Date Published:May 21, 2005
THE BLOODY protests in Uzbekistan's Andijan square have exposed the Bush administration's Janus-faced policy on regime change. Recent talk of spreading democracy and bringing freedom to the oppressed sits very uneasily with the ''yes, he is a bastard but he is our bastard" approach, reminiscent of the Cold War, which has guided US relations with Uzbekistan. In this case—unlike Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan—America's ally of choice is not a pro-democracy revolutionary but a proven despot, the Uzbek leader Islam Karimov. Plagued with political repression and economic disenfranchisement as well as a rise in Islamism, Uzbekistan is a case in point as to why the United States cannot and should not have it both ways.
The most populous republic in Central Asia, Uzbekistan is rich in natural resources and the world's second biggest cotton producer after China. Despite its economic potential, Uzbekistan's growth and living standards are among the lowest in the former Soviet Union. Dominated by Karimov since the republic's independence in 1991, the Uzbek political scene has become increasingly repressive. After strategically aligning himself with the United States in the war against terror and offering an Uzbek military base for US military operations in neighboring Afghanistan, Karimov has used the threat of radical Muslim unrest to justify the persecution and oppression of his political opponents.
No opposition parties are recognized and Karimov's regime has decimated Uzbek civil society: there are practically no independent local NGOs and no freedom of expression or association. Independent media operations have been driven underground and foreign correspondents forced to leave the country. Despite a constitutional ban on censorship, local journalists opposing the regime have been blacklisted. With the media neutered, no one really knows how many people have been killed or wounded in the recent protests. Estimates currently range from a few dozen to several hundred and the UN has called for an independent investigation on last week's violence.
Karimov's persecution of the secular opposition has increasingly pushed ordinary Uzbeks into the arms of radical Islamist groups. The Islamist group with the broadest appeal is Hizb-ut-Tahrir (the Islamic Party of Liberation), which claims to stand for the peaceful overthrow of the Uzbek government and the creation of a caliphate throughout Central Asia. Karimov has branded Hizb-ut-Tahrir a terrorist organization (though it is not on the US State Department List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations) and blames it for bombings and suicide attacks that took place in Tashkent last spring and summer. The recent protests in Andijan were in opposition to the government's indiscriminate arrests on the grounds of membership to Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Uzbekistan therefore combines political oppression and the rise of Islamism with economic opportunity for rebellion. So far the mix has proved highly volatile. If the United States wants to avoid increased violations of human rights and the possibility of a future Islamist takeover, it must take immediate steps to strengthen civil society in Uzbekistan. Karimov has to be pressured to allow the registration of opposition parties such as ERK (Freedom), BIRLIK (Unity) and OZOD DEHQON (Free Peasants) as well as the registration of truly independent NGOs. The reintroduction of an independent media and guarantees that freedom of conscience, expression and association will be respected are also essential.
But for Karimov to commit to change credibly, all reforms have to be tied to monetary incentives. The United States, as well as international financial institutions, should make aid and loans conditional on tangible reform. This pressure would be most effective if it involved coordinated action from the United States and Russia as well as international political and financial organizations. Action has to be immediate to avert further refugee flows to Kyrgyzstan and other neighboring states that could prove highly destabilizing for the broader region.
According to one of the leading opposition figures, the Free Peasants Party General Secretary Nigora Khidoyatova, a revolution is on the way in Uzbekistan. ''Our revolution will be green," she said, alluding to her peasants' party color and pointing to an orange poster of Ukraine's Victor Yushchenko hanging on her cabinet. Unless the United States effectively pressures President Karimov to strengthen civil society and its fledgling democratic forces, a revolution will sweep Uzbekistan. And once it erupts it may very well be green: Islamist green.