Behind the Silk Curtain

Behind the Silk Curtain

Mini Teaser: Despot Watch turns the spotlight on Islam Karimov, America's newest Central Asian ally.

by Author(s): Joe Bob Briggs

So when Karimov granted the U.S. permission to use the Khanbad military base, he suddenly became America's best friend. (If you have any doubts, check the Uzbekistan website, which has ridiculously gleaming smiles on the faces of President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Paul O'Neill as they gladhand the dictator.) In fact, making a pact with Karimov did accomplish three things for America: It provided the U.S. with a base for pursuing the Taliban, made inroads into the Kazakh and Turkmen oil and gas market (Caspian Sea pipeline politics), and gave America major influence in the most populous, settled and central of all the Central Asian republics. That's got to tick off Russia and China big-time.

For Karimov, the deal was just an open checkbook. When he met with Bush at the White House in March 2002, he went away with $500 million in aid and credit (more than 15 times what he would get in the normal course of things), $25 million in military assistance, $18 million for "border security", and $1 million for police. Bush called him one of America's "foremost partners in the fight against terrorism"--a sentiment that's been repeated by a parade of dignitaries that have made the trek to Tashkent, including Generals Tommy Franks, Richard Myers and Anthony Zinni, and Senators McCain, Lieberman and Daschle. Of course, while all this was going on, there were between 7,000 and 10,000 prisoners being held on religious and political charges in Uzbekistan.

The political charges Karimov didn't have to worry about. "Member of an Islamic terrorist organization", was pretty much all the explanation he had to give, although under Uzbek law they might have been imprisoned for such crimes as "encroachment on the constitutional order", "anti-state activities", "subversion" or "infringement upon the honor and dignity of the president"--an umbrella of terms that pretty much allows him to shackle up anyone--nutjob Islamist, simple believer or pro-Western secularist--who looks at him the wrong way.

The prisoners held on religious charges were a little bit more embarrassing for the United States, especially since one of America's stated goals in fighting the Taliban was to establish freedom of religion. To give you some idea of the schizophrenia of Karimov, he first established a human rights organization, then abducted the founder of it from a conference in Bishkek, and then charged him with sedition. No doubt the man had acted beyond his charter, like the Erk Party.

In other words, the War on Terror for Karimov is a bureaucratic convenience. Since his nation is full of outlawed parties run by Muslims, any one of them can be characterized as terrorist simply by its existence. To be fair, there are some scary Islamic parties in Uzbekistan, the kind that want to establish sharia and bring back the caliphate, but the majority of the underground movements just want simple democracy, which would result, of course, in an Islamic government of some kind, but not a theocracy, and certainly not the retro-Soviet model that Karimov upholds by sheer force of will. There are even parties that call for a secular government on the Turkish model, but those are lumped in with the others because Turkey, for Karimov, is just entirely too anarchic.

Karimov has quite a few things going for him as he exerts minority rule. For one thing, Uzbekistan is the most settled and populous of all Central Asian countries, with most of the people concentrated in Tashkent and the Fergana Valley, where the aforementioned cotton fiasco took place and where the ethnic broth has caused centuries of bloody strife. (The other two-thirds of the country is wasteland, including the Aral Sea, which was once the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world. Since 1961, it has lost more than 60 percent of its water as its feeder streams were used for cotton irrigation. It became so polluted with insecticides and fertilizers that it salinized, killing all the fish, grounding ships, poisoning the drinking water and the vegetables, and leaving a salty lethal dust throughout a moonscape of dead ponds and sandbars.) The people in the eastern third live in towns and villages that have changed little for two centuries, making surveillance easy. For example, each neighborhood still has its elder, called a "white beard", who gets his authority from the community, but his wages from the government. Since no one in the neighborhood can do anything without the white beard's permission, these figureheads are used by Karimov as enforcers and informants. There's no intelligentsia to speak of; it was originally wiped out by Stalin, then periodically purged by subsequent Soviet leaders. The purge of the Unity Party was the latest successful effort to drive the liberal democrats into exile. The mean monthly income is $50-- high by Central Asian standards, but not high enough to create a dangerous middle class. The "sum", as the currency is called, is not convertible, so there's virtually no foreign investment and, by necessity, a barter economy. (The sum is devaluing at the rate of 30 percent per year.) The country's biggest highway runs from Tashkent to Termiz on the Afghan border--literally a dead end in terms of trade. Just as the Iron Curtain protected the Bolsheviks for seven decades, Uzbekistan's isolation (the Silk Curtain?) protects Karimov.

