By Farhod Inogambaev writing in The Moscow Times
The political situation in Uzbekistan is spinning out of control, with anger growing in society and even among some moderate members of the ruling elite against President Islam Karimov.
The arrest last week of Sanjar Umarov, chairman of the Sunshine Coalition and the last serious opposition figure willing to work with the dictatorial regime, is just the latest sad sign of the country’s deterioration into tyranny.
Karimov, who has ruled the Central Asian state of 25 million people for more than 15 years, has shut down opposition parties and conducted a relentless crackdown on political foes and practicing Muslims, jailing thousands. In May, Karimov’s trained militia suppressed a popular uprising in the eastern city of Andijan, killing several hundred civilians — in many cases shooting them in the back as they fled the city’s central square. The arrest of Umarov — and mounting evidence that he is being “treated” with psychotropic drugs, just as political opponents were “treated” under Stalin — should be the last straw in American and Russian cooperation with the regime.
Umarov’s arrest comes after a visit to the United States and Russia in September where he outlined his coalition’s economic reform program. Umarov sent an open letter in late October to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was visiting Uzbekistan at the time, expressing his intention to seek a solution to the political crisis in Uzbekistan by establishing a dialogue between the opposition and the government. Apparently this, along with his denunciation of the Andijan massacre, was enough for Karimov to consider him a threat.
The only good news surrounding Uzbekistan these days is that Western governments are finally starting to see the true face of Karimov’s regime. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Uzbekistan began receiving large sums of money for hosting American troops at its Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, called K-2, a few hundred kilometers from the Afghan border. The base played a crucial role in the coalition’s success in Afghanistan, and Karimov was rewarded not just with American money, but also with legitimacy. In March 2002, he visited the White House at the invitation of President George W. Bush to sign a joint declaration on strategic relations. Karimov used his newfound friendship with Washington as cover to intensify human rights abuses throughout Uzbekistan.
The Andijan massacre caused the U.S. administration and EU governments finally to reconsider their policies toward Karimov’s Uzbekistan. In September, the European Union introduced limited sanctions, including an arms embargo and a travel ban for senior Uzbek officials. This doesn’t just mean no more shopping trips to Paris or London for Karimov’s family and their cronies; it also makes it difficult for them to access their European bank accounts and other property in Europe.
The United States also criticized Karimov’s response to the Andijan uprising and joined in the chorus of governments and rights groups calling for an independent international investigation. In response, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry sent an ultimatum letter to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent calling for U.S. withdrawal from the K-2 base within 180 days.
Hopefully this will spell the end of American cooperation with the Karimov regime. According to a recent State Department report on foreign aid, U.S. assistance to Uzbekistan from October 2004 to September 2005 amounted to $91 million, with $63 million of that earmarked for security and law enforcement. The United States should cease all support, financial and otherwise, to Karimov and introduce targeted sanctions similar to those the EU has imposed. There is growing support for this in Congress.
But businesses with major operations in Uzbekistan and ties to the Karimov family — like Coca-Cola, the Newmont Gold Company, cotton trader Dunavant Enterprises and agricultural equipment manufacturer Case — have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo.
Coca-Cola is a good example of how business is done in Karimov’s Uzbekistan. In 2001, The Coca-Cola Company, which holds the franchise for bottling in Uzbekistan, allowed its joint venture with the Uzbek government to be taken over by Karimov’s older daughter, Gulnara Karimova. In a communist-style, gangster approach to a takeover, Karimova’s estranged husband, Mansur Maqsudi, who owned the majority of Coca-Cola Uzbekistan, found that his shares had been nationalized and his employees chased out of the country. With the approval, if not assistance, of The Coca-Cola Company, Karimova proceeded to loot millions of dollars from the Coca-Cola Bottlers Uzbekistan joint venture.
The American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce, which represents Coca-Cola and others, is lobbying Washington to keep up good relations with Karimov. In an August letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Chamber president James Cornell said the recent downgrades in relations with Tashkent “threaten several vital interests of the United States, including long-established trade and investment relations between the two countries.” The United States should not bow to this corporate pressure, but rather maintain a consistent, principled foreign policy that promotes democracy and punishes gross violations of human rights. Nowhere is this more needed today than in Uzbekistan.
Russia, too, needs to come to grips with the fact that its partnership with Karimov is more of a liability than an asset. As Karimov has turned toward Russia and China in the wake of U.S. criticism, Moscow has acquiesced by endorsing Tashkent’s official version of the events at Andijan, calling the protesters Islamic terrorists and fundamentalists.
But the Kremlin must understand that it is not in its long-term interest to have a political basket case in its backyard, and that a democratic, economically liberal Uzbekistan is in everyone’s best interest.
Farhod Inogambaev, an Uzbek political exile and recent research fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.