The Oil and the Glory

Has Islam Karimov gone soft?

For some time, people have wrung their hands over compromises the United States is making on its human rights agenda by palling around with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the most brutal of the strongmen in the former Soviet Union, whose family we profiled the other day. The New Yorker‘s Amy Davidson trots out the usual ...

IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/Getty Images
IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/Getty Images

For some time, people have wrung their hands over compromises the United States is making on its human rights agenda by palling around with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the most brutal of the strongmen in the former Soviet Union, whose family we profiled the other day. The New Yorker‘s Amy Davidson trots out the usual complaints: official torture, forced labor in the cotton fields. When one raises such matters with Obama administration officials, the reply is, “Yes, but we are making progress, and ain’t that northern distribution network — the military cargo network passing into neighboring Afghanistan — nice?” Which only makes people wonder all-the-more whether that hallowed road network is American policy in Central Asia, as Josh Kucera reports at the Bug Pit.

Back in September, Chris Chivers of the New York Times flew out to Tennessee to visit Sanjar Umarov, an Uzbek physicist who had got on Karimov’s wrong side by delving into politics, and ended up sentenced to 14 years in prison, drugged, and beaten up. That month, the U.S. embassy in Tashkent had managed to spring Umarov on a humanitarian basis, and fly him to Tennessee, where he already owned a home. I got on the phone with the 54-year-old Umarov and his son, Gulam, yesterday, and he again recounted the travails of the prison system. Both he and his son were effusive in their gratitude to the United States. “He would have died in prison,” the son told me.

Which raises a couple of points. One is that Umarov’s case — as well as that of Voice of America reporter Abdumalid Boboyev, who was charged by the Karimov regime but then freed — does not mean that Karimov has suddenly gone soft. In both cases, the defendant had a strong American connection (Umarov has a green card; his wife is a U.S. citizen, as are a couple of his children), allowing Karimov to keep up his local image for toughness against Uzbeks while making nice with Washington.

Yet it also means that there are more layers to the Uzbek story than just the WikiLeaks cables. Four years after ejecting the United States from the Khanabad military base for the temerity of providing amnesty to victims of the Andijan massacre, Karimov, I am told by people who were speaking with him at the time, had soured yet again on Russia. He was ready to make another in his cyclical coquettish courtships of Washington. Karimov is the great recalibrator.

So what will happen to the northern distribution network when Karimov next recalibrates, and swings predictably back to Moscow? Given his record, that will happen before there is peace in Afghanistan.

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