Uzbekistan looks east for new friends

By Simon Tisdall in The Guardian

It looks like Craig Murray was right all along. To the US’s annoyance, Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan publicly criticised human rights abuses by President Islam Karimov’s government. Mr Murray lost his job last year. But even the most hard-nosed US strategists could not turn a blind eye to the massacre in the town of Andijan in May. The ensuing confrontation, all the more explosive for being delayed, has come at a high price to Washington’s interests in central Asia.

Rejecting western demands for an independent inquiry into Andijan, when hundreds died, the ostensibly pro-American Mr Karimov has switched sides. He ordered the US to close its military base in Uzbekistan, a key part of its Afghan operations. And he turned to China for consolation.

Beijing, keen to expand its regional clout and discourage indigenous Muslim “splittists”, unquestioningly accepted his claim to be battling an Islamist insurrection. Moscow, with Chechnya in mind, also sympathised. At a Kremlin ceremony last week Mr Karimov signed a mutual defence pact with Russia. Yesterday Nato was also kicked out. Washington’s Uzbek policy lay in tatters.

With its valuable oil, gas and mineral reserves and authoritarian political tradition, Uzbekistan is a typical battleground in what is fast becoming an epic, three-way struggle for power, influence and resources in post-Soviet central Asia. “Its the world’s last vacuum,” said Kalman Mizsei, regional director of the United Nations development programme. “The region has become a playground for rival geopolitical interests.” But increased cooperation rather than competition between countries should be the aim, he said.

Having “lost” Uzbekistan, the US, EU and Japan are nervously tracking unfavourable trends in two of its neighbours. As in Ukraine and Georgia, Kyrgyzstan’s “tulip revolution” last March has brought disappointment in its wake. The government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev has been beset by troubles, including the killing of three MPs.

Mr Bakiyev threatened to use troops to impose order earlier this month. “Those taking up arms and attempting to speak a language of force with the authorities will be terminated, full stop,” he warned in a manner reminiscent of his ousted predecessors.

Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, wants the US to pay more for the use of its airbase there – or face an Uzbek-style eviction. The demand follows claims that the Pentagon connived in under-the-table payments worth millions of dollars to the family and friends of the deposed president, Askar Akayev.

The integrity of Kazakhstan’s presidential election on December 4 is also giving cause for concern. Visiting last month, Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, urged Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president, to ensure fair polls. She denied the US was soft-pedalling to safeguard its oil and security interests, an accusation also heard during Azerbaijan’s flawed elections last month. Since her departure a leading opposition figure, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, has mysteriously died of gunshot wounds amid claims of intimidation and media bias. But Mr Nazarbayev’s spokesman reassuringly said there was no need to rig the polls. “The president would win even if we sat around doing nothing,” he said.

Democracy’s trials in central Asia are of less concern for Russia and China, which may give them a short-term advantage. Ignoring the human rights issues highlighted by Mr Murray, both are building economic ties bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to which most central Asian states belong. But Mr Mizsei said Russia would resist China’s advances. “All these countries are more familiar with a Soviet big brother than a Chinese one,” he said. “There will definitely be a divergence of interests.”

If and when that happens, the west could win in the east.