The Oil and the Glory

What we owe the Uzbeks

Today we’re running a guest column by Russell Zanca, whom I regard as one of the keenest observers out there of Uzbekistan affairs. I met Russell in Tashkent in 1992, when he was a graduate student in Uzbek anthropology, and he went on to live for two years in the Fergana Valley. He is currently ...

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images
MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images

Today we’re running a guest column by Russell Zanca, whom I regard as one of the keenest observers out there of Uzbekistan affairs. I met Russell in Tashkent in 1992, when he was a graduate student in Uzbek anthropology, and he went on to live for two years in the Fergana Valley. He is currently a professor of anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University.

–Steve LeVine

Maybe failure is too harsh a judgment — I am pretty sure that folks I know among the diplomatic corps who have been involved in U.S.-Uzbekistan affairs for the past two decades would disagree. But the reason our ties to Uzbekistan have largely fallen short, let’s say, has everything to do with our inability to develop a reliable strategic partner in Central Asia who shares our values on human and civil rights, the respect for law, and democratic transparency.

It is not only Uzbekistan — none of the five Central Asian states has achieved the democratic order and steady integration into global capitalism that we hoped for when they became independent in the Soviet collapse almost two decades ago. But Uzbekistan is something different — it hasn’t simply become a bit undemocratic, corrupt, nepotistic, and oligarchic. It has become superlatively dictatorial and cruel — it is a vicious state. Its treatment of its citizens is neo-Stalinist to the core.

As evidence, I could cite all of the documented cases of barbaric torture, the estimated 9,000 prisoners of conscience, and the routine brutal beatings of suspects accused of involvement in dissenting or extremist movements and organizations. However, these matters are generally well known to anybody even vaguely familiar with the post-Soviet space. Lest readers consider me an ungracious exaggerator, I’d rather take a step into what I consider sociopathic behavior that keeps citizens off-balance and frightened.

The political leadership under President Islam Karimov routinely assails and punishes the roughly 3 million Uzbeks who, desperate because of a protracted period of official impoverishment of the country, escape to find work abroad each year, mainly in Russia. Karimov publicly rebukes them as lazy and unpatriotic, and law enforcement authorities regularly steal their wages on their return home, and imprison those who supposedly aren’t truthful about either their earnings or the circumstances under which they left. The theft and imprisonment, incidentally, occur as willy-nilly applications of law. I know this because I have interviewed people to whom it has happened. Nevertheless, this practice doesn’t deter Uzbeks, who know they must do something when the vast potential wealth of the country is controlled by powerful cotton, gold, and real estate oligarchs.

Consider two results from an interesting measure that the Karimov government undertook last week. The measure bans all manner of Russian and foreign television and cinema that authorities deem to be violent, pornographic, or damaging to state rule. Believe it or not, the ban extends to Borat, a 2006 film about neighboring Kazakhstan in which the main character, played by Sacha Baron Cohen makes uncharitable remarks about Uzbeks.

Okay, so Uzbekistan is a brutal, totalitarian state. So are many countries, right? Look at loony Turkmenistan or Belarus, to say nothing of crackpot African fiefdoms such as Malawi. This is not the fault or responsibility of the United States. So this then begs the question: Is it the job of American diplomats to make it better, short of gross interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country? To a large degree, the answer, sadly, is no.

Still, there were missed opportunities along the way to advance democratic processes, to say nothing of the development of free market practices. Unfortunately, what has passed for constructive engagement amounts instead to supporting totalitarianism with a robust shrug of the shoulders.

Diplomats are correct that there are many wonderful, astute and forward-thinking Uzbeks in the arts, sciences, law, and even government, who really could make a difference if they only had the chance, and that we must continue to seek ways to engage with them, partner with them, bring them to the U.S., and so on, in order for the country to have a chance for success. Yet we have not been bold and clear enough in pointing out Karimov’s failings, instead falling to jockeying for influence with the Russians, the Chinese, the Koreans and the Japanese. After 9/11, we decided that Uzbekistan was a vital strategic partner both to our war effort in Afghanistan, and in ensuring that Muslim extremism would gain no more footholds in Central Asia.

I argue with the latter determination. Our convenience in using Uzbekistan as a way station for troops, cargo, and materiel has led us to now and then turn a blind eye to the terroristic policies of the Uzbek state, while also enabling the government to dictate the terms and conditions of diplomatic or strategic engagement. In 2005, that led to us to being booted from the Khanabad airbase after daring to raise questions about the Andijan Massacre (actually, the U.S. equivocated in the beginning and rebuked both the government shooters and the civilians, before finally helping to evacuate refugees). Yet, one can reasonably argue that Bush-era policies have coincided with an increase in Uzbekistan’s extremist actors. Rather than any sort of capable and civilized movement or party of political dissent, Uzbekistan has opposing forces of extremism dominating its political landscape.

Nearly two decades of diplomatic engagement have resulted in a firmly entrenched, barbaric state, dangerous relations between Uzbekistan and most of its neighbors (Kyrgyzstan being the best example), a destitute population whose only realistic chance to achieve a living wage is to work abroad, and an increasingly bad perception of the United States as a champion of democracy and human rights in the eyes of Uzbeks.

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