(Financial Times) Winds of change reach central Asia

The Financial Times – Winds of change reach central Asia: It was only a matter of time before the Bush administration’s professed desire to spread democracy, especially among Muslims, collided with the obstacle of an undemocratic US ally such as Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan.

Difficult though it is to be sure of the facts – that is one of the troubles with tyrannies – Mr Karimov’s forces seem to have killed large numbers of his opponents since the start of an uprising in Andizhan on Friday. Some reports say more than 500 have died.

Mr Karimov, who has ruled since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has blamed criminals and Islamic radicals linked to the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement. That is probably a self-serving attempt to paint all the government’s critics as terrorist fanatics. More likely, Uzbeks are inspired by the overthrow in March of Askar Akayev, president of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Unlike in previous uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia, western nations concerned about central Asia do not have the option of backing a pro- democracy movement and letting history takes its course. Unrest in Uzbekistan is driven almost entirely by domestic discontent with Mr Karimov’s cruelty and economic mismanagement, and even if he were ousted there is no guarantee that a democratic government would take his place.

One of the few westerners to emerge from recent events with any credit is Craig Murray, the former British ambassador in Tashkent. He resigned after protesting about his government’s use of dubious information obtained under torture from detainees in Uzbekistan. The US, on the other hand, has been uncharacteristically quiet, with the White House admitting that Uzbeks want a more democratic government but suggesting lamely that this should not be achieved by force.

Unfortunately for US policymakers, Uzbekistan is not an irrelevant tinpot dictatorship. It is the most populous state in central Asia, is seen as a vital ally in the war on terror, and is home to a US air base that made an important contribution to the success of US military operations in Afghanistan. The problem is that Uzbekistan, in the words of Human Rights Watch, also has a “disastrous” human rights record. This combination has led to hand-wringing in Washington.

Speaking to the BBC, Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican congressman, half-heartedly defended US ties with Mr Karimov by comparing them with US support for Stalin during the second world war, and argued that critics of Uzbekistan should bear in mind its support for the war against terrorists.

It may not be long before someone quotes Franklin D. Roosevelt and argues that at least Mr Karimov is “our sonofabitch”. But such ruthlessness is bad policy in today’s connected world. If the US really wants to spread democracy and freedom, it cannot expect to exempt its tyrannical allies from the democratic movement it helped launch in the Middle East, eastern Europe and central Asia.