On July 24, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a meeting entitled “Politics in Uzbekistan” with Muhammad Salih, of the ERK Party of Uzbekistan. Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program, and Martha Olcott, senior associate, chaired the session. Salih’s remarks are summarized below.
President Islam Karimov is already displaying “isolation syndrome.” The West is wrong to think he will not respond to pressure. Calls by U.S. senators for sanctions on Uzbekistan have already had an effect.
Karimov has even called upon the leaders of the Andijan protests to help rehabilitate Uzbekistan’s image. Twelve have returned to Uzbekistan, and Akram Yuldashev [leader of the Islamist organization Akramiya] has called for his supporters to return. Of course Karimov’s real intent is to justify his regime’s actions in Andijan using coerced confessions. It is not hard to imagine that torture forced Yuldashev to cooperate.
For three months last year Karimov was in shock at his own crimes. He was forced to humiliate himself in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both he and his top officials expected punishment in the form of isolation, financial restrictions, and travel bans. But the Western reaction was much weaker than they anticipated.
After three months revanche set in. The Karimov regime launched repressions against Andijan survivors, journalists, and human rights activists. It shut down many NGOs and exiled some of their staff. Karimov understood the West had lost interest. There were no sanctions and the regime did not suffer.
During the three months of fear the government was prepared to abandon Karimov to protect its ties with the West. Karimov later realized his alliance with Russia and China had only temporarily fixed the problem. He knows his international stature has diminished significantly.
He also knows his previous relationship with the West—long on promises, short on reform—was a reliable shield, and so we can imagine a way in which he might try to rehabilitate his image. Karimov will paint Andijan as part of the struggle against international terrorism. Already he is sending signals to renew ties with the West. Karimov will say Andijan was an incompetent use of force by the security services.
Karimov is aware that Western companies want Uzbek resources and that they will lobby on his behalf. Meanwhile he is busy restoring unofficial ties, helped, unfortunately, by some professors from prestigious American universities. Naturally we want good relations with the West, but not at the cost of hiding Karimov’s criminal acts.
Now, post-Andijan, the picture is clear. In Uzbekistan the situation has deteriorated. There has been a permanent rollback of democratic reforms because the West didn’t react strongly enough, with sanctions of the sort imposed on Belarus. Compared to Karimov, Lukashenko is a democrat. If similar sanctions had been enacted, the situation would be different.
However not all is lost. We await U.S. and E.U. pressure on Karimov. Dictators don’t easily yield to diplomacy. Only strong international pressure can influence the regime in Uzbekistan. Senator John McCain’s proposal deserves respect and attention. American policymakers must not forget that progressives everywhere look to them.
Q: Are there any human rights organizations left in Uzbekistan?
Salih: Yes, these organizations remain and continue to act as bet they can. There are 59 NGOs united in a National Rescue Committee. Many of their leaders have been exiled or jailed. We are trying to organize parallel structures with new people, unknown to the security services. People are no longer afraid, and now we just need organized protest.
Q: Are these organizations legal?
Salih: Only 2 NGOs have been registered in the past 15 years, and now both have been shut down.
Q: Is any part of the Uzbek elite unhappy with the turn away from the U.S., toward Russia and China?
Salih: Yes, some people in government are for stronger ties with the West. We try to maintain contact with them. The government isn’t homogenous, and some parts aid the people’s hope for a better future.
Q: What would you say to the following tough question if it were asked on Capitol Hill: If Karimov is overthrown, won’t that lead to a Taliban-style regime, which will be worse for both the Uzbek people and the West?
Salih: We’ve been defending democracy since Soviet times, and not to please the West. The Islamist threat was a myth created by Karimov, but unfortunately the myth has partly come true. Karimov banned and repressed religious groups, which radicalized them. But they remain marginal, not a force capable of replacing the government. Hizb ut-Tahrir is overblown in the West. The Uzbek people have always been in the mainstream of Islam.
Q: Why were the 23 businessmen originally arrested? Did their radicalization occur before or after their arrest?
Salih: The businessmen suffered from repressive tax authorities and this made them bitter. So their complaint had a purely economic origin. Karimov fears the rich because they’re independent of the state. So he periodically wipes them out. Perhaps a few of the 23 had read Yuldashev’s books. By the way, Yuldashev is almost unknown in Uzbekistan. From the morning of May 13 the security services must have been involved in the protest, because the prison from which the businessmen escaped is practically the only well-secured one in Uzbekistan. Even the film edited by the regime does not prove Islamic radicals were involved in Andijan.
Q: What are the interests of Russia and China in Uzbekistan? How supportive are they of Karimov?
Salih: Putin is not happy to support Karimov, because it hurts Russia’s image. But he can’t refuse the economic and strategic deals Karimov is offering. China has no criteria like democracy or lack of executions. A democratic regime in Central Asia would hurt China’s interests and its drive to be sole hegemon in the region. Of course it’s in Russia’s geopolitical interest for the U.S. bases to leave Central Asia. But in the long run a stable democracy in Central Asia would be best for Russia, providing both stability and a buffer against China.
Summary prepared by Matthew Gibson, junior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.