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Uzbekistan: Karimov Battens Down The Hatches

  • Daniel Kimmage --> Anti-government protestors in Tashkent (file photo) On 29 July, Uzbek President Islam Karimov informed the United States that it has 180 days to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base it has used to support operations in Afghanistan since late 2001. Initial reactions linked the move to worsening U.S.-Uzbek relations in the wake of the reported massacre in Andijon and increasing coziness between Tashkent, Peking, and Moscow. These are relevant, but secondary factors. The primary driving force behind Karimov's initiative is his belief that the United States has gone from a useful strategic partner to a meddlesome plotter that threatens his hold on power.

A deep chill has taken hold of U.S.-Uzbek relations since the violence in Andijon on 12-13 May, when Uzbek police are reported to have fired on unarmed demonstrators in the wake of an attack on government facilities by armed militants. (For complete coverage of the Andijon events and their aftermath, click here.) The United States joined European nations in expressing deep concern at the massacre allegations and calling for an independent international investigation, a call President Karimov and his government have angrily refused.

More recently, the United States played a prominent role in the evacuation of 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan, where they fled after the violence in Andijon. On 29 July, the refugees were airlifted to Romania in preparation for transfer to final destinations variously reported as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States. Fifteen refugees remain in detention in southern Kyrgyzstan at the request of Uzbek authorities, who want them returned to Uzbekistan for alleged crimes, including the murder of a prosecutor in Andijon. A U.S. State Department official told "The New York Times" on 30 July that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the phone with Kyrgyz President-elect Kurmanbek Bakiev on 28 and 29 July arranging flights out for the refugees. As for the remaining 15 Uzbeks, the official said, "Our position is that they all have to come out."

The first reports on the Uzbek decision on the U.S. base at Karshi-Khanabad seized on this context. The Associated Press noted, "Uzbekistan's ties with Washington have deteriorated after the Bush administration joined other Western nations in urging an international investigation" into the Andijon events. The "Financial Times" wrote that "relations with the U.S. have become strained after the Uzbek government suppressed a rebellion" in Andijon. "The New York Times" specifically linked the eviction to the refugee crisis, leading its story, "Uzbekistan formally ordered the United States to leave an air base that has been a hub for operations in Afghanistan in protest over a predawn United Nations operation on [29 July] to spirit out refugees who had fled an uprising in Uzbekistan in May, senior State Department officials said [on 30 July]." And "The Christian Science Monitor" wrote, "Yet when the Bush administration called for an international inquiry into the deaths of at least 173 political dissidents in May, the relationship soured."
There is no doubt that the West is using the drama in Andijon in its great, dirty game to 'advance democracy,' in fact, to seize new staging grounds in the post-Soviet space, to surround the potential rivals of Russia and China, which Western propaganda is ceaselessly portraying as 'bad guys.' -- pro-government newspaper

But while calls for an international inquiry and the operation to evacuate the refugees from Kyrgyzstan undoubtedly angered the Karimov government, they are not the root cause of the U.S.-Uzbek rift. The real reason lies in the official Uzbek interpretation of what occurred in Andijon. Western journalists present in Andijon on 13 May and interviews with survivors conducted in the immediate aftermath by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group have depicted an armed uprising and prison break followed by a sizeable demonstration in the city center that Uzbek security services used lethal force to disperse, killing hundreds. The official Uzbek view is entirely different -- an Islamist coup attempt supported by foreign sponsors in line with "regime change" experiments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan with the ultimate aim of establishing outside control over Uzbekistan. (See Spontaneous Popular Uprising In Andijon, Or Terrorist-Led Upheaval?.)

An overview of the government-controlled Uzbek press compiled by Arena ( on 25 July provides some insight into the official view. A 14 June article in the flagship state-run newspaper "Narodnoe slovo" stated, "Certain countries of the West, which would like to see the Central Asian countries fall into line with their expansionist policy, are using any and all means to export to this region forms and principles of democracy acceptable to them." Another article in the same newspaper the same day went further, claiming, "There is no doubt that the West is using the drama in Andijon in its great, dirty game to 'advance democracy,' in fact, to seize new staging grounds in the post-Soviet space, to surround the potential rivals of Russia and China, which Western propaganda is ceaselessly portraying as 'bad guys.'"

A 16 June article in "Narodnoe slovo" stated that the people who died in Andijon were deceived by their "'leaders' and those who carried out the orders of their foreign patrons and sponsors. All of us have witnessed the consequences of the so-called colored revolutions taking place before our eyes in post-Soviet space. We see that they don't bring anything good. What positive changes have there been in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan?" An article in "Pravda vostoka" on 24 June argued, "Under the pretext of concern for human rights, there are unceasing attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the independent state of Uzbekistan. Especially active in this respect is the United States, which uses the cover of the United Nations and the creation of an international commission to destabilize the situation. The lives and rights of ordinary Uzbek citizens should not become small change in the grand geopolitics of the United States."

The Uzbek official press also insisted that the United States advanced its purported evil designs through NGOs. The editor in chief of the newspaper "O'zbekiston ovozi" explained in an interview on Uzbek TV on 17 July that the "Soros Foundation may seem very fair and protective of democracy and human rights on paper but, in reality, what they are involved in is evil things, coups, destruction in countries where they operate, and so on." (For a related story on opposition to foreign funding of NGOs in Russia and Kazakhstan, see Will Putin Follow In Nazarbaev's Footsteps?.)

Television conveyed the message more strongly than print media. A 16 July documentary on state-run Uzbek television boldly claimed, "There are those who have a keen geopolitical interest in the region. Attempts by some major powers to make Central Asia dependent on them are aimed first of all at bringing Uzbekistan under their control. A show aimed at overthrowing the strongest legitimate constitutional system in Central Asia began under the orchestration of outside forces in the middle of May 2005." Against this backdrop, the Uzbek refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan were simply described as escaped extremists. A 27 July documentary described them as follows: "The aggressors -- who committed grave crimes in Andijon and escaped their due punishment -- settled in the neighboring Jalal-Abad Province's Suzak District."

This view is not unique to Uzbekistan. Russian observers in particular have reveled in sordid tales of U.S.-sponsored NGOs spinning plots across the former Soviet Union. One of the baldest statements of this conspiracy theory -- shorn of the NGOs and presented purely as a military intervention by proxy -- came in a 29 July comment to MiK from Igor Panarin, identified as a professor at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy. "Andijon was a purely American operation," Panarin said. "According to some information, [the Americans] and the British even transported militants from Afghanistan through their military bases in Uzbekistan when they conducted this operation."

None of this should be construed as having anything to do with what actually happened in Andijon on 12-13 May. But as an indication of what Karimov and his confidants believe took place, it does more to explain the decision to evict the U.S. air base than mere ire at the demand for an international inquiry. For if they feel that the United States and its efforts to advance democracy are a threat to their power, as the statements from government-controlled newspapers and television indicate, their decision was driven by the most powerful of all instincts -- that of self-preservation.

This instinct will likely continue to drive Uzbekistan's foreign-policy decisions, as Karimov and his inner circle seek to minimize perceived threats to their rule by closing off possible channels of malign Western influence. A similar impulse has governed the tightening of Uzbekistan's ties with Russia, the embodiment and self-appointed defender of the post-Soviet status quo, and China, a strong supporter of the status quo in Central Asia. Yet the geopolitical significance of this emerging alliance may not live up to its advance billing. For while its short-term prospects are as good as those of any convergence of convenience, its long-term prospects depend on the durability of a post-Soviet status quo that recent crises have shown to be hardly more stable than the late-Soviet stasis that preceded it.