan's human rights atrocities. In fact, it may simply legitimize them.

According to the State Department, Uzbekistan is a totalitarian state with a dismally poor human rights record, an unfree press and one of the lowest per capita incomes in the former Soviet Union. The Pentagon, however, sees Uzbekistan differently. General Tommy Franks at a press conference in Tashkent on Nov. 22, 2001 expressed many thanks to the leadership of Uzbekistan and praised its efforts in support of the war against terrorism.

Then in January a joint Pentagon-State Department delegation went to parley with Karimov's regime. Karimov took that opportunity to hold another referendum to prolong his presidential term from five to seven years, effectively keeping himself in power until 2007. Interestingly enough, the State Department refused to send election observers, arguing there had to be a "free and fair" presidential election before a referendum was valid. This implies that the State Department does not recognize the legitimacy of previous presidential elections. But that has not prevented the Bush administration from courting Tashkent on the basis that "our enemy's enemy is our friend."

The Karimov regime understands this logic, and can play the same game of doublethink. After reports that Tashkent leased its airbase in Khanabad to the U.S. for 25 years last January, for example, Uzbek authorities vehemently denied it. Meanwhile, General Franks said that the U.S. presence would continue "indefinitely," or until they root out all terrorist groups, including the homebred Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The presence of U.S. military may guarantee Karimov a presidency for life.

Uzbekistan's decade of independence from the Soviet Union has been scarred by devastating poverty, deteriorating health, worsening education, lack of safe drinking water, a drying Aral Sea and -- abetting this downward spiral -- a regressive police regime.

Political life is as bleak as the economy. Karimov's one-man regime, in place since 1989, has eliminated all legal opposition. Today anyone who disagrees with the government is automatically charged with unconstitutional activities or being a member of the outlawed fundamentalist groups Hizb-ut-Tahrir or Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Since Sept. 11, accusations of fundamentalist collusion include being linked to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. Human Rights Watch estimates that 7,000 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are currently detained in Uzbekistan, with false evidence or none at all. They are kept without trial, tortured and in some cases arbitrarily executed. The Pentagon's blessing lets the regime glorify such behavior as part of the war against terrorism.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in August 1991, Uzbekistan's transition from a Soviet communist republic to non-communist tyranny was extraordinarily smooth. The Communist Party became the Democratic Party of Uzbekistan. A Politburo member in Moscow and already President of the Uzbek Soviet Republic, Karomiv decided to run for the presidency of the newly independent state. At the time, Karimov had a strong opponent, Muhammad Solih. Karimov let him run, but allowed him no access to the media, and totally controlled the count. Once "elected," Karimov accused Solih of anti-constitutional activities and drove him into exile, banning his Erk (Freedom) Party. Since then, all opposition has become seditious, described as an attempt at overthrowing the government. To be on the safe side in 1995, Karimov extended his own term until 2000 in a phony "referendum," after which he safely ran with no significant opposition. This January he held yet another "referendum," and received 92 percent of the "yes" votes.

Suppression of secular opposition in Uzbekistan has fostered radical Islamic groups, whose members are easily recruited through the mosques. At first, Karimov courted Islam's popularity, allowing the Muslim majority a religious freedom denied by the Soviets. Many clerics organized religious groups, preached Islam in the mosques and even on television. However, this brought too much attention to a few high-ranking Muftis, and Karimov sensed the threat of alternative power sources. When intimidation of the clerics did not work, he began jailing them.

In the past ten years, Uzbekistan has emerged a country that combines the penal injustice of the Stalin era without its social benefits of health or education. A network of informers and spies exists in every mahalla, the smallest communal (or neighborhood) unit. Informers include students, farmers and workers, who listen and report for the Karimov regime, sending thousands into the prisons. The Karimov regime has even gone as far to persecute family members of alleged opponents.

Human Rights Watch has tried to persuade the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to recommend that Uzbekistan be labeled a "country of particu lar concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). But after Sept. 11, as the Pentagon scouted the country for bases, the October 2001 report listed it only as a country with "state hostility toward minority or non-approved religions."

Like religion, media are controlled by the state, and individual journalists are constantly threatened. With a sense of irony worthy of Stalin, Karimov has publicly accused journalists of being overly uncritical and afraid to raise issues, to give the impression that the state does not meddle with media. However, the war in Afghanistan has brought many foreign journalists into the country, who are testing press freedoms and puzzling government ministers, who have no experience with independent media. Ministers have complained that foreign journalists asked rude questions and publish unfavorable articles, especially in the Russian press, on the new U.S.-Uzbek "love affair."

In the end, the unfolding story of the U.S.-Uzbek love affair is a one of a tyranny being propped up for political expediency. Washington is turning its ideological cheek to secure bases and to make potentially useful friends. Tashkent, in turn, like other repressive regimes that have jumped on the "Enduring Freedom" bandwagon, is eager to get U.S. and international validation to brand all opposition as "terrorism."

But cozying up to regimes like Karimov's could have consequences. Beyond further impoverishing Uzbekistan and diminishing the rights and livelihood of its people, it could help breed new radicals, even a new al-Qaeda of Central Asia. Instead of encouraging dictatorships like Karimov's, the U.S. should stand firmly behind its principles. It should promote economic prosperity and democracy.

Adolat Ramzieva is a native Uzbek journalist based in the U.S.

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