America’s Shady Ally Against Terror

When the Soviet Union fell apart, most of its provincial Communist dictators did not. Instead, they jumped to join those who had been, moments before, their «nationalist enemies» — and adopted nationalist slogans as their own.
These former first secretaries of their regional Communist parties became presidents and set about denigrating their once dear party. I watched this happen in Uzbekistan with Islam Karimov, who is still, remarkably, the Uzbek president, and will be visiting Washington this week. He just secured an extra two years on his term — it will now stretch to 2007. Initially, the Western powers must have been a bit astonished by the transformation of first secretaries into presidents. But they supported these «newly independent states,» as they were called, and the dictators who ruled in them. Twelve years have passed, but the undemocratic, human-rights-abusing, one-party states have not changed much at all, and neither has Western support for them. Something has always happened — worries over the security of ex-Soviet nuclear materials, a desire to avoid antagonizing Russia, China or another power — that somehow justifies this situation. Western politicians have always had convenient excuses for supporting these governments. The dictators of the independent states have been lucky. Their last case of luck came on Sept. 11. On that day, in
an instant, something happened that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan had been unable to accomplish in over a decade. Just 15 days before this tragedy, Mr. Karimov had promised that he would grant an amnesty that would have released thousands of citizens who had been convicted of various crimes. Among those eligible were at least 1,000 political prisoners, promised amnesty in exchange for repentance. This was an effort by Mr. Karimov to win the good will of the United States, which otherwise tended to issue reports condemning his government’s repression. America did not appear to notice this gesture of mercy.

But by late September such promises of freedom became unnecessary. The superpower had arrived in Tashkent with good will and much else. This last case of luck was so reat that Mr. Karimov, being singled out by the United States as an ally in the war against terrorism, began to feel that he was the leader not only of Uzbekistan but of all Central Asia. Today the Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders look at him with envy.

The Russian political elite is watching the Uzbek leader with alarm, warning Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, that Mr. Karimov, always somewhat querulous in his dealings with Moscow, is drifting toward a pro-American stance. perhaps even the Americans think this is true. But in fact, the opposite is occurring. Uzbekistan is drifting toward an anti-American stance, if one understands»American» as implying democracy, human rights and the struggle against state-sponsored terror.

After Sept. 11, Mr. Karimov reversed his amnesty for some political prisoners who had originally been scheduled for release. (About 800 members of a Muslim organization, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, were freed, only to be put under constant surveillance. Secular dissidents remain in prison.) He understood that the political impetus for amnesty had diminished greatly. America’s warm relations with Karimov have, in a way, increased repression in Uzbekistan, there being no need now to conform to international human rights standards.

The authorities in Uzbekistan have essentially untied the militia’s hands. If militiamen kill citizens, they can simply fill out documents claiming the victim was a terrorist, or even a follower of Osama bin Laden. No civilian has any ability to question this characterization.

As for Uzbekistan’s efforts on the democracy front, Mr. Karimov held a referendum, in 1995, to avoid an election. According to official results 99.8 percent of voters endorsed this nonelection idea wholeheartedly. Mr. Karimov on re-election in 2000 with a 92 percent favorable vote. (Even his leading opponent voted for him, and said so.) Now he has secured by referendum an extra two years after his term ends in 2005, just for asking. The positive vote was 91.8 percent. The State Department wisely decided not to monitor this last referendum, because the mere act of monitoring might confer on it some legitimacy.

More than once, America has had to tear down what it has helped create. That was recently the case, to a degree, in Afghanistan — America helped sustain a Muslim insurgency, and now has crushed a Muslim insurgency, the Taliban, that turned into a government. It may prove to be the case in Uzbekistan, which has been raised by its antiterror alliance with America into the pre-eminent Central Asian power.

Uzbekistan is located in the very center of a highly explosive and densely populated region where almost 60 million people live, more than a third of them in Uzbekistan itself. The Karimov government’s example of repression is likely to be infectious in a neighborhood of states that have little tradition of democracy or human rights. Mr. Karimov shows them that it is possible to gain prestige and money and extend your rule on a whim — and still gain American support in the post-terrorism world.

March 11, 2002

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