Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, speaking during an unscheduled press conference in Tashkent on August 26, revealed key aspects of Uzbekistan’s position on responding to terrorism within its borders and illustrated how the Uzbek leader perceives international support for his attempts to counter the terrorist threat at home. Karimov emphasized Uzbekistan’s growing relations with Russia, praised Germany and Japan, and admonished the EU for not at least lending moral support to Uzbekistan saying, “Do not lecture us. But give us aid.” His sharpest criticism was reserved for what he described as the paradox that Hizb-ut-Tahrir is banned in Germany but running its international headquarters in London (Uzbek Radio First Program, August 26).
Karimov’s views indicate an increasingly complex reliance on outside assistance in Uzbekistan’s counter-terrorist drive. This approach seems clearly justifiable to some extent, since the enemy is apparently international, able to traverse borders, and organize attacks on Uzbek territory, such as those perpetrated this spring in Tashkent and Bukhara, and more recently seen in the suicide bombings in Tashkent on July 30. The U.S. State Department has warned that Uzbekistan’s independence celebrations on August 31 and September 1 may witness further attacks.
Karimov, like much of the regime, links these attacks in nebulous ways to the activities of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in an attempt to show that the authorities are in control and doing something about the threat. Both Russia and Germany have outlawed Hizb-ut-Tahrir in their own countries, and Karimov welcomed these developments. Nonetheless, he fails to appreciate that Germany had to outlaw the organization under its very strict, wide-reaching laws on anti-Semitism. Russia acted for its own political reasons, rather than on any conclusive evidence that the group is actively violent in achieving its bizarre objective of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Central Asia strictly adhering to Sharia law. What Karimov neglects to understand is that without any credible evidence of Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s alleged violent intent, Britain will continue to extend basic freedom of speech to the organization within the UK.
Karimov’s rather curious praise for Japan reflects his desire to court foreign donors offering unconditional aid. According to Karimov Japan recently gave around $147 million with no strings attached. That is precisely the type of aid sought by Tashkent, particularly since the U.S. State Department cut aid to Uzbekistan by $18 million for failing to meet criterion including adequate progress in human rights. The Pentagon followed this critical gesture by offering $21 million in further aid, a move that not only comforts Karimov but also serves to confirm in his own mind the validity of his cause.
Additionally, the Uzbek leader had more accolades for the positive developments within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and its newly opened Regional Anti-terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent. Uzbek enthusiasm for the SCO as an organization that could improve security within Central Asia is partly justified, despite a significant lack of progress on implementing practical measures to date. Karimov downplayed, for instance, the failure of these organizations to help prevent recent instances of terrorism in Uzbekistan.
On a bilateral basis he will look to secure greater cooperation with Russia, in keeping with the recent warming of relations with Moscow. He adds the condition that Russia needs to drop what he described as its “imperial” ambitions, in order to make further progress in security cooperation with Tashkent. Despite these reservations, Karimov confirmed that Russia and Uzbekistan would hold joint anti-terrorist exercises next year in Uzbekistan, bringing their Special Services and Special Forces together in a spirit of cooperation not seen since Tashkent withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty in 1999.
Uzbekistan has faced a dangerous terrorist threat, confirmed by the attacks on its soil this year. These attacks elicited international support for Uzbekistan, as a partner in the war on terror. They also revealed the limits of regional cooperation, as Uzbekistan traded allegations and denials relating to terrorists involved in carrying out the attacks having links with Kazakhstan. Karimov also bemoaned the lack of progress in this area and questioned the political will to step up border security and exchange information.
Unfortunately, by concentrating on the international assistance and support received in meeting these threats, and even exhorting the EU to debate the issue of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the regime has once again displaced the real problem. Its counter-terrorist policies are currently unsuccessful not because of any lack of foreign help, but because some of the heavy handed security policies, almost reactionary in their nature and coupled with lack of progress in democratization, have contributed to the current internal security problems in Uzbekistan. There is no sign that Karimov intends to move away from this approach and implement a more sophisticated, intelligence-led approach to countering terrorism in Uzbekistan.