Uzbekistan and the Great Powers: courting instability

The "heart" of Central Asia -- as its president, Islam Karimov, calls it -- Uzbekistan has become an object of interest and contention for world and regional power centers due to its geostrategic significance. The major players are the United States, Russia and China, all of which covet access to its abundant energy and mineral resources, and view it as an essential element in their designs for dominant influence in the region.

Bordering Kazakhstan on the north and west, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan on the south, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on the east, Uzbekistan is a post-Soviet state that has been ruled by Karimov since 1990, shortly before it declared independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart. Since then, Karimov has used the country's strategic importance to establish a dictatorship and to resist successfully domestic and foreign pressures for democratic and market reforms. Uzbekistan has been and continues to be perceived as too great a prize for interested powers to risk destabilizing Karimov's regime, which, through its repressive practices, has awakened widespread public discontent and armed opposition, some of which subscribes to Islamic revolution.

Aware of the Karimov regime's instability, interested powers have not seen any better alternative to it. The domestic democratic and secular opposition, which is banned from participating in elections and state institutions, is divided and fractious; the Islamists are unacceptable to the interested powers; and Karimov has been willing to work with all sides, favoring one or the other according to his calculations of which tilt will best secure his continued rule for the moment.

With 26.5 million people, Uzbekistan has the largest population among Central Asian states and the strongest military. The country is the second largest cotton exporter in the world and is also a major exporter of gold and oil. Its largest export partners are Russia and China, and its largest import partners are Russia and the U.S. The country's economy remains dominated by state controls, which has caused foreign investment to lag, and by the crony capitalism that has become familiar in the successor states of the Soviet Union.

The relative stagnation of Uzbekistan's economy has led to high rates of unemployment, particularly among youth, creating the conditions for armed opposition. Karimov's policy of import substitution and currency controls has awakened dissent among the trading class. As a result of cronyism, the gap between the wealthy and privileged few, and the majority of poor (60 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day) has widened since independence.

Unlike his counterpart in Turkmenistan, President Saparmurat Niyazov -- another dictator from the Soviet era -- Karimov has not been able to alleviate immiseration by providing free energy and subsidized travel to the population. He holds his power uneasily and has responded to threats to it by tightening repression rather than by attempting to compromise with disaffected groups or to execute reforms. Karimov's often repeated maxim for Uzbekistan's development is "Never destroy the old house unless you build a new one." In practice, that has meant keeping the old Soviet structure and trying to patch it up as it falls apart, with the addition of a few new outbuildings.

The Karimov Regime's Inherent Instability

Governing a country with several regional centers, Karimov gains his support from an alliance of dispersed political elites that profit from the state and crony economy, and are jealous of their spheres of influence. Called "clans" in local parlance, those elites are united only in their respective self interest and have no unified policy. They have found it expedient to back Karimov and he has used their coalition of convenience to perform the role of arbiter and to centralize his power. Yet the clans do not always agree and do not have great personal loyalty to Karimov, who performs a balancing act to keep the political system coordinated.

In contrast to Niyazov, who managed Turkmenistan's transition from Communist ideology by formulating an ultra-nationalist ideology and engendering a cult of personality, Karimov functions in an ideological void. Perceiving the greatest threat to his power coming from Islamism, he has attempted to exert control over religion by permitting only state-licensed Muslim clerics, who preach moderate and regime-friendly Islam, to practice, and repressing those who do not. Analysts agree that Karimov's policies have aroused support for radical Islamism among Uzbekistan's 70 percent Sunni Muslim ethnic Uzbek population. Karimov has not made fine distinctions among religious tendencies, suppressing even peaceful forms of Islam that do not accord with state criteria, which has increased disaffection with his regime.

Armed opposition to Karimov's regime began in earnest in late March and early April, 2004, when a series of bombs went off in Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent and the city of Bokhara, killing 47 people. Over the five days of unrest, as security forces strove to repress the violence, the perpetrators remained a mystery.

Karimov blamed Islamic revolutionaries, specifically Hizbi Tahrir -- a transnational group originating in Jordan that envisions a caliphate spanning Central Asia. Before the World Trade Center bombings on September 11, 2001, Uzbekistan had experienced Islamic insurgency in the form of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (I.M.U.), an al-Qaeda-linked group. During the U.S.-led war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the I.M.U. joined their allies and most of their fighters were thought to have been killed or captured. Karimov was reluctant to attribute responsibility for the 2004 attacks to the I.M.U., because he had stated that they had been eliminated as a threat.

Western analysts and the excluded opposition parties did not accept Karimov's line, arguing that whether or not the perpetrators had links to Islamism, Uzbekistan's economic conditions and the repressive tactics of the Karimov regime had awakened resentment far beyond the sector of the country's population sympathetic to Islamic revolution. They believed that the scope and coordination of the operations were beyond Hizbi Tahrir's capabilities and could only have been undertaken with domestic support and participation.

In the wake of the bombings, Karimov's security forces imposed a crackdown, rounding up and arresting suspects, and eventually putting 15 of them on trial on July 28. On July 30, suicide bombers struck the U.S. and Israeli embassies, and the prosecutor general's office in Tashkent, killing themselves and two other people. The I.M.U. claimed responsibility.

