The United States has slashed foreign aid to Uzbekistan by $18 million, according to a July 13 announcement by the State Department. The move was a calculated rebuttal to the Karimov regime over its lack of progress in human rights and democratic reforms. However, Tashkent’s official reaction has largely been silence; the declaration passed almost unnoticed in the Uzbek media and elicited only mooted comment from state officials. Within the regime, it appears that while some political leaders are hopeful of limiting the damage to U.S.-Uzbekistan bilateral relations, others advocate rapprochement with Russia. Tashkent and Moscow recently concluded a strategic partnership, and Uzbekistan is placing a growing emphasis on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as potential source of stable, long term economic and security cooperation.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones held talks in Tashkent with President Islam Karimov and later with Foreign Minister Sodiq Safaev during a two-day visit July 14-15. In its coverage of the visit, Uzbek television made no mention of the cut in aid, concentrating instead on the nature of shared strategic concerns and Uzbekistan’s intention to fulfill its obligations within the strategic partnership with the United States (Uzbek TV First Channel, July 14). Of course, the silence in the Uzbek media on this sensitive subject, which aroused speculation in the Russian press as to whether the decision would in fact even be reported in Uzbekistan, is hardly surprising, given Karimov’s tight control. But it does supply some insight, however sparse, into how the move was greeted.
Tashkent received the news of the American reduction in financial aid with little show of opposition or public outrage, and equally little dissent in the press. Ilkom Zakirov, spokesman for Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry, laconically noted that the United States had a long and well developed democracy, while Uzbekistan was still in the early stages of democratic reform. He was keen to emphasize the belief that the decision would not impair bilateral relations, noting the continuance of high-level talks based on the 2002 U.S.-Uzbekistan “strategic partnership” (Interfax, July 14).
After the terrorist attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara in late March and early April, Tashkent missed an opportunity to solidify its security partnerships with Western states by involving them in the investigation that followed. Instead, the regime became more introspective, less open to criticism, and crucially decided to ban the George Soros Open Society Institute from operating in the country. The State Department decision cited the deaths of detainees in custody and failure to register opposition parties, but the Soros ban was also an important factor.
Public admonishment from Washington did not trigger contrition on Karimov’s part, nor did it evoke a rash public denunciation of the move. On the contrary, the official response was considered and understated, calling the decision “unfortunate.” This restrained response is explained by the regime’s awareness of the ongoing strategic significance of the country in the war on terror, with U.S. military personnel based at Karshi-Khanabad, and the role that Uzbekistan plays in providing access to Afghanistan. Could the U.S. censure over Uzbek human rights abuses and lack of democratic reform result in U.S. forces withdrawing from the country? Noting the speed at which both sides rushed to play up the strategic partnership, it seems that neither considers such sanctions likely. Human rights groups in Uzbekistan also recognize that they need a continued U.S. presence within the country, not least to supply a lifeline to their cause, which had little international attention before 9/11.
Equally, American policymakers must keep a watchful eye on Russian policy towards Uzbekistan, which pays little attention to either its human rights record or attempts to link its bilateral relationship with democratization. In that spirit the Russian Security Council has praised Uzbekistan for serious successes in economic, political, and military cooperation with Russia (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 21). Too much pressure, coupled with unrealistic expectations of rapid progress in these areas, could result in the regime simply seeking solace through reaffirming its relationship with Moscow. Russia, after all, remains Uzbekistan’s main economic partner as evidenced by the interests of Gazprom, Lukoil, and other Russian companies.
Karimov’s miscalculation in understanding the United States perhaps relates to the nature of the aid. He may not have fully appreciated that U.S. law requires human rights certification from the secretary of state before foreign aid can be disbursed. Unlike monies granted through the Cooperative Threat Reduction Treaty, which can be subject to a Presidential waiver, as President George W. Bush chose to exercise in the national interest in late 2003, the State Department’s hand was effectively forced by the complacency of the regime in Tashkent.
Yet, given the comparatively recent deployment of U.S. forces into Central Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, it is the Americans who are the new kids on the bloc in Uzbekistan — not the Uzbeks and certainly not the Russians. The full impact of the U.S. decision will only emerge through time, but the most likely outcome is a redefined partnership with the United States, and the risk will be closer Uzbek integration with Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.