Politics & Policy

The Uzbek Challenge

We should reject the trade-off between human rights and counter-terror.

The terrorist attacks in Tashkent on July 30, 2004, against U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek state prosecutor’s office have been claimed by the Jihad Islamic Group, a successor to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al Qaeda affiliate founded in 1997. Whatever the IMU now calls itself, its aims and methods have not changed since its founding. It is part of the global jihad movement that Osama bin Laden inspired and claims to direct. For the U.S., Uzbekistan represents one of the thorniest challenges in the war against terrorism.

On one hand, there is no doubt that the U.S. must provide vigorous assistance to the government of Uzbekistan in its fight against the jihadists. Uzbekistan has played an important role in counter-terrorism operations in southwest Asia and currently hosts a number of U.S. and NATO troops at the Khanabad airbase near the Uzbek-Afghan border.

On the other hand, the U.S. cannot be seen to support or underwrite the government of Uzbekistan, a repressive regime that has barely changed since the Communist-era. Uzbekistan is run by the same political machine that took power in the then Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in the late 1950s–men who in the 1980s regarded Mikhail Gorbachev as a dangerously radical reformer.

Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, has been in power since 1990. During the 2000 presidential elections his only opponent was Abdulhafiz Jalolov, the head of the ruling party, who publicly announced that he was voting for Karimov.

Thanks to Karimov, Uzbekistan has become a propaganda victory for Islamist radicals and human-rights groups seeking to discredit the war against terrorism. Uzbekistan’s appalling human-rights record is a disgrace. Islamist prisoners are routinely tortured; some have disappeared. One, Muzaffar Avazov, was boiled alive.

The problem for the U.S. is that it needs Karimov’s assistance even while it knows that his regime is part of the problem. There is no basis for Islamic fundamentalism in Uzbekistan, a largely secular country where women are more emancipated than in most majority Muslim states. Yet the population is dangerously indifferent to the fate of its government. There is little room for legitimate dissent, and as a result politics has been reduced to the struggle between the unreformed neo-Communist state and a few hundred Islamist radicals.

Uzbekistan remains an overwhelmingly rural and poor country with a large, inefficient state sector and an economy that has attracted little foreign investment. Although the government likes to blame radicalism on foreign incitement, it is clear that government policies make some young Uzbeks receptive to Islamist appeals.

Moreover, the Karimov regime has been immune to change. All reform initiatives tend to be window dressing, grudging changes that follow considerable U.S. and British pressure. The best example of non-reform came in May 2002, when the abolition of press censorship was announced. The difficulty was that, formally, there had never had been any censorship in independent Uzbekistan: Article 67 of the 1992 Uzbek constitution states that “censorship is impermissible.” Still, the government celebrated the annulment of a policy it had always denied existed.

To date, U.S. efforts to encourage reform have borne little fruit. On July 13, 2004, the State Department told Congress that Uzbekistan had failed to make the “substantial and continuing progress” on human rights required to receive $18 million in U.S. aid.

There are still those in the U.S. government who prefer the old Cold War technique of turning a blind eye to allies’ human-rights abuses, as happened in Latin America and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, trading off counter-terrorism assistance in return for ignoring human-rights violations is precisely the bargain that Karimov’s diplomats are offering.

To a significant extent, that Cold War approach is out of official favor. President Bush explicitly rejected it in his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, 2003, when he said, “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe–because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”

In the wake of the Tashkent attacks, President Bush should announce that what is good for the Middle East is equally good for Central Asia. In the war against terrorism, there must be no trade-off between human rights and counter-terrorism. The U.S. and its allies have to promote human rights and oppose repression with the same commitment with which they track down and defeat al-Qaeda: They are fighting for democracy and against terrorism at once.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has covered Uzbekistan and Central Asia since 1992..

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