After the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Karimov became one of the strongest and most vocal supporters of Washington's "war on terrorism." He has let the U.S. establish its largest military base in Central Asia, housing 1,000 troops, and has cooperated with the N.A.T.O. stabilization force in Afghanistan. At the same time, he has used the "war on terrorism" as a cover for his repression of all opposition, spreading the definition of "terror" so broadly that it includes all forms of non-official Islam, arousing the very resentment that leads to increased support of the revolutionaries. With the 2004 bombings, Karimov now faces a genuine problem of armed opposition, an increasingly disaffected population, and a temptation to intensify repression.

Karimov's tactics of maintaining his rule and the dominance of the state-related "clan" networks has included rigid press controls, prison killings and torture, a captive judiciary, police intimidation, travel restrictions, import controls, suppression of non-governmental organizations and the exclusion of all peaceful opposition parties from the ballot.

As Karimov has tightened repression, domestic opposition unrelated to Islamism has surfaced. Through the autumn of 2004, civil unrest bubbled up in Uzbekistan's bazaars when traders resisted efforts by the police to enforce restrictions on imports. Traders fought police and in one incident on November 1, in the Silk Road city Kokand, two police cars were torched. There have also been demonstrations against social conditions, including one on December 23 when a group of sight-impaired women protested the conditions of the hostel in which they live, which has no water and central heating. In a December 25 demonstration, teachers protested the arrest of their school director on charges of abuse of power; they claimed that the director was arrested because he had refused to send his students to work on cotton plantations as "voluntary" unpaid laborers.

Despite his repressive tactics, or perhaps because of them, Karimov seems to be unable to cap dissent and disorder. According to analyst David Lewis of the International Crisis Group, "The government's still in control -- there's just the sense that they're not sure how to react, the sense of political instability has risen."

Great Power Competition

As the Karimov regime faces growing civil unrest and loss of authority, and seeks to right itself, interested powers continue to jockey for influence over it. The U.S., Russia and China, as military and economic powers, have strategic and economic interests in Uzbekistan, and Japan has economic interests there. During 2004, the balance of power tilted against the U.S., as Karimov cultivated stronger ties with the other players, partly due to Washington's cancellation of foreign aid to Tashkent on the basis of human rights violations and, more fundamentally, because U.S. investment had not come up to expectations.

After Tashkent's embrace of the "war on terrorism" in 2001, it appeared that Washington would become the strongest outside influence in Central Asia. Since then, Moscow has striven to regain its foothold in the region, and Beijing and Tokyo have moved to establish footholds there too. Washington and Moscow have divided interests in Uzbekistan, which bring them into collaboration and conflict, whereas Japan and China have coherent and mutually conflicting interests.

On July 1, 2004, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, told Congress that "it is necessary to further boost and strengthen U.S.-Uzbek bilateral relations" because of Uzbekistan's strategic importance in maintaining regional security. Nonetheless, on July 14, Washington canceled $18 million in non-military aid to Tashkent because Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to approve the Karimov regime's human rights record.

The aid freeze was a signal to Tashkent of Washington's displeasure at the failure of Karimov to achieve stability through its repressive tactics. It did not affect military cooperation and, on October 20, N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced that Tashkent's human rights violations would not impede its relations with the organization, and that he expected N.A.T.O. to sign a cooperation agreement with Tashkent in the near future.

Washington's primary security interests in Uzbekistan, which concern the stabilization of Afghanistan, are not likely to be affected by any adverse response of Karimov to the aid freeze. The U.S. will keep its base and Karimov will be eager to accept Washington's help in beefing up his armed forces. However, Washington's overall power is likely to be diminished, especially in the geoeconomic sphere.

The "great game" in Uzbekistan concerns the eventual destination of the country's energy reserves. Washington wants Uzbekistan's oil and gas to flow to Japan rather than to China, and has reportedly worked behind the scenes in Moscow to block a gas pipeline to China and to push for infrastructure in Russia. A Russo-American accord on the energy issue is checked by Moscow's strategic interest in restoring influence in Uzbekistan at the expense of Washington, which has moved Moscow closer to Beijing.

At the June 30 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.) in Tashkent, Moscow firmed up a strategic partnership agreement with the Karimov regime that includes joint military exercises, and Beijing granted Tashkent a $1.5 billion aid package -- the largest that it has ever disbursed to a country. The S.C.O., which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is an effort by Moscow and Beijing to counter Washington's influence in Central Asia, and to build an alliance that creates a "transcontinental bridge" between the European Union and Southeast Asia, excluding U.S. influence.

At the same time that Moscow and Beijing have attempted to draw Tashkent more firmly into the S.C.O. orbit, Tokyo has continued to court the Karimov regime, unconcerned with its human rights violations, obstacles to economic reform and suppression of domestic opposition. On August 21, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi visited Tashkent with a preferential credit of $150 million, adding to the $1.8 billion of aid and investment that Tokyo has given Uzbekistan over the last several years. In a press conference on August 26, Karimov singled out Japan as a "fair country" that deserves a seat on the U.N. Security Council more than France does.