And so Karimov is able to rule a nation of 24 million with relative ease because it's full of extremely large families (more women with ten or more children under the age of twenty than any other former Soviet republic; half the population under age 15 have no upward mobility nor means of migration (although 60,000 do manage to leave the country each year). In some respects the population lives as it did 15 centuries ago. (Silkworms, for example, are raised in homes, a literal cottage industry.) Although the population is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, there is one extremely important Shi'i shrine in Shakhimardan--the resting place of Ali, son-in-law of Mohammed and fourth caliph, whom all Shi'a consider second only to Muhammad himself in holiness. The mosque and tomb there were torched in the early 1920s, probably by Bolsheviks, and during the Soviet era it was renamed in honor of a secular Communist poet (I'm not making this up), but the desecration of the site rankles the Shi'a and makes for some strange alliances with their nominal Sunni rivals.

In other words, there's just enough radical Muslim unrest for Karimov to justify any level of suppression to his War on Terror friends in the West. His number one enemy is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a largely secret organization that wants to establish a theocracy. Two IMU rebels have been sentenced to death in absentia, and many other members are languishing in prison. These are real terrorists, suspected in six bomb attacks in Tashkent in 1999 that killed 16 people, and they have also been known to trade Western hostages for money.

Karimov uses these bad guys to extend his xenophobia to other groups, including people who aren't Muslim at all. Jews, Crimean Tatars, Germans, Greeks, Meskhetian Turks and Slavs have all been leaving the country rather than expose their bosses to the embarrassing chore of firing them. Censorship was officially abolished in 2002, but press restrictions still forbid mentioning corruption, drug trafficking, Islam or anything resembling criticism of Karimov. Five journalists are currently in prison, including the freedom-of-the-press activist Ruslan Sharipov, serving four years.

Getting Away with It

For the most part, Karimov has been allowed to get away with it. Even when he has appeared at Western press conferences, usually alongside U.S. leaders, he's gotten softball questions. The sole exception I know of was Andrea Koppel of CNN, who used Colin Powell's visit to Tashkent to ask Karimov, "What do you say to your critics who say that you are nothing more than a brutal, repressive, authoritarian dictator?"

Karimov's reply could best be described as indignant confusion. "I am very surprised to hear the question you posed", said the man who longs for the simplicity of communist times.

And I believe that these questions that are asked are due to be asked and probably we cannot circumvent these questions. We have to answer them. What can I answer? My answer is that one is to see things rather than hear them one hundred times. I would like to invite you for communication with me on a more permanent basis and believe that I will not disappoint you.

For some reason I find this answer, in all its opaque evasion, strangely unsettling. It's the answer of a man who's not used to being asked questions at all, much less questions that suggest his performance is subject to review. It's almost delusional in its raving complexity, the reaction of a man in the first moment after he's been shot.

Of course, we should have expected that. Karimov is one of those old-school Tyrants of the Book who, like Lenin and Stalin, has his every utterance recorded as holy writ. We don't have space here to list all eleven of the books he's published since 1996, but suffice it to say, they begin with the page-turner Uzbekistan: National Independence, Political Ideology. After that, they get progressively longer and denser, reaching a kind of apex of prolixity with his 2000 masterwork, Our High Goal Is the Independence and Prosperity of Our Motherland, Freedom and Welfare of Our People (I checked Barnes & Noble, but they're all sold out.)

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