‘Partner’ of the U.S.?
September 23, 2016
The CNN.com headline read, “US loses partner in terror war with death of Uzbekistan’s leader.”
But the United States should mark the recent death of Islam Karimov, the corrupt president of Uzbekistan, not as a day of mourning but as a day of hope — faint though a realistic hope may be — that the repressitarian Central Asian county will inch toward democracy and respect for human rights.
And regardless of who wins the presidency, the new administration should give deep thought to how we choose “partners” as allies, as well as how we treat allies that truly are partners.
Uzbekistan first, then foreign relations on a broader scale.
Sure, Karimov — the communist leader of Uzbekistan in Soviet times and the country’s president since independence in 1991 — opposed the Islamic State and other terrorist groups that recruited there, but he also brutally suppressed freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of faith.
Is the enemy of my enemy always my friend?
The 2016 Human Rights Watch annual report observed: “Uzbekistan maintained its appalling human rights record in 2015. In March , Karimov’s 26-year rule was extended by another five years in elections international observers found lacked any meaningful choice and violated Uzbekistan’s constitution. The government denies citizens the freedoms of association, expression and religion, using the country’s pervasive security services to maintain rigid control over the population.”
Even the State Department bluntly acknowledges that Karimov wasn’t the kind of person you’d want your child or even your distant cousin to date, let alone marry. Its 2015 report said, “The most significant human rights problems included: torture and abuse of detainees by security forces; denial of due process and fair trial; disregard for the rule of law; and an inability to change the government through elections.”
As if that litany isn’t enough to make the U.S. government shudder in dismay, the State Department continued: “Other continuing problems included: incommunicado and prolonged detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; widespread restrictions on religious freedom, including harassment of religious minority group members and continued imprisonment of believers of all faiths; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; restrictions on civil society; restrictions on freedom of movement; violence against women; the inability of citizens to obtain basic social services, or find redress for such problems; and government-organized forced labor. Authorities subjected human rights activists, journalists, and others who criticized the government, as well as their family members, to harassment, arbitrary arrest, severe physical abuse and politically motivated prosecution and detention.”
What a partner.
I’ve followed Uzbekistan’s press and human environment since 2002, when I spent a semester there through the Fulbright Program teaching journalism at a university in the capital, Tashkent. I returned in 2004 to lead workshops for professional journalists, sponsored by Freedom House, and I’ve been to neighboring Kyrgyzstan more than a dozen times since then.
During my time there, news and nongovernmental organizations were sharply constrained, so it was no surprise that many of my best and brightest students planned to leave the country for graduate school and jobs in the West. Other students intended to stay but aspired to work for foreign news organizations, multinational agencies or NGOs.
The mediascape and human rights-scape worsened in May 2005 when security forces massacred between 187 and several hundred protestors — there’s no precise figure — in the regional city of Andijan. Foreign news organizations and international NGOs soon found themselves booted out of the country,
Karimov’s crackdown on human rights became so oppressive that even President George W. Bush protested to the regime, to no avail.
And in June 2005, Karimov evicted the U.S. Air Force from a base near the Afghanistan border. As the Washington Post reported at the time, the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base “has served as a hub for combat and humanitarian missions to Afghanistan since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”
What a partner.
Yet none of that has stopped the flow of U.S. assistance to the regime. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development says on its website that it’s “helping Uzbekistan to diversify its economy and increase regional trade, address serious health threats to the population and support the development of a government responsive to its people’s needs.”
And the State Department reported $10.6 million in aid for fiscal year 2016, including money for military, “antiterrorism” and law enforcement purposes, as well as economic and health assistance.
As for U.S. foreign partners, Donald Trump’s campaign trail comments about U.S. allies raise questions about what America should understand partnerships to be. Some of his remarks indicate a willingness to abandon our treaty commitments.
For example, he said in Washington in April, “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice.”
But as we all know from our own life experience, each partner in any partnership — business, marital, political, artistic — enters the arrangement with individual strengths, weaknesses, assets and liabilities. The mix of those characteristics usually varies during the relationship, but the ultimate goal — mutual benefit — remains essentially unchanged.
When the United States began to open military installations around the globe after World War II, most of the host countries were reeling from the wounds of war. Their economies and industries were in shambles, their peoples devastated, their militaries decimated, their national security uncertain as the Cold War opened. We sent our troops and tanks and planes there — as well as massive foreign aid — to help them recover and to strengthen what we mutually perceived as the ominous threat of communism in the Soviet Union, in its proxy states and in China.
Doing so was also in our national interest.
We didn’t expect war-torn France or Allied-occupied West Germany or liberated Italy to pay us for defending them. Our compensation was measured in ways other than dollars. And in most cases, those partners — even the ex-fascist countries — became democracies and respecters of human rights.
The Karimov “partnership” with the U.S. was far different. It was a deal of expediency, plain and simple. There was mutual benefit. For the American military, access close to the Afghanistan front. For Uzbekistan, lease payments, civilian jobs at the base, a flow of military and economic aid — and the American seal of approval for the legitimacy and statesmanship for the authoritarian Karimov himself. Except possibly among neo-cons, there was no realistic expectation that this deal would change Karimov’s anti-democratic, anti-human rights policies and thus further America’s commitment to a more transparent, less corrupt and more democratic world.
Why am I pessimistic about prospects for rapid and significant improvement in Uzbekistan’s post-Karimov era human rights landscape?
For one, despite a pretense of a multiparty system, there’s no genuine political opposition because Karimov jailed his critics or scared them into exile. Freedom House noted that in the last parliamentary election, in 2014, that his Movement of Entrepreneurs and Businesspeople–Liberal Democratic Party won the most votes, with the rest going to three loyalist parties. Loyalist, as in pseudo-opposition.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Uzbekistan 166th among 180 countries in press freedom — deep in the abyss with such other ruthless states as North Korea, Cuba. Iran and Syria. As of last Dec. 1, the Committee to Protect Journalists counted four journalists imprisoned there, two of them — Muhammad Bekjanov and Yasuf Ruzinuradov of the opposition newspaper Erk, since 1999. Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov of the internet news service Uznews and s contributor to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has been behind bars since 2008 for reporting about corruption, Freelancer Dilmurod Saiid, has been imprisoned since 2009 on bogus forgery and extortion charges.
Thus there’s little for the U.S. to mourn with “partner” Karimov’s death.
, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.