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Central Asia: Uzbek Developments Present U.S. Policy Dilemmas

  • Robert McMahon --> Violent demonstrations rocked Andijon in mid-May Nearly three months after the events in Andijon, there are growing calls among experts for changes in U.S. policies toward Uzbekistan and Central Asia. They say Central Asia poses an especially tough challenge to Washington’s twin goals of fighting terrorism and promoting democratization.

4 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government has remained steadfast in its call for an independent inquiry into the Uzbek government’s May crackdown in Andijon. It has also supported efforts to protect Uzbeks who fled to Kyrgyzstan after the incident.

But some foreign-policy experts say the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush lacks a comprehensive policy toward authoritarian Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia. This threatens to weaken the U.S. role in the region, they say, and to make instability more likely.

Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, worries about the growing influence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which groups Russia and China with four regional states.

She told a recent panel that, among new steps, the Bush administration needs to make a greater effort to build ties with reformist elements in the Uzbek government.

“If our policy response fully isolates those members of the ruling elite, those who serve in the administration who are inclined to change, are we making the process of regime transfer even more difficult?" she said. "If we’re creating a situation where they’re going to move to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the elites of the other countries then I don’t see our policy as working in the medium term interests of Uzbekistan and U.S. national goals.”

Widespread news reports of the government crackdown on May 12 and 13 in Andijon told of Uzbek forces fatally shooting hundreds of unarmed civilians. The government of President Islam Karimov has blamed the violence on Islamic extremists who seized a prison. (See "Spontaneous Popular Uprising In Andijon, Or Terrorist-Led Upheaval?".)

Frederick Starr chairs the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He says that information about Andijon is still too vague to base negative policies toward the Karimov government on.

He said in a panel discussion sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute that Washington needs to be more sophisticated in its engagement of the Uzbek government, recognizing multiple poles of power. He also has published a paper calling on the administration to form a Greater Central Asia Partnership for Cooperation and Development.

“We don’t need an Uzbek policy," Starr said. "We need a regional policy that includes Afghanistan very centrally. We need a policy that integrates security, a policy that integrates economic and social development and a policy that integrates democratization. We don’t have that.”

But another panelist, William Kristol, editor of the conservative "The Weekly Standard," insisted that Washington should have acted more demonstrably to condemn the actions in Andijon. He says Washington must remain consistent on democratization policies in the region.

“No blind eye to terror and no rewards to dictators: that should be a principle we can more or less uphold across the board despite the complexities of the world we live in," Kristol said. "I think on Uzbekistan we have failed on that. Our rhetoric has been pretty good but I think we can do more to draw a distinction between the nations in that region that are moving in the right direction and those that aren’t.”

Kristol appeared to echo the recommendations of new legislation -- The Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Act -- introduced last month by U.S. Congressman Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey).

The Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Act, which will be debated in September by Congress, requires that all non-humanitarian aid -- including military aid -- be conditioned on a certification from U.S. President George W. Bush that countries are making progress toward democratization and respect for human rights.

It’s not clear how such moves would affect the Uzbek government. Karimov last weekend informed the United States it has 180 days to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base it has used to support operations in Afghanistan.

Cory Welt, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, spoke at a forum on U.S. policy region days before the Uzbek government’s announcement.

He said any move by Washington to retain the base in Uzbekistan could undermine its democratization initiative.

“This permits others to draw the conclusion that the U.S. response to the fear of Islamic extremism is not its much vaunted democracy promotion strategy but classical strongman rule," Welt said. "Even worse, if we intend to keep the U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan because of traditional geopolitical concerns then this simply runs the democracy promotion strategy straight into the ground.”

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told the BBC on 3 August that the administration will continue to assert the importance of human rights in Uzbekistan and press for an investigation in Andijon.

See also:

U.S. Administration Gives Mixed Message On Uzbek Policy

U.S. Denies Divisions On Policy, Renews Inquiry Call

For RFE/RL's full coverage of the Andijon events and their aftermath, see "Unrest In Uzbekistan"