Beyond Ukraine

Bush Sides with Dictators

by Amitabh Pal

The Progressive magazine, February 2005


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 rights."

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 delegation.

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 found.

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 human rights."

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 our appreciation."

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 Times.

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, and rampant."

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 afterward.

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 Peace program.

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 program.

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 Progressive.

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