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Uzbek President Islam Karimov
On the surface, relations between Uzbekistan and the United States appear only slightly strained since the bloodshed in Andijon on 13 May. But there is growing opposition to the rule of Uzbek President Islam Karimov among conservatives in Washington -- conservatives who share the foreign policy goals of U.S. President George W. Bush. They say it is time for the Bush administration to take a tougher stand on Karimov, even though Karimov allows the United States to maintain a military base in Uzbekistan to support operations in neighboring Afghanistan.
Washington, 3 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A number of Bush supporters who once welcomed U.S. military ties with Uzbekistan now say it is time to reassess those relations.
One is Ariel Cohen, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a private policy center in Washington. Cohen wrote recently in "The Washington Times" that Karimov's authoritarian rule only emboldens radical opponents who would turn Uzbekistan into what he calls a "militarized Muslim state: a caliphate."
Another is William Kristol, the editor of "The Weekly Standard," a policy magazine that often reflects the thinking of the Bush administration. In the publication, Kristol -- with Stephen Schwartz -- recently wrote an article urging Bush to re-assess U.S. ties with Karimov's government.
In their conclusion, Kristol and Schwartz write that the administration must be prepared to consider what they call the "consequences for U.S. aid and support for the regime." But in an interview with RFE/RL, Schwartz insisted that this does not mean breaking relations.
Instead, Schwartz said, it's time for the Bush administration to tell Karimov that he's now regarded as being no different from leaders in other former communist countries who have been rejected by their people -- including former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, and former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.
"If he [Karimov] doesn't want to understand this, we're going to have to make him understand this," Schwartz said. "I frankly think that with the war in Afghanistan essentially over, there's no reason to maintain any base in Uzbekistan and they [the United States] should remove the base. I think they [the United States] should cut off any military or police training to Uzbek troops since we now have to face the scandalous fact that the troops in the Andijon incident apparently were trained in the United States."
Further, Schwartz said, the Bush administration should begin shifting its attention to Uzbekistan's much larger neighbor, Kazakhstan, as an ally in Central Asia. He called President Nursulatan Nazarbaev "a dictator." But he added that Kazakhstan also has a free press and a thriving civil society.
Schwartz said the overall U.S. policy decisions -- on Uzbekistan, at least -- are made not in the State Department, but in the Pentagon. And he said he understands Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is unhappy with the situation in Uzbekistan.
Rumsfeld's dismay, Schwartz said, comes not only from the violence in Andijon, but goes back to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in December. He said Andijon merely confirmed the administration's concerns about the quality of Karimov's rule and brought the problems in Uzbekistan to the attention of the wider public.
Schwartz said that since the change in Ukraine, the Bush administration has become adamant that it can no longer regard all postcommunist governments as representative of their peoples.
"The bottom line [the point] here is that the Bush administration, after Ukraine, is clearly not going to take the position that Uzbekistan is somehow different from Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus -- and Russia itself," Schwartz said.
But Marina Ottaway of the Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington think tank, said there is little evidence that the Bush administration is prepared to withdraw its troops from Uzbekistan.
After all, Ottaway told RFE/RL, the United States needs that base more than Uzbekistan needs to provide it. And its location is based on geographical -- not ideological -- concerns.
"We [the United States] put that base there because we thought we needed it. We did not put that base there because he [Karimov] was a nice guy," Ottaway said. "The lack of democracy in [Uzbekistan] is not going to change the Pentagon's calculus on whether or not that base is needed. It seems to me extremely unlikely that the U.S. government would implement a policy of that sort as long as it sees a military reason to have a base in Uzbekistan."
Besides, Ottaway said, Uzbekistan is part of a longstanding Rumsfeld strategy that so far has overridden the more diplomatic approaches of the State Department.
"The Pentagon certainly has a different set of concerns than the people [elsewhere in the Bush administration] who are talking about promoting new revolutions in these countries," Ottaway said. "From the beginning, Rumsfeld has been talking about moving American bases further east -- closing some of the bases in Europe and moving further east. So certainly Uzbekistan is part of that strategy."
Ottaway said there is more evidence that Bush will maintain the status quo. She noted that in 2004, the State Department suspended $18 million in aid to Uzbekistan because of Tashkent's poor human rights record. But soon the Pentagon restored that money -- and even added $3 million to the total -- citing Karimov's cooperation with the U.S. military.