The increased activity of Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo in Uzbekistan signals a turn toward more immediate regional power centers by Tashkent and away from Washington and the E.U. In the months before the U.S. aid freeze, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development had suspended loans for most of its projects in Uzbekistan, due to the absence of economic reform and democratization. It appears that the Euro-American alliance considers Karimov to be a bad investment and is willing to concede influence over his regime as long as its security interests are met regarding Afghanistan.

How the issue of energy distribution will be resolved remains to be seen. Washington will continue to appeal to Moscow's economic interests in order to try to block energy exports to China; Beijing will continue to woo Tashkent with aid and investment, and seek ultimately to bring Russia into its sphere of economic influence; and Tokyo will pursue its efforts to compete with Beijing on Uzbekistan's economic front.

Under more favorable domestic political conditions, Karimov's position would be strengthened by the courtship of emerging regional power centers. As it stands, the Euro-American alliance seems to be betting that eventually its inherent instability will bring Tashkent's crony and statist regime down, offering the opportunity for a reassertion of Western influence. China, Russia and Japan are placing their wagers on the Tashkent regime, hoping to draw Uzbekistan into their orbits firmly enough to secure their interests even with a successor regime.

Western analysts and Uzbekistan's democratic opposition speculate that Karimov fears a Georgian-style Rose Revolution or a Ukrainian-style Orange Revolution more than it does Islamic revolutionaries. At present, domestic dissent has not reached a level at which mass direct action against the regime seems likely, but dissent is building and the Islamists have reactivated their armed struggle.

From a geostrategic perspective, Uzbekistan is one of the most unpredictable and problematic areas of great power conflict in the world; it bears close watching by those concerned with the future configuration of world politics. Recent developments point to a confirmation of the drift toward multipolarity, but that could change if the current regime in Tashkent loses its hold on power.

Conclusion: Parliamentary Elections

Faithful to his strategy of "reforming" Uzbekistan's political system through "evolution" rather than "revolution," Karimov engineered elections on December 26 for a new bicameral parliament that he billed as a move to decentralize and institutionalize state power.

The previous parliament had a single chamber that was elected by local bodies; the new one has a directly elected lower house that is charged with legislation and an indirectly elected and partially appointed upper house that can block the projects of the lower house, but cannot initiate legislation itself. According to Karimov, the new parliament marks a "devolution of power"; he will give up his post as chairman of the cabinet of ministers while retaining the presidency, and will no longer have the right to sign cabinet resolutions, although he will still issue decrees.

The election demonstrated Karimov's gradualism; although the new parliament refurbishes the "old house" of Communism, it leaves the latter standing. The five parties participating in the election all pledged their loyalty to Karimov and, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, campaigned on their support for him. In contrast, the four parties opposed to Karimov, which had filed for places on the ballot, were banned from participation on the basis of "technical violations."

The Central Election Commission claimed that 85 percent of eligible voters participated in the elections; the international press reported a light turnout, along with instances of "proxy voting," in which family members came to the polls and cast ballots for their kin.

As would be expected, the democratic opposition criticized the elections as illegitimate. Otanazar Oripov, leader of the Erk Democratic Party, summed up the opposition's stance: "The event called 'elections' were not elections: there was no choice, no competition and no opposition." Abdurahim Polat, head of the Birlik Party, was blunter, calling the elections "clowning and buffoonery."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (O.S.C.E.), which sent a nominal team of 21 election monitors, echoed the opposition in more diplomatic language. Lubomir Kopaj, who headed the "observation mission," concluded: "Regrettably, the implementation of the election legislation by the authorities failed to ensure a pluralistic, competitive and transparent election." Focusing on the electoral process itself, rather than the prior exclusion of the opposition, the Commonwealth of Independent States, which had sent a full team of monitors, deemed the elections to be "legitimate, free and transparent."

In a street interview with journalists after he had voted, Karimov responded to criticism of the elections by accusing the O.S.C.E. of cultural imperialism: "I accept with understanding constructive criticism from the O.S.C.E. and observers currently monitoring the elections. But do you not agree with me in saying that a body attempting to artificially create an opposition similar to itself in Uzbekistan is no democracy either?" Karimov then moved on to discredit the opposition, remarking that the Birlik Party "has no practical backing" in the country and that members of the Erk Party had supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and had "fought against Uzbekistan."

Reaffirming his gradualist approach, Karimov told his critics that they should "look for opposition from among young people" and even "create this opposition" from "young people who have studied in America and Europe;" but that they should not "create opposition from those who are rejected." Reform will come, according to Karimov, through generational change; for the present, Uzbekistan will have to make do with the "old house."

As the parliamentary elections played out, Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified the Moscow-Tashkent strategic partnership agreement, and Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev pledged that Tashkent will continue to cooperate with Washington in the "war on terrorism." On December 28, newspapers and news services around the world reported that Uzbekistan is one of the recipients of suspected terrorists from the custody of U.S. security agencies – a process of "rendition" of detainees to cooperating countries that apply torture.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

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Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov