Uzbekistan: What Policy Must the U.S. Have?

On March 12, President Bush plans to greet his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, in the White House. Uzbekistan has emerged as a key strategic partner to the United States after September 11, not only due to its frontier with Afghanistan. For years, some strategists in Washington have considered the Tashkent regime as an important regional player. It is the most populous nation in the region, with 24 million citizens, and serves as the homeland for significant Uzbek minorities in all its neighbors, including Afghanistan.

The country sits at the heart of the region and is unique among the five Central Asian former Soviet republics in sharing a border with each of the other four. Karimov has also shown a clear desire for closer relations with the West, in order to balance Russian influence, while at the same time trying to avoid alienating Moscow. With Uzbekistan’s commitment to the idea of a secular regime despite a strong Islamist opposition comes a sense of statehood that is arguably much stronger than that in any other post-Soviet Central Asian regime.

But before the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, this nation was unknown to most of the American public and to many top American decisionmakers.

New visibility has exposed serious problems that complicate Karimov’s alliance. Human rights and democracy activists argue that Karimov’s regime is responsible for mass rights violations, jailing about 7,000 likely innocent and peaceful Islamists. They criticize the poor state of democracy, citing reports of torture and planted evidence. And such reports are generally correct. In the economic and social spheres, one has to add that the majority of Uzbeks today earn enough for bread and tea, perhaps sugar, and maybe for local public transportation also. A significant portion of the population is unemployed or under-employed. Simply put, Uzbekistan, like many other nations in the region and outside it, has a large number of problems in many areas. But the factors that made it attractive as a strategic partner before September 11 reinforce American interest in helping it now.

It is in U.S. interests to help address and resolve these problems, in order to avoid or prevent instability in a region that may become one of the main exporters of oil and natural gas. Uzbekistan is a pivotal country in this region. Because the nation has a skilled and literate population and modernized and secularized society, it could become an important bridge between the developed West and poor Muslim world–if it prospers. But instability may bring an anti-Western regime to power in this key country with huge reserves of strategic uranium. To that end, Americans should understand the true extent of the country’s weaknesses.

The situation is bad in many dimensions–that is true. However, many reports use over-dramatized statements and exaggerations. Reports that there is no independent media, that there is no free access to the Internet, that all critics of Karimov are in jail or in exile, are all examples of such exaggerated statements. (Recently, a referendum took place extending the presidential term to seven years. While this referendum also floated the idea of making Karimov president for life, that shift has not yet taken place.) So the United States needs a picture that does not come only from interest-group propaganda. Because judgements based on inaccurate, over-dramatized reports or considering only one side of the complex picture lead to wrong diagnosis and ineffective, counter-productive, or even dangerous actions.

The question of dissent illustrates this challenge. Despite its terrible human rights record, Karimov’s government more or less tolerates opposition parties with secular-democratic slogans, reporters of human rights violations, and activists who use democratic rhetoric (although one generally finds the same few individuals in all these roles). These educated dissidents are allowed to travel across Europe and America to disseminate views and reports critical of the government, as well as brief Western officials and journalists, in Uzbekistan and outside. On March 6, just before Karimov’s visit to Washington, the government registered the Independent Organization for Human Rights. This local group is widely known for strong criticism of government’s policies and also for insulting attacks against other human rights activists and groups.

So progress is possible. The vexing question is, how can Western democracy, and respect for individual freedoms and civil society come about in Uzbekistan? The approach based on “export of democracy” or “punishment for human rights violations” cannot work due to a lack of support in national traditions and a weak, divided democratic opposition. This opposition has a small social base in the country, due to radicalism disproportionate to its current weakness.

Uzbekistan faces huge problems of polarization in the economic sphere and politics. Middle class and centrist-oriented constructive opposition movements, which may become the main supporters of gradual, step-by-step democratic development, are nearly nonexistent. Pro-democracy observers hope that the drift of the four official political parties, which Karimov founded or approved, will lead to centrist or moderate opposition positions. One can also hope for the emergence of new opposition with realistic agendas, or the drift of some currently radical opposition members to more moderate positions.

The United States should encourage this incremental progress. All other alternatives mean fighting and cynical attempts to use the peoples’ dissatisfaction as a means of inciting them. If the United States allows this to happen, it will be serving neither Uzbekistan nor itself.