Uzbekistan switching its gaze to Russia

People victims of old-styled, superpower politics, former British ambassador says


With Uzbekistan’s expulsion of NATO, its break with the United States and its recent signing of a defence pact with Russia, the most populous and heavily armed country in Central Asia has now completely switched strategic horses.

“The disaster, of course, is for the poor people of Uzbekistan, who are living in grinding, worsening poverty and with no freedom,” said Craig Murray, the former British ambassador who was removed from his post a year ago after his internal criticism of human-rights abuses in the former Soviet republic became public. “They are the victims of classic, old-fashioned, superpower politics, with the United States, Russia and to a lesser extent China, competing for influence in the region, just like Cold War times.”

Uzbekistan this week told NATO allies that they must withdraw troops and stop using Uzbek airspace by Jan. 1. On Monday, the U.S. military flew its last plane out from an air base in Uzbekistan that had been an important hub for operations in Afghanistan.

All the while Tashkent was nudging closer to Moscow, where Russian President Vladmir Putin has accepted his Uzbekistan counterpart’s insistence that in his regime’s bloody crackdown in the eastern city of Andijan last May, he was merely putting down a revolt led by Islamic militants. Earlier this month, the two countries signed an agreement that allows for Russian military deployment in the Central Asian nation.

A glaring spotlight was put on the West’s relationship with President Islam Karimov during the Andijan crackdown. Earlier this week, the United Nations urged Uzbekistan to stop harassing eyewitnesses to the Andijan suppression and expressed regret that Tashkent has rejected repeated calls by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour for an independent inquiry.

Last week, the European Union banned 12 Uzbek officials from entering Europe because of their involvement in the Andijan crackdown. Earlier, the EU had imposed an arms embargo on Uzbekistan and suspended a co-operation pact.

Mr. Murray, who has since resigned from the foreign service, has kept up a barrage of criticism of Mr. Karimov’s harsh, dictatorial regime and of the policies that underlined Washington’s alliance with Tashkent after Sept. 11, 2001.

He said it was clear from the start that Mr. Karimov’s dalliance with Western economic liberalization would not last long under his totalitarian approach.

“The switching of alliance was an inevitable consequence of the decision not to go to capitalism. That’s what drives it all, rather than short-term events like Andijan or individual spats over UN resolutions.”

Mr. Murray acknowledges some satisfaction that his criticisms of Mr. Karimov and of the approach by Washington and London proved correct.

“The policies were so stupid, so obviously wrong and it seemed to be founded, to some extent, on self-delusion. I think that the Americans had managed to convince themselves – against all the evidence – that Karimov was a reformer.”