By Chris Patten in the International Herald Tribune
To the list of the world’s most self-destructively repressive regimes we should add one name that is too often overlooked: Uzbekistan. Like North Korea or Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan suffers under a brutal authoritarian system that not only impoverishes and commits massive abuses against its own citizens, but also threatens to spread violent instability to its neighbors.
The international community needs to develop new strategies to prepare for such a potential meltdown in Central Asia. True, Uzbekistan represents no direct security threat to Europe or the United States, and the government in Tashkent is not at risk of imminent collapse.
But when the regime does snap in the medium to long term, this will have a significant impact on Western interests. It could, for example, prompt an aggressive Russian intervention in the region and stimulate the undercurrents of Islamist extremism that so far have been more of an irritant than a major threat.
Never a shining light of freedom since the former Soviet republic became independent in 1991, Uzbekistan under President Islam Karimov has grown increasingly authoritarian. This process accelerated on May 13, 2005, when state security forces opened fire on a demonstration of mostly unarmed protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, killing hundreds. That massacre sparked a new surge of state repression against the survivors and their families, and Tashkent has been pressuring neighboring states to hand over refugees.
The Andijon shockwave continues to reverberate across Central Asia. In the immediate aftermath, hundreds of people tried to escape persecution by fleeing over the border to Kyrgyzstan, which, already close to becoming a failed state itself, was shaken very nearly to its breaking point.
Thanks to decades of Soviet policies and post-Soviet support for regional integration, Central Asian countries are strongly interlinked, so Uzbekistan’s neighbors are vulnerable to any instability next door. Weak and struggling, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are essentially dependent on Uzbekistan for energy and transport. Even relatively prosperous Kazakhstan could be seriously troubled if violence were to drive Uzbeks across its border.
Western policies meant to encourage the development of political and economic openness in Tashkent have failed, and the emphasis now has to change.
Although efforts should certainly be made to continue to apply pressure through targeted sanctions, voluntary trade restrictions and an international investigation of the Andijon events, the European Union, the United States and other donor governments such as Japan need to acknowledge that they have almost no influence with the Karimov government and few levers with which to change this in the short term.
The emphasis rather should be on longer term measures, amounting essentially to a lifeboat strategy to maintain political activity, civil society and educational opportunities in the expectation of future change, and an effort to reduce the impact any future instability in Uzbekistan would have on its neighbors.
In particular, the key external players should consider a number of new policies.
Donors should beef up media development targeting Uzbekistan, to support journalism training in the region and broadcasting into the country from abroad, including news and educational programs.
Independent news gathering inside Uzbekistan is incredibly difficult and dangerous, but there are still journalists and human rights activists who are willing to take the risk. They deserve support.
The international community also needs to expand the capacity of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to cope with the economic and political fallout from Uzbekistan, including help in crisis planning, pre-positioning of resources to handle refugee flows, improving policing and border security and increasing aid to those responsible for emergency situations.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would be strengthened by assistance for hydropower projects, particularly small-scale schemes, and improving roads from Almaty, Bishkek and Dushanbe to China, Russia and Afghanistan. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would also benefit from schemes to shore up government institutions.
Uzbekistan may not blow up today, but it remains a powder keg. The world needs to prepare the Uzbeks and their neighbors for the turbulence ahead.
Lord Patten of Barnes, former European Commissioner for External Relations, is chairman of the board of the International Crisis Group.