Uzbekistan: Democratization or Business as Usual?

Uzbekistan: Democratization or Business as Usual?

Shortly before being expelled from Uzbekistan, I visited the government-run AIDS center in Termez, on the border with Afghanistan. Virtually everything of value in the center's decrepit Soviet-era office bore the insignia of USAID. The Eurasia Foundation also with USAID funding had tried to make a grant to the center so it could introduce counseling services for drug users and help them quit before they became infected with AIDS.

The center never received the grant, because like dozens of other Uzbek institutions working to prevent the spread of AIDS, develop small businesses, provide after-school programs for children and youth, or in other ways improve people's lives in the economically stagnant Central Asian nation, it fell victim to the government's heavy-handed condemnation of NGOs, both local and international, as a fifth column in a neo-imperial Western plot.

Last month, the United States helped secure sixty-three kilograms of highly enriched uranium in Uzbekistan. And for years, the U.S. has worked to improve the health and education of the Uzbek population while supporting the development of private enterprise and civil society in the belief that both are crucial to increasing the effectiveness of foreign aid and improving the lives of Uzbeks.

Yet president Islam Karimov and the official Uzbek press have stated repeatedly that the United States and its allies are targeting Uzbekistan for a "color revolution," and that support for local nonprofit organizations, independent media outlets, and student exchanges in short, anything the government cannot control are really a non-military means to effect regime change. In response, the Uzbek government has expelled several U.S. organizations (including the Peace Corps), shut down hundreds of local nonprofits (though no one other than the Uzbek government knows the exact number), and virtually eliminated independent media. At the same time, it has warmed to Russia and China as its new security guarantors, raising the disturbing possibility of anti-democracy as a unifying ideology in the region.

The U.S. government response to Karimov's actions has been decidedly mixed. In 2004, Congress forced the State Department to suspend several million in assistance to the Uzbek government. Shortly thereafter, Gen. Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the country and stated publicly that the congressional requirement was "shortsighted" a transparent bid to placate Karimov in exchange for his allowing U.S. forces to use the Karshi-Khanabad, or K2, airbase. The Pentagon was ultimately unsuccessful, losing the base in 2005, but opinion within the administration about whether to court or condemn Karimov remains divided.

Given the lack of policy coordination inside the U.S. government, it's no surprise the international community has done little better. A year ago in Andijan, armed men stormed a jail to free a group of businessmen accused of "extremism." This was followed by a public protest and heavy gunfire. The government says 187 people died as a result of firefights between the gunmen and government troops. Others say several times that number died or were killed, mainly as a result of troops firing indiscriminately on protestors.

After the government refused calls for an independent investigation, the European Union invoked limited sanctions, including a visa ban on twelve Uzbek government officials. At the top of the list was Zokirjon Almatov, the head of the ministry overseeing the government's security forces. Yet days before the list was published, Germany admitted Almatov for medical treatment. Like its NATO ally the United States, Germany had sent troops to Uzbekistan as part of the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan. Yet the Germans somehow managed to keep their troops in Uzbekistan even after U.S. troops were expelled, raising the question of whether their admission of Almatov was a quid pro quo for the continued use of Uzbek bases.

More recently, the World Bank announced it was suspending loans to Uzbekistan, on the grounds that the money would not be used effectively. Just days later, the Asian Development Bank, in which the United States and Japan are the largest shareholders, announced $300 million in loans to the Uzbek government, an amount far larger than the World Bank's suspended loan portfolio.

Even among United Nations agencies, coordination can be elusive. The Uzbek government recently took the step of kicking out the UN High Commission on Refugees, in retaliation for its role in resettling Uzbeks fleeing the violence last May in Andijan. Yet the UN Development Program, a strong supporter of the Uzbek government, remains a welcome guest in the country.

Granted, coordination among international agencies is far easier said than done. It is further complicated when competing versions of reality are propagated by other powers in the region, as when Russia and China give a free pass to Karimov on the Andijan incident or the country's latest elections, in which independent political parties were banned. Nor is it made easier by Karimov's willingness to play countries off against each other. For the first ten years of Uzbekistan's independence, Karimov favored the United States at the expense of Russia, even as other post-Soviet countries were encouraging ties with both. But after the recent color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, he has completely reversed that policy.

For donors, Karimov's policies can only be a source of frustration. Should donors choose to be more forward-leaning in promoting democracy, they may find a lack of reliable aid recipients on the ground, and the ones they do find will be placed at risk relative to their project's provocativeness. Yet if donors choose less controversial projects, as in health and education, they still face two problems. First, the government will remain suspicious of their motives. I know of several projects including a greenhouse built to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to pregnant women which have been starved of funds by the government. Second, as the World Bank's decision reflects, any foreign assistance will be inadequate unless the Karimov government's failed economic policies and resistance to change are addressed.

The entire world community has, or should have, an interest in Uzbekistan, which has the potential to contribute to regional instability if serious internal problems like AIDS, drug trafficking, and terrorism are not addressed. Opinions differ as to whether economic and social development or a strongman's iron hand offer the better approach to solving those problems. Yet the debate has hardly begun. As the United States attempts to set its own policy toward Uzbekistan, it should make international coordination a cornerstone of that policy. Failure to do so will be seen for what it is: An admission that the world community is unwilling or unable to do anything about the slow, sad decline of Central Asia's most populous country.

Jeff Erlich is the Eurasia Foundation's regional director forTajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In March, he was expelled from Uzbekistan and the foundation's representative office closed under threat of criminal prosecution of local staff.


May 31, 2017