On January 4 the Rand Corporation released a report on U.S. security assistance to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2005. The report concluded that, despite intense efforts, Washington’s assistance had no discernable effect on improving Uzbekistan’s performance in the areas of human rights, democratization, and transparency. Programs designed to help develop Uzbekistan’s counter-terrorism capabilities may have even been counterproductive, according to the report. “U.S. counter-terrorism assistance to Uzbek internal security forces must be questioned, as some Uzbek counter-terrorism units are also structures that harass and persecute political opponents of the regime,” said the report. Those within the Karimov government seeking ways to reactivate Washington’s military aid have undoubtedly suffered a serious setback.
Uzbekistan, meanwhile, enjoys growing links with China and a much enhanced security relationship with Russia. On January 3 a delegation from the Public Security Department of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region held meetings with senior officials in the Uzbek Interior Ministry. The Chinese security officials were briefed on the activities of the various Uzbek interior bodies, and talks concentrated on pursuing joint measures against terrorism, organized crime, and combating religious extremism. The delegation also visited the Uzbek Interior Ministry’s academy, as well as Tashkent’s police directorate and familiarized themselves with their working methods. Cooperation between Uzbekistan’s security agencies and their Xinjiang counterparts has been developing rapidly and in line with bilateral agreements (Na Postu, January 3).
Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised openly what he regards as Uzbekistan’s return to the Russian fold. In his New Year’s message to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Putin referred to 2006 as the year in which Uzbekistan’s relations with Russia were renewed and deepened, based on the strong foundation of a strategic partnership and alliance. Putin applauded Uzbekistan’s decision to join the Eurasian Economic Community and to rejoin the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Reactivating the Moscow-Tashkent axis has protected Karimov’s political interests in the face of what his supporters believe to be harsh Western criticism of his regime. This realignment has made more difficult the seemingly arduous task of Western engagement with Tashkent, restricted as these prospects appear based on the ongoing EU sanctions on Uzbekistan (UzReport, December 28).
On December 22 Uzbek political commentator Ibrahim Normatov highlighted Uzbekistan’s role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): “It is one thing to be a member of an international organization and another thing to participate with serious suggestions and initiatives. Taking part in the activities of the SCO, Uzbekistan has always attracted attention with its suggestions and initiatives,” he explained. However, he made clear that Uzbekistan’s relationship with Russia had certainly improved during 2006, particularly in achieving practical results, but he suggested this was entirely consistent with Tashkent’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy. Throughout Normatov’s article in Xalq Sozi newspaper, he quoted Karimov and emphasized that journalists in Uzbekistan had presented foreign policy issues “correctly.” In fact Normatov portrayed Karimov’s foreign policy in 2006 as “standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the world” (Xalq Sozi, December 22).
Normatov’s interest in the work of Uzbek journalists includes attempting to encourage a pro-active approach in confronting hostile Western media coverage of events in Uzbekistan. “In particular, we absolutely should not be indifferent to made-up stories and various slanders by some foreign commentators, who misinterpret events taking place in our country and our foreign policy in general,” he suggested (Hurriyat, December 27).
Uzbekistan’s journalists are quickly seizing on opportunities to counter Western criticism of the slowness of progress toward democracy. Uzbek officials have been actively publicizing a draft law proposing amendments to the Uzbek constitution in order to increase the role played by political parties in democratizing society.
On January 2 UzReport cited Fausto Correia, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament (MEP), suggesting that Karimov’s draft legislation was both well balanced and complied with democratic standards. “Having received the draft law, which was sent to European Parliament members, I would like to welcome the initiative for its public discussion. It will make it possible to conduct a fruitful exchange of opinion and will assist in defining the best field for taking further actions,” commented Correia.
Given Uzbekistan’s diplomatic problems with the United Kingdom, particular significance was attached to reported remarks by Struan Stevenson, a UK MEP. Not only did Stevenson welcome the draft law, but also he allegedly linked Uzbekistan firmly with democracy, saying that on gaining independence the regime had declared the aim of bringing democracy to the country. Moreover, he pointed out that Tashkent had been “constantly taking measures to demonstrate to the world community and its people that it adheres to democratic principles” (UzReport, January 2).
Tashkent is using its draft legislation on the democratic theme as a mechanism to portray Karimov’s regime as reformist and forward-looking. It hopes for warmer relations with the West, mainly through the German presidency of the EU. However deep its relations with Moscow have become, Tashkent is positioning itself to rekindle Western cooperation efforts. Karimov may want to exploit reform-led Western interests in Central Asia as a result of the death of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and uncertainty over Turkmenistan’s political future.