The Oil and the Glory

The Karimov play

We turn back to the dictator’s playbook. As you recall, we’ve identified the two general options in the dictator’s playbook against an uprising — the Shevardnadze play, referring to the decision by Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze to step down in the face of massive 2003 protests in his country; and the Karimov play, referring to the ...

Mahmud Turkia AFP/Getty Images
Mahmud Turkia AFP/Getty Images

We turn back to the dictator’s playbook. As you recall, we’ve identified the two general options in the dictator’s playbook against an uprising — the Shevardnadze play, referring to the decision by Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze to step down in the face of massive 2003 protests in his country; and the Karimov play, referring to the calculus of Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, who in 2005 gunned down hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijan. After weeks of Shevardnadze holding the advantage in the fervor of protests engulfing the Middle East, we see a decided shift in favor of the Karimov play. In Bahrain, Libya and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, autocrats have rejected the example of Tunisia and Egypt (the Shevardnadze play), and are now flouting any obloquy of jailing, attacking or killing protesters in order to keep power.

The shift suggests that, while dictators may have to elevate their game in what had appeared to be a turbulent but politically rigid region, there may be much less immediate change than initially seemed possible.

In Libya, with the United States now backing the establishment of a no-fly zone, the situation could turn around yet again, that is if Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces do not consolidate their rolling triumph before any outside intervention. In the video below, Saif al-Islam (pictured above), the Qaddafi son previously much-heralded in Great Britain, predicts that his father’s forces will capture the rebel stronghold of Benghazi "within 48 hours." If that happens — which at this point would be the betting outcome — this chapter of the Libyan uprising would be over. Given Qaddafi’s remarks in recent weeks, there could be a bloodbath.

The United States is urging Bahrain, meanwhile, to negotiate with Shia protestors, but the stakes at play — the potential disruption of stability in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich neighboring Eastern Province, and the specter of the spread of Iranian influence — has led the King to reject such advice. A 1,000-man Saudi force is now on the ground, suggesting that Saudi King Abdullah wants the line in the sand to be Bahrain, and not his own Eastern Province. The Bahrain king has declared martial law.

In Saudi Arabia itself, there was a peaceful protest on Tuesday in the Eastern Province city of Qatif, but demonstrators haven’t gone violent as yet. Government forces seem to want to avoid direct confrontation, and Abdullah seems intent on buying off dissent.

We have explored the potential for a spread of serious uprisings to the former Soviet Union, and that still seems unlikely. For dictators there, we see little chance of any becoming toast in the short or medium term.

Protests did break out in Azerbaijan last week, but they were immediately smashed, and some 30 protesters were jailed for a few days on misdemeanor charges. Arzu Geybulla posted videos of the protests. I asked Elin Suleymenov, Azerbaijan’s consul general in Los Angeles, for comment on the protests. Suleymenov said that Azerbaijanis have the right to hold public rallies, but that those held last week were not authorized. He said reporting on the protests "tend to overdramatize and exaggerate the situation [and to] quote participants with a clear political agenda against the government, which speaks for the objectivity of their views." He said,

In general, in my view, all of this hype and excitement about planning protests in Azerbaijan is somewhat misplaced and promoted from abroad much more than from inside Azerbaijan. …

A civilized conversation is what Azerbaijan needs, not some externally promoted disruptions to validate someone’s misplaced and exaggerated predictions. … Comparing this to any significant protests in the Middle East and even in the State of Wisconsin would take quite an imagination and a purposeful willingness to exaggerate reality.

In Uzbekistan itself, we have Karimov continuing his use of the same playbook. In October, he sent envoys to Washington in an attempt to get warmer relations — for example, freeing a Voice of America reporter who had been accused of slander. But Karimov, it seems, cannot help but revert to form. This week, he closed down the Tashkent office of Human Rights Watch. According to the NGO, it’s the first time it’s ever been shut down by a government.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Blake underscored last week in congressional testimony that the most important U.S. interest in Uzbekistan, along with the four other Central Asia states, is the country’s cooperation with the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Josh Kucera has reported. (Kucera blogs on the topic today.) As Karimov has suggested, continued U.S. military transit rights through Uzbekistan may depend on not crossing a line as regards his human rights policy.

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