Bush Sides with Dictators
by Amitabh Pal
The Progressive magazine, February
In the prolonged election battle in Ukraine,
the United States cast itself as the friend of freedom and self-determination.
The Bush Administration made strong statements in support of democracy
and the electoral process in the country, and denounced the initial
rigged election of ruling party candidate Viktor Yanukovich.
Do not think this is the norm, however.
In several instances in other countries
of the former Soviet Union, the Bush Administration has backed
dictatorships much worse than the government of Ukraine. It also
hasn't had much of a problem with other recent elections that
have been blatantly fixed. The occasional proclamations by the
United States in favor of democracy aren't taken seriously by
most ruling governments in the area. "The United States has
a rhetorical commitment to human rights," says Rachel Denber,
acting executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central
Asia division. "But its first priority is fighting the war
on terrorism and drug trafficking. That's why there are no real
consequences for governments in the region that violate human
In Azerbaijan, a current favorite of the
United States, presidential elections in October 2003 were marked
by large-scale fraud. In monarchical fashion, Heydar Aliyev handed
over power to his son liham.
Heydar, who died two months after this
crowning act of nepotism, had been warmly courted by the United
States since the Clinton era due to his country's oil wealth.
(Western oil companies have invested $4 billion in the country
and are expected to put in $10 billion more in the coming years,
according to Mother Jones.) During the Clinton Administration,
Heydar's attempts to bolster relations with the United States
were helped along by oil companies and a luminary of go-betweens
that included Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski,
as well as Dick Cheney and Richard Armitage.
The Bush Administration maintained the
warm relationship with Heydar.
"Our common security interests, our
commercial interests, and our interests in peace and prosperity
will be strengthened with each length of pipe laid along this
line," Bush said in a letter read aloud by Energy Secretary
Spencer Abraham during the groundbreaking ceremony of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan
pipeline in September 2002. (Two American companies, Unocal and
Amerada Hess, are investors in the pipeline.) "All of us
here today," Bush stated, "are part of a new, more promising
chapter in a new, more promising history between our nations."
For his part, Abraham lauded Heydar's "vision and determination."
Bush's high regard for the father was
transferred to the son. Back when he was governor, Bush in 1996
had made llham an honorary Texan for facilitating the entry of
Texas-based oil companies into Azerbaijan. When Ilham was chosen
as the prime minister shortly before the presidential elections,
Bush sent him a letter of congratulations through a visiting Congressional
The Bush Administration continued its
friendship with the Ilham regime after the rigged October elections,
even though not only were the elections set up, the aftermath
was marked by a brutality not yet seen in Ukraine. At least one
person was killed in protests, and security forces arrested hundreds
of opposition members, many of whom were tortured, Amnesty International
Although the United States spent more
than $2 million during the elections ostensibly to promote democracy,
in its initial statement on the election, the State Department
said that early indications were that the polling had gone smoothly,
even if it was reserving final judgment, a very different response
from that of an official European observer who said that the brutality
of the security forces made it seem "that a war had started."
Deputy Secretary of State Armitage made
a phone call to Ilham shortly after the election, congratulating
him on his "strong performance at the polls," according
to Mother Jones. Armitage also expressed the Bush Administration's
"desire to work closely with him and with Azerbaijan in the
future." Not coincidentally, Armitage is a former board member
and co-chair of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce. "For
a long time, it was the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce that
was the real link between our two nations," Armitage said
in a 2002 speech before the organization. "I think now we've
got a pretty solid government-to-government link."
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited
Azerbaijan in December 2003, just six weeks after the elections.
He again congratulated Ilham and refused to comment on the fairness
of the poll. Armitage tried to make amends by holding a meeting
with opposition leaders during a visit in March 2004, but expressed
confidence at a press conference that the human rights situation
would soon get better.
Apart from the oil link, Azerbaijan has
proven useful to the United States in other ways. It has granted
overflight rights to the United States, and has sent 159 troops
to Iraq. The Bush Administration requested $70 million in aid
for Azerbaijan in 2004, including $8 million in military aid.
Until September 11, the regime received no military aid because
of its poor human rights record and an ongoing dispute with Armenia.
"United States policy toward Azerbaijan
has focused on Azerbaijan's support for America's war against
terror and oil interests," Human Rights Watch stated in a
2004 report. "The U.S. role has been marred by weak responses
to rights abuses, including those accompanying the 2003 election
and its aftermath."
In October, the government sentenced seven
opposition leaders to years in prison for allegedly organizing
the disturbances following the elections. Human rights rapporteurs
sent by Europe denounced the imprisonment. The United States made
no big fuss.
