Sanctions should be imposed on Uzbekistan’s repugnant regime
By Craig Murray writing in The Guardian
President Karimov of Uzbekistan has served notice to quit on the US base in his country. This completes a process of diplomatic revolution as Karimov turns away from the west and back into the embrace of Russia, with coy sideways glances at China. The US is trying to cover its retreat behind a smokescreen of belated concern for human-rights abuse in Uzbekistan. Suddenly one of their most intensively courted allies has been discovered – shock horror – to be an evil dictator. (Remember Saddam?) But the reality is much more complex.
The first and most obvious point is that the US didn’t jump, it was pushed. The Andijan massacre of May 13, in which at least 600 demonstrators were killed, was carried out by Uzbek forces that in 2002 alone received $120m in US aid for the army and $82m for the security services. Prior to Karimov kicking it out, there was no indication at all that the US was going to review its military links with Uzbekistan – in fact General Richard Myers had specifically stated that they would continue.
In March this year the British army sent a team to Samarkand to teach the Uzbek military marksmanship. We have not said we will stop either. Nor has there been any indication that we will stop the practice whereby the Uzbek security services share with the CIA and MI6 the so-called intelligence extracted from Karimov’s torture chambers. So much for the pretence of moral repugnance.
At Termez in southern Uzbekistan there is another, less noticed, western airbase. It is leased by Germany. The Germans are not seeking to withdraw. Of all western ministers, the most frequent guest in Uzbekistan, who most uncritically praises the regime, is Joschka Fischer, the trendy German foreign minister.
The EU general affairs council, chaired by Jack Straw, responded to the Andijan massacre by announcing that it would, for a short time, “suspend further deepening” of the EU-Uzbek cooperation agreement. I can recognise FCO drafting when I see it – such an elegant phrase. You have to read it twice to realise that it precisely means “do nothing”.
Karimov has never intended to move Uzbekistan towards democracy or the free market. His very limited experimentation with attracting western investment in the mid-1990s convinced him that western-style capitalism was incompatible with containing all economic clout in the hands of his family and immediate cronies. Since then he has turned to Russian and Chinese state companies for investment.
The writing was really on the wall for US influence in central Asia when, at the end of last year, Karimov finally came off the fence and opted for Russia’s Gazprom rather than US firms to develop Uzbekistan’s massive gas fields. The decision calls into question the viability of the hydrocarbons pipeline over Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea, which has been the holy grail of US policy in central Asia since before the Afghan war. The deal was concluded between Karimov’s notoriously grasping daughter, Gulnara Karimova, and Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born Russian oligarch who bought heavily into Corus (formed by the merger of British Steel and the Dutch company Hoogovens in 1999).
Many believe that a Karimova-Usmanov alliance is Karimov’s preferred succession strategy. But certainly Moscow resident Gulnara has had a vital influence on the reorientation of Uzbek foreign policy. She cannot enter the US, where there is a warrant for her arrest for contempt of court following a disputed divorce case.
The other key factor has been the “colour revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Eduard Shevardnadze visited Karimov on being ousted and warned him against Soros and other NGOs. Karimov immediately kicked out the Open Society Institute and put crippling restrictions on other NGOs, setting his face against even token democracy. This helped the increasingly warm relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Karimov was, on the face of it, an unlikely man for Putin to embrace. After independence he had encouraged anti-Russian nationalist sentiment, and 80% of ethnic Russians – more than 2 million people – fled Uzbekistan.
But Putin and Karimov have in common an intolerance of opposition, a contempt for free media, and a desire to stem the spread of democracy. Karimov’s policy of brutally eliminating opponents while accusing them all of Islamic extremism has obvious parallels with Putin’s policy in Chechnya.
Where does this leave the regional power game? Uzbekistan has half the population of central Asia, a dominant geostrategic position and the region’s largest and best-equipped armed forces. But to the north, Kazakhstan, under President Nazarbayev, has far outstripped Karimov in economic performance, and not only because of greater hydrocarbon resources. He has kept a balance between Russia and the west, and the economy is relatively open, with much more western investment.
The future of Kazakhstan looks relatively bright. In fact one of the key factors in Karimov’s soaring unpopularity is that Kazakhs, once despised poor cousins, are now much wealthier.
But the prospects for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are bleak. They are tiny, mountainous countries with few viable natural resources. The US still has a viable airbase in Kyrgyzstan. Karimov, backed by Russia and China in the Shanghai cooperation council, is likely to exert massive pressure on them to also turn away from the west. If they are to be able to resist this, a huge effort will be required by western countries and international agencies.
So what happens now in Uzbekistan? As the world’s powers wheel and spin, the plight of the Uzbek population deepens. Karimov’s appalling policies keep his people in ever-greater poverty, effectively a slave-labour force working, most of them on state farms, for the enrichment of his family and cronies. The economy is heavily dependent on massive production of cotton, the revenue from which brings almost no economic benefit to the wretches who pick it in conditions of serfdom.
We should be seeking to shorten Uzbekistan’s misery, not to extend it. It is the world’s second largest exporter of cotton. Citing the use of child and serf labour, concerted trade sanctions against Uzbek cotton and textiles containing Uzbek cotton should be the way forward. Given the self-interest of the very powerful US cotton lobby and the new frost in US-Uzbek relations, this might even be achievable.
Craig Murray was the British ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004