TCS Daily


Democratization Challenges: Has Mr. Karimov Overstayed His Welcome?

By Ariel Cohen - June 10, 2005 12:00 AM

As the U.S. and Israel withdrew their non-essential personnel and diplomatic families from their embassies in Uzbekistan due to "specific" terror threats, the U.S. policy in Central Asia seems to be facing a fundamental challenge: How the Bush Administration can promote democratization without giving up strategic priorities of the war on Islamist terror.

In Uzbekistan and in Egypt dictators are unwilling and unable to either reform or get out. They are clinging to power -- and finding powerful allies abroad. This does not mean that the White House will beat a retreat in either Tashkent or Cairo -- vital countries both. It means, however, that the reality is more complicated than the theory of rapid democratization, and adjustment in both strategy and tactics are necessary.

The recent tragic events in Central Asia and in the Middle East teach us hard lessons. Democratization is not easy, nor is it cost-free. People die. Regimes and dictators get brutal. In the Ferghana Valley hundreds died in a heavy-handed government suppression of a popular uprising triggered by what seems to be an Islamist organization in Andijan and elsewhere.

In the Middle East, President Hosni Mubarak manipulated a referendum to prevent viable candidates to run for presidency, and security forces beat up peaceful protesters. Elsewhere, Islamists swept into municipal offices in Saudi Arabia and Gaza, while the Saudi monarchy, a friend and ally of the United States, still prevents women to vote and violates the norms of democracy across the board.

The geopolitical threat of radical Islamists coming to power through the ballot box looms large. Due to the short-sighted view of many an autocrat, secular and moderate Muslims parties and movements are banned or emasculated, pushing the opposition into the mosque or Islamic underground.

Islam Karimov's crackdown on Erk and Birlik parties in Uzbekistan, grinding poverty, and lack of support for moderate Islam, encouraged thousands to join Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation, which is banned in many Middle Eastern countries, Central Asia, Russia and Germany). By destroying both the political and economic landscape, Karimov might have dug his own political grave.

However, his crackdown won kudos in both China and Russia. On a recent trip to Beijing, Karimov signed a $600 million natural gas pipeline deal -- a golden handshake. In Russia, "political technologists" such as Gleb Pavlovsky, Maxim Meyer and Modest Kolerov -- the latter in charge of the Commonwealth of Independent States Directorate in the Presidential Administration -- called for governments in Central Asia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union to use force against the potentially rebellious population. "Governments should deny opposition the ability to escalate", pontificated Pavlovsky at the Eurasia Media Forum in Almaty in April 2005. And the mild-mannered Meyer said at the same venue that a "real power" should be able to use force to defend itself -- exactly what Mr. Karimov believes he did.

The Bush Administration is facing a dilemma: Support dictators who profess pro-American policy, or push through democratization regardless of strategic, military, energy and other geopolitical costs and concerns. The policy is congealing, but there is no consensus yet. Moreover, such consensus may be impossible. At times, acute and chronic strategic challenges may trump the best of democratic intentions. And departmental concerns may once again find the State Department and the Pentagon bickering -- or worse -- in the interagency process.

For example, at a recent conference in Washington, a senior military officer mused about deploying U.S. forces in Turkmenistan to be able to project power against Iran in case disarmament talks, currently led by France, Germany and Great Britain, fail. Civilian participants cringed, but the general remained staunchly "open-minded" to open a "dialogue" with Turkmenbashi on U.S. basing there.

On the other hand, Dr. Phillip Zelikow, Counselor to the Secretary of State, stated at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference on U.S.-Saudi relations, that the President has looked at a possibility that Islamist forces which are not pro-American may come to power, "and he is willing to take that risk."

A senior Pentagon official, who is about to retire, said recently, that in Syria and Iran, the Administration's policy is to encourage evolutionary, not revolutionary, change. However, what will be the course of action if the Administration comes to the conclusion that the authoritarian regimes are so resilient, that an evolutionary change is impossible -- which many in Washington believe is the case of the Karimov regime.

Beyond the Horizon

However, policy makers also need to look beyond the horizon and prepare for the future. The Moslem Brotherhood is the best-organized force in Egypt and predominantly Sunni Syria. There, the Alawite regime of the Assad dynasty, supported by roughly 10 percent of the population, has been in power since 1970. A Sunni Islamist Syria will double the power of the Iraqi Sunni insurgents, making U.S. support of the Shi'a-dominated Iraq problematic. Will the Israeli-Palestinian peace process be better off with Hamas in the driver's seat? Will Egypt and Syria benefit under the Moslem Brotherhood rule? Will U.S. energy security be safer if Salafis come to power in Saudi Arabia?

The dilemma of the Bush Administration is, therefore, how far to push democratic change while taking into account such geopolitical concerns. And the answer one hears is: promote democracy, but go easy on friends, and push enemies hard. The question then becomes: Is Karimov a friend?

Different policy makers have different views on the subject, but most importantly, the United States has strategic interests in Uzbekistan. And these interests are jeopardized by Mr. Karimov and will be even more threatened if an anti-American Islamist force comes to power.

Uzbekistan was a key ally in the 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom, which liberated Afghanistan. A US air force base in Karshi Khanabad supports U.S. forces there. Islamists, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and IMU, use the US presence to agitate against America and the West. They also attack Karimov for maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel.

So, what are Washington's choices? Western powers and international organizations will no longer aid Karimov to quell future revolts. Russia, China and Kazakhstan (with its oil riches) may be supportive, fearing further destabilization. On the other hand, the fall of Uzbekistan into the hands of the Islamists will cause a geopolitical shift in Central Asia and will endanger both U.S., Chinese, and Russian presence and interests there. Russia alone may be a destination for millions of migrants from Central Asia if systemic instability escalates.

In the long run, radical Islamist strategists believe that Central Asia, with its Soviet-educated technical personnel and ample natural resources, such as gold, oil and gas, uranium, and globally competitive cotton production, may be turned into a califate (a militarized Muslim state). It may become a territorial base of jihad against the West.

To avoid a catastrophic outcome, both bilateral and multilateral solutions need to be pursued. Uzbekistan's neighbors, the United States, European Union, OSCE and the United Nations, need to clarify to Karimov that he must find a political -- not repressive -- way out from the current crisis. Such solutions may include legalizing political parties, allowing opposition access to the media, and scheduling of popular parliamentary and presidential elections. They also may include technical assistance from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to reform the economy, and pressure from the U.S. military to stop security cooperation if Karimov does not comply. He also should eventually be encouraged to relinquish power in the end of such political transition.

To avoid a further bloodbath and forestall expansion of radical Islam, it is important to give people hope and open the country to both political and economic modernization. Mr. Karimov has overstayed his welcome.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author and editor of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, 2005).

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