When Kazakhstan held parliamentary elections
in September and October 2004, the results left the opposition
with the sum total of one member in parliament. The member refused
to take his seat in protest.
Widespread fraud occurred.
"My wife is a school director, and
on election day we both voted six times, because we had to,"
a driver told The New York Times. "You call that democracy?"
After the results, the European Union
condemned the vote as unfair. The U.S. Embassy, however, remained
mum. Armitage flew to Kazakhstan a month after the vote and did
not mention the elections at all during his news conference. Nor
did he refer to the State Department's own human rights report
in February, which noted the almost complete muzzling of the media
in the country. Instead, he said, the main purpose of the visit
was to thank the government for its twenty-eight-member contingent
in Iraq. Armitage had earlier praised Kazakh President Nursultan
Nazarbayev in an April 27, 2004, speech before the U.S.-Kazakhstan
Business Association for making his country the "most stable
and prosperous Central Asian state."
This seems to be the general White House
line in the region. On November 28, 2001, at the launch of the
Caspian Pipeline Consortium, Bush issued a statement praising
Kazakhstan for helping "build prosperity and stability"
in the world. Nazarbayev got to visit the White House in December
2001, partly as a reward for allowing the U.S. Air Force to use
an airport in his country. During his visit, Nazarbayev presented
Bush with a fancy saddle worth $7,500. (Under current regulations,
Bush has to turn over all his gifts to the federal government.)
The two countries signed a series of agreements. "We declare
our commitment to strengthen the long-term, strategic partnership
and cooperation between our nations seeking to advance a shared
vision of a peaceful, prosperous, and sovereign Kazakhstan in
the twenty-first century" the joint statement by Bush and
Nazarbayev stated. As if to wave at Kazakhstan's problem, the
declaration did "reiterate our mutual commitments to advance
the rule of law and promote freedom of religion and other universal
This expression of a commitment to human
rights by the Kazakh government did not seem to have much of an
effect on its behavior. An August 2004 report by Human Rights
Watch documented a host of abuses in Kazakhstan, including the
jailing of opposition figures, the suspicious death of a journalist,
and harassment of nongovernmental organizations.
In September 2003, the two nations signed
a five-year cooperation plan that includes the supply of helicopters,
military cargo aircraft, and ships, plus supply equipment for
Kazakh troops and anti-terrorism training. U.S. aid to Kazakhstan
grew from $47.9 million in 2000 to $92 million in 2003, of which
half was for security-related purposes.
"We are grateful for the strong and
growing relationship we have and for the friendship and for the
steadfastness of the Kazakh people," Rumsfeld said in a visit
to Kazakhstan in February 2004. "Kazakhstan is an important
country in the global war on terror and has been wonderfully helpful
in Iraq, and I came here to personally say 'thank you' and express
The Bush Administration's fondness for
Nazarbayev is partly explained by the fact that U.S. oil companies
have significant investments in his country. Chevron Texaco is
putting in billions of dollars in Kazakhstan. Cheney was a member
of Nazarbayev's Oil Advisory Board when he was running Halliburton.
During his visit to the United States, Nazarbayev also met with
Bush Senior, whom he awarded one of Kazakhstan's top civilian
honors. A host of former and current officials have lobbied for,
and worked with, the Kazakh government, including Armitage, Baker,
Lawrence Eagleburger, and President Reagan's deputy chief of staff
Michael Deaver, according to Ken Silverstein in the Los Angeles
Islam Karimov, a complete thug, rules
Uzbekistan. The jails are filled with an estimated 6,500 political
prisoners, says The Guardian. At least two prisoners have been
boiled to death, according to a British Embassy report. The U.N.
rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, stated after a 2002 visit
that torture in the country was "institutionalized, systematic,
But since Karimov has cooperated in the
Afghan War and allowed the setting up of a U.S. base in his country,
he has become a crucial ally of the United States. He was received
in the White House in March 2002, and top cabinet officials such
as Cohn Powell and Rumsfeld have visited the Central Asian republic.
The country has received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S.
aid and rent money since September 11, according to Lutz Kleveman
in Amnesty Now, the Amnesty International magazine.
"People have less freedom here than
during Brezhnev," a senior Western official in Uzbekistan
told The Guardian. "The irony is that the U.S. Republican
Party is supporting the remnants of Brezhnevisrn as part of their
fight against Islamic extremism."
Powell, among other top U.S. officials,
has lavished praise on Karimov. "It was my pleasure to bring
to the president the greetings of President Bush and also to extend
to him our thanks for all the support we have received from Uzbekistan
in pursuing this campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan and
elsewhere throughout the world as well," Powell said during
a December 2001 visit to the country.
