The Oil and the Glory

Why the U.S. should speak up on Uzbekistan

The last time we heard from Russell Zanca, a Central Asia expert at Northeastern Illinois University, he was reporting on the failures of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Here Zanca suggests where the United States should go from here. — Steve LeVine For some two years, U.S. diplomatic efforts in Uzbekistan have been oriented toward ensuring ...

DENIS SINYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images
DENIS SINYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images

The last time we heard from Russell Zanca, a Central Asia expert at Northeastern Illinois University, he was reporting on the failures of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Here Zanca suggests where the United States should go from here.

— Steve LeVine

For some two years, U.S. diplomatic efforts in Uzbekistan have been oriented toward ensuring that the Uzbeks allow the U.S. military to transport all manner of supplies to Afghanistan safely and cheaply, an alternative to poorly safeguarded routes through Pakistan. As a result, the United States is loath to complain of the Uzbek regime’s continued cruel behavior toward its population — if it does, the risk is that President Islam Karimov, as he did in 2005, asks the United States to leave his country.

If the United States were expelled, would we completely compromise our effectiveness in Afghanistan? Alternative supply routes are few: Turkmenistan has the most to offer in terms of geography and terrain, but the United States has never enjoyed ideal relations with the Turkmen, who make matters difficult with their official policy of “neutrality.” Tajikistan is also impractical — infrastructure such as railroads and roads are undeveloped, its mountains are in the way, and it has too many Russian troops on its soil. With Uzbekistan, the U.S. trades one tyranny for another — liberating the Afghans while leaving the Uzbeks at the mercy of Karimov — but it also gets an excellent road-and-railroad network between Termez and Mazar-i-Sharif, along with friendly relations with the Uzbeks of northern Afghanistan.

Most of us who have worked in and observed Uzbekistan for the past 20 years seriously doubt that the Karimov regime will ever change, not in the face of any diplomatic pressure, nor economic or military inducement. Cutting ties to Uzbekistan militarily, economically, or diplomatically wouldn’t speed the regime’s demise. Therefore, Washington need not risk losing its military access to Uzbekistan as a transit route to Afghanistan. Instead, the point for the United States is to prepare for change that will eventually come once Karimov goes, and establish a record of public support for a freer Uzbekistan. Otherwise, Washington may suffer the same trouble that it has in Kyrgyzstan, where locals with long memories of the U.S. diplomatic record are openly hostile to the United States. Washington should relentlessly complain about human rights violations, the lack of political and confessional freedoms, and the strangling of freer property sales and investments, to say nothing of free enterprise as a whole.

I lived in the Fergana Valley for a year and a half in the early 1990s, and have visited there a dozen or so times since, most recently this past September. I tend to lull myself into thinking that life might be getting just a little better for ordinary people. During my past trip, I had the chance to experience the country through the eyes of first-time American visitors, who were on a tour of textile-making facilities. Many of these astute and experienced people knew the western analyses of Uzbekistan, yet couldn’t help but ask if the country wasn’t actually prosperous and becoming more internationally integrated. After all, they got to walk among the well-dressed and seemingly well-fed population, shopped in bustling markets and boutiques, ate terrific meals in swank restaurants and hotels, and observed massive building projects, including highway construction and the refurbishment of a huge refinery outside of Bukhara. Nevertheless, it was my duty to offer up a reality check.

Once we got a chance to talk to merchants, shop owners and hotel workers, my companions started understanding that the surface deceives. I also told them that it would be monumentally un-Uzbek to act unhappy or complain about socio-economic straits right off the bat when encountering foreigners; Uzbeks are the antithesis of socio-Slavic doom one sees in Russia. Still, the vibrancy and energy that infuse Uzbekistan’s zeal for commerce has to make us wonder what the country could be like if people were a little freer. That is the basis for hope under the post-Karimov period.

My hunch is that in these last eighteen years, whenever U.S. policymakers were confronted with the gruesome reality, they reasoned that it’s got to get better, and that at least the Uzbeks say they like democracy. That idea gets reinforced when you travel from Tashkent to Ferghana or Urgench, and see signboards and advertisements supporting freedom, independence and capitalism. However, when you live among the Uzbeks themselves, especially the 60 percent who farm, you soon realize that signboards, along with state-controlled television and radio, are an alternate universe that doesn’t quite jibe with the everyman’s day where life is forever commanded.

Ultimately, the Uzbeks must control their own fate — regime change engineered from the outside is not an answer. But a blast of subversive media is a good idea. U.S. support for alternative media would sow existing fertile ground among human rights advocates, journalists and finance industry hands, among whom there is a constant fear of internal isolation and state bullying. Karimov will notice, and it will make him unhappy. But it may not fatally violate his notions of civility. The U.S. may manage to keep its Afghan route, while also investing for the future.

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