The Guardian – The lie about liberty: The Kyrgyz official stood in his office and surveyed the angry crowds circling the presidential administration below. “Akayev will not shoot his own people,” he said, accurately predicting the decision by Askar Akayev, the former Kyrgyz president, to flee the building and country on March 24 rather than shoot the few thousand protesters who went on to loot his palatial White House.
Yet the halo that has since adorned Mr Akayev, generally the least brutal of central Asia’s dictators, has not stopped his continued exile in Moscow, where he watches the wealth of his former fiefdom being redistributed among the remnants of its elite. One can only imagine his chagrin when, six weeks later across the border in neighbouring Uzbekistan, President Karimov gave the former Soviet Union’s remaining authoritarians a textbook lesson in Stalinist repression: shoot them down and shut the doors; and soon the world will forget.
The brutal massacre of hundreds of civilians in Andijan is already beginning to fade from international consciousness. Islam Karimov’s regime has efficiently prevented any transparent investigation of the town’s fate. Germany, France, Nato, the EU, US and UN have all called for an independent international investigation. Mr Karimov has said Uzbekistan does not need to be “terrorised” by such requests. A veteran of 14 years of brutality, he appears to be sleeping well.
Jack Straw’s insistence on an inquiry has not stopped the EU from continuing its aid packages to Uzbekistan. In truth, Europe has little leverage on a country with bigger, less sensitive friends. On Wednesday, Mr Karimov went to China, a nation practised in suppressing both Muslims and protest. Beijing gave him the requisite assurance that he did the right thing in suppressing the “separatism, terrorism and extremism” represented by the Andijan uprising, before striking a deal to prospect for oil in the central Asian state.
In this visit, Mr Karimov has astutely reminded his other ally, Washington, of its competitor in the region. The White House, which took six days to condemn a crackdown it initially said was in part against “terrorists”, has too much at stake to get squeamish about Andijan. Washington appears to fear the possibility of Islamic insurgency in the region more than the consequences of the Karimov regime’s long-term suppression of a country of 26 million. Uzbekistan – strengthened by $50.6m in US aid last year, a fifth of which was for “security and law enforcement” – remains the dominant, US-friendly hardman neighbour of every other central Asian state, a useful linchpin for a threadbare and volatile region.
While the Pentagon has said it will be “more cautious” in its use of a vital military base in Khanabad, and Condoleezza Rice has said the aid might be reviewed, that appears to be just about it. It has instead fallen to the US senator John McCain, after a visit to Tashkent, to brand the events a “massacre” yesterday. Mr Karimov is intent on keeping the media out – the Guardian has been waiting a fortnight longer than usual for a visa – as mass arrests ensure this crackdown cannot snowball into a full-scale revolt.
Soon other former Soviet republics will have to decide whether to take a leaf from Mr Karimov’s freshly penned textbook. The White House’s “beacons of liberty” rhetoric has fomented dreams of – and even plans for – revolution in the oil giants of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, both expecting elections by the end of the year that the government will characteristically try to fix.
The events in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan had sent shivers through the body politic of both countries, causing the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to ban protests during election time, to shut opposition papers and to let his police beat youth protesters wearing orange, the colour of Ukraine’s revolution. In a coup de grace for both irony and free speech in the country, yesterday an opposition figure went on trial for slander after he accused Mr Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga, of illegally creating a media monopoly, allegations she denies.
On the other side of the Caspian, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliev – his father’s dynastic successor – regularly sends in riot troops to batter protesters. Pro-democracy revolutions are a luxury when geopolitical issues such as hydrocarbons are at stake. Last Wednesday’s opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline – set to bring oil from the Azerbaijani Caspian and eventually Kazakhstan to European and American markets – helps spell out Washington’s key principles in the region.
Mr Aliev felt comfortable enough in his relationship with Washington to ban a demonstration planned for the previous Saturday – protesting for free parliamentary elections this November – so as not to spoil the atmosphere for Wednesday’s ceremony. When the protest went ahead all the same, he sent in the riot police, who hit some demonstrators with truncheons and made 100 arrests.
The Norwegian ambassador to Baku, Steinar Gil, whose vociferous criticism of human-rights abuses, despite his country’s strategic investment in the BTC, is fast turning him into an Azerbaijani Craig Murray, was a lone voice among diplomats when he condemned the Aliev regime’s “crude violence”. The US embassy said it “regretted” that the right to assemble freely had been violated.
After Andijan, in the former Soviet Union at least, a state that shoots dead hundreds of peaceful protesters can no longer expect to become an international pariah. Its lesson will be apparent by the end of the year. When the protesters gather in November in Baku and in December in Almaty, Mr Aliev and Mr Nazarbayev could only better their Uzbek counterpart’s performance by digging the mass graves before their troops take aim.