President Islam Karimov has again raised the need for heightened security and cooperation with the United States in the war on terror ahead of Uzbekistan’s December 26 parliamentary elections. Coinciding with the re-run of the presidential election in Ukraine, the Uzbek vote will stand in stark contrast to the growing pro-democracy movement in Ukraine and be denoted by all too familiar claims of fairness and promoting “democracy.”
Karimov, commenting on the reports of external interference in Ukraine and rivalry between Washington and Moscow, as well as the reasons for President Leonid Kuchma’s reversal of political fortunes, observed: “I think that — in addition to these instances of interference which are of secondary importance — the main reason is people’s discontent. This is the first reason. The second reason is mistakes committed by Mr. Leonid Kuchma . . . his tactical and strategic mistakes,” (Uzbek Radio First Program, December 2). Like other Central Asian leaders schooled in the Soviet models of political manipulation and power, Karimov is keenly following events in Kyiv, while making certain that he avoids the mistakes he evidently attributes to Kuchma.
Karimov has utilized the deployment of U.S. military forces within Uzbekistan and the ensuing strategic partnership with Washington to keep Western countries from applying too much pressure on Tashkent to promote any democratizing initiatives. It is precisely this domestic political dimension that drives his repeated praise for President George W. Bush and the leadership he has shown in the war on terror. Simultaneously, Karimov reserves stern criticism for the EU on the grounds that they have collectively taken a softer approach towards international terrorism and proven less enthusiastic in supporting Washington’s efforts to combat the threat posed by global terrorism. In so doing, he protects the regime against criticism from the EU about Uzbekistan’s human rights record and efforts to further democracy.
Given the absence of such pressure from Moscow, Uzbekistan has pursued a rapprochement with Russia, most notably in signing a strategic partnership in Tashkent on June 16. Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken steps to rush the ratification of the treaty through the Duma, signing an order on December 2 appointing Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Loshchinin as his official representative overseeing ratification of the treaty. Among other issues included in the content of the treaty, it makes provision for greater bilateral military cooperation and joint measures aimed at strengthening counter-terrorism (Itar-Tass, December 2). It reinforces the impetus towards deepening the security relationship between Uzbekistan and Russia, and though its signing predated events in Ukraine, Putin’s fast tracking its ratification may signal Moscow’s determination to counter further Western encroachments within Central Asia.
Karimov is equally aware that Washington continues to regard Uzbekistan as a key partner within Central Asia, particularly in its on-going efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. In this sphere, Karimov has been limited in his options for stepping up practical support. However, sporadic indications of joint cross-border initiatives between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan appear aimed at improving the local security environment and maximizing Uzbekistan’s claims to actively assist in stabilizing Afghanistan, albeit indirectly. Juma Gildy, Chief of the Balkh Border Department in Afghanistan, noted on December 6 that joint checkpoints by police and customs officials are responsible for checking travelers’ documents in the Balkh area (Balkh TV, December 6). Such Uzbek involvement in cross-border security programs are a small but significant element in building wider security in the region, enabling Uzbek officials to argue that Tashkent is facilitating progress in Afghanistan.
In a related development, the Tashkent city court trial of Qobiljon Masirochunov ended on December 2. Originally arrested in Pakistan and handed over to Uzbek authorities for trial, the defendant was found guilty under several Criminal Code articles and sentenced to eleven years in prison. He was allegedly a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), though human rights activists believe he may have gone to Chechnya to retrieve his militant brother and failed, leading to later confusion over his links with the IMU. Human rights activists have also condemned aspects of the trial, including testimony offered by Hamid Asqarov and Bahodir Uzoqov. The activists alleged that the National Security Service (SNB) coached these men to give similar testimonies at similar trials (Muslim Uzbekistan, December 3). Such trials in Uzbekistan remind U.S. planners of the existence of a continued, unquantifiable threat from IMU terrorists, while also serving to illustrate Western concerns over due process in criminal proceedings against individuals.
With opposition groups stifled, opponents of the Karimov regime adequately silenced, and democracy as a movement so effectively quelled by the authorities, parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan have little chance of bringing real change. Karimov has surrounded himself with many layers of “strategic” sources to justify Tashkent’s lack of progress towards democracy. The security card still holds a high value in that process, combined with his efforts to normalize the often-fraught relationship with Russia. While Washington pays only lip service to promoting the growth of genuine opposition within Uzbekistan, concentrating instead on its strategic importance in the region, Karimov will lavish praise on President Bush. But the fear of people power and “velvet” or “orange” revolutions within the former Soviet Union, compels such states to dangerously blur the distinction between international terrorism and the task of defusing domestic political opposition.