The Dangers of Friendly Dictatorships
by Farhod Inogambaev, The Moscow
The political situation in Uzbekistan
is spinning out of control, with anger growing in society and
even among some moderate members of the ruling elite against President
The arrest last week of Sanjar Umarov,
chairman of the Sunshine Coalition and the last serious opposition
figure willing to work with the dictatorial regime, is just the
latest sad sign of the country's deterioration into tyranny.
Karimov, who has ruled the Central Asian
state of 25 million people for more than 15 years, has shut down
opposition parties and conducted a relentless crackdown on political
foes and practicing Muslims, jailing thousands. In May, Karimov's
trained militia suppressed a popular uprising in the eastern city
of Andijan, killing several hundred civilians -- in many cases
shooting them in the back as they fled the city's central square.
The arrest of Umarov -- and mounting evidence that he is being
"treated" with psychotropic drugs, just as political
opponents were "treated" under Stalin -- should be the
last straw in American and Russian cooperation with the regime.
Umarov's arrest comes after a visit to
the United States and Russia in September where he outlined his
coalition's economic reform program. Umarov sent an open letter
in late October to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was visiting
Uzbekistan at the time, expressing his intention to seek a solution
to the political crisis in Uzbekistan by establishing a dialogue
between the opposition and the government. Apparently this, along
with his denunciation of the Andijan massacre, was enough for
Karimov to consider him a threat.
The only good news surrounding Uzbekistan
these days is that Western governments are finally starting to
see the true face of Karimov's regime. Immediately after Sept.
11, 2001, Uzbekistan began receiving large sums of money for hosting
American troops at its Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, called K-2, a
few hundred kilometers from the Afghan border. The base played
a crucial role in the coalition's success in Afghanistan, and
Karimov was rewarded not just with American money, but also with
legitimacy. In March 2002, he visited the White House at the invitation
of President George W. Bush to sign a joint declaration on strategic
relations. Karimov used his newfound friendship with Washington
as cover to intensify human rights abuses throughout Uzbekistan.
The Andijan massacre caused the U.S. administration
and EU governments finally to reconsider their policies toward
Karimov's Uzbekistan. In September, the European Union introduced
limited sanctions, including an arms embargo and a travel ban
for senior Uzbek officials. This doesn't just mean no more shopping
trips to Paris or London for Karimov's family and their cronies;
it also makes it difficult for them to access their European bank
accounts and other property in Europe.
The United States also criticized Karimov's
response to the Andijan uprising and joined in the chorus of governments
and rights groups calling for an independent international investigation.
In response, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry sent an ultimatum letter
to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent calling for U.S. withdrawal from
the K-2 base within 180 days.
Hopefully this will spell the end of American
cooperation with the Karimov regime. According to a recent State
Department report on foreign aid, U.S. assistance to Uzbekistan
from October 2004 to September 2005 amounted to $91 million, with
$63 million of that earmarked for security and law enforcement.
The United States should cease all support, financial and otherwise,
to Karimov and introduce targeted sanctions similar to those the
EU has imposed. There is growing support for this in Congress.
But businesses with major operations in
Uzbekistan and ties to the Karimov family -- like Coca-Cola, the
Newmont Gold Company, cotton trader Dunavant Enterprises and agricultural
equipment manufacturer Case -- have a strong interest in maintaining
the status quo.
Coca-Cola is a good example of how business
is done in Karimov's Uzbekistan. In 2001, The Coca-Cola Company,
which holds the franchise for bottling in Uzbekistan, allowed
its joint venture with the Uzbek government to be taken over by
Karimov's older daughter, Gulnara Karimova. In a communist-style,
gangster approach to a takeover, Karimova's estranged husband,
Mansur Maqsudi, who owned the majority of Coca-Cola Uzbekistan,
found that his shares had been nationalized and his employees
chased out of the country. With the approval, if not assistance,
of The Coca-Cola Company, Karimova proceeded to loot millions
of dollars from the Coca-Cola Bottlers Uzbekistan joint venture.
The American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce,
which represents Coca-Cola and others, is lobbying Washington
to keep up good relations with Karimov. In an August letter to
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Chamber president James Cornell
said the recent downgrades in relations with Tashkent "threaten
several vital interests of the United States, including long-established
trade and investment relations between the two countries."
The United States should not bow to this corporate pressure, but
rather maintain a consistent, principled foreign policy that promotes
democracy and punishes gross violations of human rights. Nowhere
is this more needed today than in Uzbekistan.
Russia, too, needs to come to grips with
the fact that its partnership with Karimov is more of a liability
than an asset. As Karimov has turned toward Russia and China in
the wake of U.S. criticism, Moscow has acquiesced by endorsing
Tashkent's official version of the events at Andijan, calling
the protesters Islamic terrorists and fundamentalists.
But the Kremlin must understand that it
is not in its long-term interest to have a political basket case
in its backyard, and that a democratic, economically liberal Uzbekistan
is in everyone's best interest.
Farhod Inogambaev, an Uzbek political
exile and recent research fellow at Harvard's Davis Center for
Russian and Eurasian Studies, is a graduate student at Columbia
University's School of International and Public Affairs. He contributed
this comment to The Moscow Times.