Rights Activists Decry Signs Of Western Rapprochement
Following an extended period of criticism of Uzbekistan's human rights record and democratic shortcomings, the West appears to be back in the business of courting the country's hard-line president, Islam Karimov.
In recent weeks, the European Union has sent envoys to Tashkent and the secretary-general of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) has congratulated Karimov on his reelection last month -- despite the fact that the Vienna-based organization had called the poll undemocratic. And on January 24, Admiral William Fallon, who heads U.S. Central Command, was also in Tashkent.
Uzbek human rights activists and opposition figures say it's unlikely that these Western officials went to Tashkent for carpets. They are outraged at what they see as the West's hypocrisy and geopolitical games with one of Central Asia's most authoritarian rulers, and warn that a policy of appeasing him not only ill serves the Uzbek people -- but will lead to instability and blowback for the region and world.
Ismoil Dadajanov, an exiled Uzbek opposition activist, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the OSCE shouldn't have congratulated Karimov.
"It will lead to the strengthening of Uzbekistan's dictatorship and terrorist threats in the world in general because people will think: 'If Western democracies support Islam Karimov, it means democracy is alien to us,'" Dadajanov said. "And the Uzbek people will resort to other means [in order to change the current Uzbek regime]."
It's all quite a change from May 2005. That's when Western relations with Uzbekistan -- up to then a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror -- suffered a major blow after Uzbek troops fired on peaceful protesters in the eastern city of Andijon, reportedly killing hundreds.
U.S.-Uzbek relations were broken off following U.S. criticism of the Uzbek government's handling of those events. Karimov kicked out U.S. troops deployed at Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad air base since shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The base aided U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Karimov also refused to let foreign experts conduct an independent probe into the events, saying it was a terrorist plot masterminded from abroad and aimed at overthrowing the government.
Now, however, memories of Andijon seem to be receding.
To be sure, there were already signs of a thaw in Western relations with Uzbekistan back in May, when the EU lifted a travel ban on senior Uzbek officials introduced following the Andijon events.
But Fallon's talks yesterday with Karimov and other senior Uzbek officials are the first high-level U.S. attempt to reengage Uzbekistan since Andijon.
Prior to his visit to Tashkent, Fallon said he had not planned to discuss the air base issue. But official Uzbek media reported that he met with Uzbekistan's defense and foreign ministers, the secretary of the National Security Council, and commander of the Uzbek border troops.
Uzbek television reported that the two sides discussed terrorism, illegal drug trafficking, organized crime, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as regional security.
Fear Of Russia, China
So where's it all leading?
Abdummanob Polat, a Washington-based Uzbek political analyst, says recent rapprochement is based on the two sides' national interests and immediate security concerns.
"The U.S. administration wants to reestablish its relations with Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government is also interested in recovering its relations with the U.S. to some extent," Polat says.
"Cooperation of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states with Russia and China goes against the interests of the U.S. and Western Europe," Polat says.
Vladimir Mukhin, a Moscow-based military analyst, largely agrees. But he rules out the possibility that the United States could re-open the military base in Uzbekistan. He says Tashkent will be engaged in only a limited dialogue with Washington.
"Uzbekistan will try to open up. Karimov, who was reelected again, will seek more contacts with the West [and] the U.S. despite the West's criticism that the election was illegitimate and undemocratic," Mukhin says.
Analysts say the U.S. and the EU are trying mend fences with the energy-rich country in order to block Russian attempts to reestablish its hegemony and to stop China's growing influence in Central Asia.
Under German guidance, the EU has sought since May to improve relations with Tashkent. The EU's special representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morel, met with Karimov on January 17 -- a day after the Uzbek president's inauguration.
It all adds up to a depressing picture for Uzbek opposition and human-rights activists, at a time when they had started to shine a light on some of the most egregious human-rights abuses in Uzbekistan, such as the use of child slavery in the cotton industry.
Nadejda Atayeva heads the Paris-based Association on Human Rights in Central Asia. She tells RFE/RL that rapprochement sends signals that geopolitical interests -- not human rights -- are the priority for the West in its relations with Tashkent.
"Congratulations from the United Nations secretary-general, the EU representatives, and the recent one from the OSCE send a signal of approval of Karimov's anti-constitutional usurpation of power," Atayeva says.
"Karimov is not the choice of the majority of the Uzbek people. They do not want to live under an authoritarian regime. They want to live in a democratic society where their rights and their choice are respected."