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Uzbekistan: Falling Out With The West

The West is questioning Karimov's hard-line tactics On 2 June, several thousand residents of Jizzakh, a city located some 200 kilometers to the southwest of Tashkent, gathered to show their unwavering support for the policies of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Organized by two pro-presidential political parties, the event took place under the slogan "The Uzbek people will never be dependent on anyone," RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported.

The slogan belongs to none other than the president himself. In fact, official news agency UzA reported on 31 May that a book by that very title has just appeared in Uzbek and Russian. It brings together excerpts from President Karimov's press conferences on 14 and 17 May, as well as extended remarks he made to journalists on 25 May, all on the violent events in Andijon on and after 13 May. The book presents the fullest official version of those events, ascribing them to the malfeasance of religious extremists.

The demonstration went beyond a mere expression of support for the president, however. As reported on 3 June, other slogans included "Down with the traitors!" and "Rights defenders out of Uzbekistan!" Jizzakh Governor Ubaydulla Yamanqulov (spelled "Yamankulov" in some reports) was even more direct in his remarks to the crowd, telling them that Uzbekistan's enemies want to incite a civil war. He explained, "Although they are far away from us across the ocean, their local hirelings are ready to sell out Uzbekistan for dollars." Worse yet, Yamanqulov warned, "These lackeys of America are present in Jizzakh as well."

Bakhtiyor Hamroev, a Jizzakh-based human rights activist, told RFE/RL that the demonstration's organizers had originally intended to teach the "lackeys" and "hirelings" a harsher lesson, bringing them before the crowd for a public humiliation. But they decided against this at the last minute, contenting themselves instead with slogans damning rights defenders as U.S.-funded "devils." As the slogans put it: "May the devils be gone from our midst!"

Though diametrically opposed assessments of events in Andijon have highlighted a widening rift between Uzbekistan and the West in recent weeks, the process had been under way before gunshots rang out in the Ferghana Valley in early May. In fact, in remarks delivered in February 2004, Jizzakh Governor Yamanqulov telegraphed the tone of the address he would make in June. Speaking at the opening of a new press center in Jizzakh on 11 February, Yamanqulov blasted the United States, associating it with "corruption, lawlessness, and impositions [of its will on others]," reported on 21 February. Yamanqulov also ridiculed U.S. efforts to democratize Iraq, saying, "Look at what they're doing in Iraq. There are no principles of democracy there; it's the politics of the international gendarmerie."
The Jizzakh governor blasted the United States, associating it with "corruption" and "lawlessness."

In an article on EurasiaNet on 3 March 2005, Esmer Islamov noted that "Yamankulov's verbal volley was apparently meant to send the United States a warning to ease up in its criticism of Tashkent's human rights practices." Islamov noted other instances -- such as the Uzbek authorities' decision to cancel a visit by British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammel to Uzbekistan in early March after Rammell said he would focus on human rights issues -- to buttress the following thesis: "Shaken by revolutionary developments in Ukraine and Georgia, Uzbekistan is turning away from the West. Officials in Tashkent increasingly see the democratic ideals espoused by the United States and the European Union as 'alien' and destructive for Uzbek society."

The movement away from the West has gained momentum in the wake of events in Andijon. Most recently, the Uzbek government denied entry to Michael Matthiessen, special envoy of European Union foreign policy head Javier Solana, Reuters reported on 3 June. Solana expressed his "regret" in a letter to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, noting that the exchange of envoys is the "very foundation of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement [between the EU and Uzbekistan]." Earlier, three U.S. senators who visited Tashkent on 29 May found that no Uzbek officials were willing to meet with them.

The post-Andijon chill in Uzbekistan's relations with the West has begun to affect negotiations over a possible long-term U.S. base in the country, "The Washington Post" reported on 4 June. The United States, which has maintained a deployment at the Karshi-Khanabad airfield in Uzbekistan since 2001, has been in talks to gain "long-term use of a major military base in Uzbekistan to expand the global reach of American forces." But the crackdown in Andijon and reports that hundreds died when troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators has prompted a high-level policy review, high-ranking officials at the State Department and Pentagon told the newspaper. At the same time, congressional opinion on the alliance with Uzbekistan shows signs of souring. John Sununu, one of the three senators who recently traveled to Uzbekistan, told "The Washington Post" that he believes, based on eyewitness accounts gathered by the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan, that 500-1,000 people were killed by Uzbek special forces and security forces in Andijon. Addressing the base issue, Sununu said, "I would not be comfortable making a long-term commitment."

The immediate bone of contention in Uzbekistan's relations with the West is the request, voiced by many Western governments and organizations, for an independent inquiry into allegations that the Uzbek government used excessive force against demonstrators in Andijon, killing hundreds. Uzbek President Islam Karimov slammed the door shut on such an inquiry, telling journalists on 25 May, "Our view, my view, and our government's view is that we think that the idea of setting up an international commission on investigating the Andijon events is groundless, and we will never agree to this."

Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiev set the door ajar on 2 June, saying that diplomats from the United States, France, Russia, China, and neighboring states could join a working group to monitor the Uzbek government's own investigation. But Uzbekistan's president has already set down the official version of events in Andijon in a book, both Russia and China have endorsed that version in earlier statements, and bordering states have been reluctant to criticize their powerful neighbor. Consequently, the format suggested by Ganiev would seem to offer Western diplomats little more than an opportunity to comment on an official investigation that will, in all likelihood, confirm what President Karimov has already established as the official truth.
"Our view, my view, and our government's view is that we think that the idea of setting up an international commission on investigating the Andijon events is groundless, and we will never agree to this." -- President Karimov

Moreover, even as Foreign Minister Ganiev was inviting French diplomats to monitor the official investigation, the government-controlled press was heaping scorn on the European Union. A 2 June article in "Pravda Vostoka" tellingly titled "Eurotears of compassion for terrorists" lambasted the EU for everything from supporting gay marriage to encouraging drug abuse. The article dismissed European calls for an independent investigation into the Andijon events as "a fiction meant to prove EU governments' aspiration and commitment to democratic principles and rights and freedoms of people throughout the world," and suggested that the EU's ulterior motive was simply "to obtain more favorable conditions for issuing credits to Uzbekistan."

Like other Central Asian leaders, Islam Karimov has engaged in his share of multipolar maneuvering. Most recently, he drew closer to the United States during U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan in 2001, and then swung toward a rapprochement with Russia in 2004 amid mounting Western criticism of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. Throughout, the government-controlled press has published occasional broadsides against "foreign" influences and values.

But Andijon was different. The horrific reports of bloodshed in Andijon briefly catapulted Karimov to the forefront of Western public attention, and democratically elected governments will have to factor those reports -- and the effect they have had on perceptions of Karimov -- into their future ties with Uzbekistan. Western reactions have stung Karimov as well. As a senior State Department official told "The Washington Post," "Uzbekistan is retreating into a hard shell." All indicators point toward a deepening chill. It is one of the bitter ironies of international relations that this isolating chill comes at a time when so many voices -- from the editorial pages of American and European newspapers to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- are calling for greater openness in Uzbekistan as the only way to prevent more bloodshed and suffering.

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