US Support for Repression in Uzbekistan
Belies Pro-Democracy Rhetoric
by Stephen Zunes
http://www.antiwar.com, June 25,
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 Soviet Union.
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
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
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 1995.
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
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
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
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.