TCS Daily

Uzbekistan's Not-So-Great Game

By Carroll Andrew - May 23, 2005 12:00 AM

The revolutionary wave passing through Georgia (November 2003), the Ukraine (November 2004), and Kyrgyzstan (March 2005) has reached Uzbekistan. But for the first time since the current wave of democratic revolutions started, a dictator is violently trying to stop it. Much initial analysis has centered on Uzbekistan as the first tough choice involving George W. Bush's foreign policy of democratization. Uzbekistan is both a repressive authoritarian government and an American ally in the War on Terror. If the United States reacts to the Uzbek uprising based upon its articulated principle of supporting democracy, is it not repeating the mistakes of the Carter era, undermining an ally, and potentially paving the way for something worse?

Though there is some legitimacy to this concern, casting 2005 Uzbekistan in the role of 1979 Iran is an error. First, though Uzbekistan has been a meaningful ally in the War on Terror, Uzbekistan cannot be considered a staunch, long-term ally of the United States. Over the past several years, Uzbekistan has actively moved away from the West, towards an alliance of authoritarian states. Second, not all revolutions in Islamic countries are alike. The uprising in Uzbekistan is part of a larger international trend. The Iranian revolution was not. It inspired no imitators. No government outside of Iran has been toppled by a revolution based on the Iranian model. Uzbeks, on the other hand, have been observing a string of revolutions in countries with which they share a common history.

Uzbekistan is a former Soviet republic. President Islam Karimov, former First Secretary of Uzbekistan's Communist Party, has been its only ruler for 14 years since independence. Georgia, the Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan are also former Soviet republics. Until their revolutions, they were governed by ex-Soviet officials who refused to relinquish their hold on power. Karimov decided to act before the pattern of revolution repeated itself. On May 13, in the city of Andijan, Karimov launched the first major, violent assault against the current democratic wave, killing over 700 people.

Well before Andijan, Karimov's authoritarian behavior had been of concern to the West. In April of 2004, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development scaled back loans to Uzbekistan's government because of concerns about human rights, democratization, and economic liberalization. In July of 2004, the United States cut 18 million dollars of foreign aid to Uzbekistan, publicly citing concerns about the lack of progress with respect to human rights and democracy. In response to these pressures, Karimov has been shifting his country's alignment away from the West, towards his neighbors Russia and China who are more tolerant of authoritarian rule.

Karimov has not always believed that Uzbekistan's best interests involve alignment with Russia. He has feared that (reasonably so, many would agree), at some time in the future, Russia might attempt to reassert its dominance over its former subjects. Karimov wanted Uzbekistan to have international ties free of Moscow's influence. In 1999, he withdrew Uzbekistan from the collective security arrangement of the Commonwealth of Independent States (an organization of former Soviet republics) and joined a fledgling alliance of Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova (GUUAM) that was seeking to rival the CIS for influence within the former Soviet Union. Cultivating allies for protection from future Russian ambitions was a major factor in Uzbekistan's decision to support America in the War on Terror.

Karimov now regards a resurgent Russia as less of a threat to his power than the possibility of revolution from within. Instead of aligning himself with democracies (the United States, Europe, GUUAM) to help keep the Russians in check, he is now aligning with the Russians and Chinese to help keep democracy in check. Karimov has cut formal ties with the now democratic-dominated GUUAM (Uzbekistan formally withdrew from the alliance in early May 2005) and strengthened ties with the authoritarian-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes both China and Russia, is a better forum for advancing the interests of Uzbekistan's authoritarian government than is the CIS. The key is the emergence of China as a great power. China is Karimov's new protection against the possibility of an overly aggressive Russia, obviating his need for strong ties to the West. From the perspective of an authoritarian, China is a preferable counter-balance to Russian power than is the United States or Europe. Uzbekistan's practices with regard to human rights and democracy will not impact the level of support received from China.

China and Russia are standing behind their Shanghai Cooperation Organization partner. The foreign ministries of both countries have expressed support for Uzbekistan's methods of maintaining order. Those who believe that the word "multilateral" automatically legitimizes any international action need to consider the situation in Uzbekistan very carefully. Uzbekistan is now the focal point of a multilateral effort of authoritarian powers trying to stop the international wave of democratization from progressing any further.

Uzbekistan now stands at the leading edge of history. It is almost accurate to say that all of the important forces of this era -- the democratization wave, Islam's civil war between authoritarian governments and the people living under them, and great-power alliance politics -- are in play in Uzbekistan. It is not fully accurate because forces alone do not make history. Individuals play a role too. If the West does not support Uzbek democratization at a time when the Uzbek people need help from outside, then the course of history will be determined only by authoritarian rulers playing the insipid game of accumulating power for themselves, and fanatical elements attempting to exploit chaos. By supporting an Uzbek democracy movement, the West can help include peaceful majorities in the shaping of the future.

Carroll Andrew Morse is a TCS contributing writer and a contributor to the weblog Anchor Rising.


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