At Karimov's White House visit a few months
later, Bush "expressed appreciation" for his help. The
Uzbek government made the most of Karimov being feted by the White
House. "The world community cannot deprive this person of
the moral and physical right to stand among those who have suppressed
the forces of fear and terror becoming the living symbol of his
country," gushed an Uzbek government press statement released
during his sojourn to the United States. While in the United States,
Karimov signed five bilateral agreements with Washington. The
Bush Administration was careful, however, to invite Karimov for
afternoon tea, instead of dinner, and to avoid a press conference
When I visited the country later in 2002,
a Western diplomat characterized the U.S.-Uzbek relationship as
"very good" and claimed that there had been "measurable
improvement in the human rights record" in that nation, a
claim refuted by the Human Rights Watch office director for the
country. The indulgence toward the country continues. The U.S.
ambassador warned Uzbek activists early last year not to ask him
"political questions," according to Harper Magazine.
"Tortured dupes are forced to sign
confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the U.S. and
U.K. to believe-that they and we are fighting the same war on
terror," Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray,
stated in a document leaked to The Financial Times. Tony Blair
forced Murray to resign because of his outspoken criticism, in
large part due to pressure from Washington, according to The Sunday
Times of Scotland.
Roughly 1,000 U.S. troops are stationed
at a base in Uzbekistan, named K2, eighty miles from the Afghanistan
border. A formal agreement commits the United States to respond
to "any external threat" to Uzbekistan. U.S. Special
Forces have provided training to the Uzbek military; and the U.S.
Army has provided military communication equipment to the Uzbek
armed forces. In 2002, Uzbekistan received $43 million in U.S.
military aid. It also participates in the NATO Partnership for
After meeting Karimov in February 2004,
Rumsfeld said that U.S.-Uzbek defense relations were "growing
stronger every month" and that the country's human rights
record was just one part of its relationship with the United States,
which could not be based on a "single pillar." He added,
"We have benefited greatly in our efforts in the global war
on terror and in Afghanistan from the wonderful cooperation we've
received from the government of Uzbekistan."
In July, at the advice of the State Department,
the United States cut some aid over human rights concerns. But
General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
publicly disagreed with that move during an August visit to Uzbekistan.
"My own view is that is very shortsighted, and it's never
productive," Myers said. "In fact, it can often have
the opposite effect that people intend, because you lose any ability
to influence at all, at least through a military standpoint."
Uzbekistan's neighbor Turkmenistan has
the worst regime in the region-and one of the nastiest in the
world. Dictator Saparmurat Niyazov put on show trials in late
2002 and early 2003. "Many people in Russia and the West
are calling [these trials] the most chilling public witch hunt
since Stalin's show trials of prominent Bolsheviks in the 1930s,"
The New York Times reported.
Niyazov has renamed the months of January,
April, and September after himself, his dearly departed mother,
and The Book of Ruhnama, a treatise authored by Niyazov that every
schoolchild has to study at least one day a week. Portraits and
statues of him are everywhere, including a revolving thirty-five-foot
golden statue whose raised arms welcome the dawn and bid the sun
farewell at dusk. His face is on everything from the currency
to vodka. The country's oil revenue is put in an offshore account
that only Niyazov controls.
"Turkmenistan is one of the most
repressive countries in the world," says Human Rights Watch
in a 2004 report. "The government systematically violates
virtually all civil, political, economic, social, and cultural
rights." But Niyazov's neo-Stalinism hasn't stopped top U.S.
officials from visiting Turkmenistan and courting him.
"The support of President Niyazov
to our efforts, and the support of the Turkmen people to the Afghan
people, remain very important to our efforts," General Tommy
Franks said after meeting Niyazov in August 2002. "The cooperation
between our nations remains very good and, of course, I am thankful
for that, as well."
The Bush Administration requested $19.2
million in military aid for Turkmenistan in 2003, according to
the Federation of American Scientists. A small contingent of U.S.
troops has been based in Turkmenistan to refuel cargo planes for
aid into Afghanistan. During an April 2002 visit, Rumsfeld discussed
with Niyazov the expansion of the Foreign Military Financing Program,
under which the United States has donated a Coast Guard cutter
to the country. The United States has also trained Turkmen military
officers under the International Military Education and Training
Rumsfeld was effusive in thanking Niyazov
during his visit. "I took the opportunity to thank the president
and the people for their very fine cooperation" in the war
on terror, he said, adding that the United States was "grateful
and appreciative." Rumsfeld expressed gratitude to Niyazov
for his "very fine contribution with respect to humanitarian
assistance for Afghanistan." He made no mention of Niyazov's
dubious humanitarian record in his own country.
Amitabh Pal is Managing Editor of The
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