Chaos, Not Democracy May Be Real Alternative to Dictators in Central Asia

July 18, 2005 Topic: Security Tags: War In Afghanistan

Chaos, Not Democracy May Be Real Alternative to Dictators in Central Asia

No amount of scorn can make up for the fact that there may be no better alternative to Karimov's regime; that is, not for the U.S. military base in Uzbekistan.

The chorus of condemnation from both sides of the Atlantic is calling for the United States and NATO to sever ties with the regime of president Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan,  following reports of a massacre of 500 civilian protesters in the city of Andijon in May. In return, the Uzbek government has restricted U.S. flights from the Karshi-Kanabad base, which it had allowed the U.S. military to use in support of operations in Afghanistan.  Karimov may deserve the scorn of he international community. But no amount of scorn can make up for the fact that there may be no better alternative to Karimov's regime that is, not to the base.

The crisis in U.S.-Uzbek relations is not new. U.S. attempts to induce liberal reform in Uzbekistan predate the current crisis by well over a decade. The need to maintain good relations with a difficult regime is something the United States has confronted often during and after the Cold War. Pakistan, practically next door to Uzbekistan is a case in point.  We need Pakistan as an ally in the war on terror. Over the years, U.S. pressure on Pakistani authorities, including sanctions in retribution for Pakistan's pursuit of nuclear weapons, have accomplished little to promote democracy and stability in Pakistan, or enhance security in South Asia. U.S. sanctions have, however, undermined U.S. influence with key sectors of Pakistani establishment, most importantly the military, and created the impression of the United States as a fickle and unreliable partner. The United States can now replicate that experience in Uzbekistan by cutting off security cooperation and turning its back on a regime that has failed to respond to U.S. pressures for change.

The Uzbek regime is immune to Western pressures for liberal reforms. Karimov has been urged to reform by senior officials from both Clinton and Bush Administrations, including Presidents and Secretaries of State, as well as from the European Union, NATO and every imaginable NGO.  U.S. diplomats were delivering demarches to Uzbek officials to respect human rights even before the United States had an ambassador in Tashkent.

But, as Mr. Karimov is most likely to see it, liberal reforms offer no guarantee of stability and can lead to disaster.  Kyrgyzstan next door was for a long time the poster child for democratic reforms in Central Asia. Its president Askar Akayev, long considered the most tolerant among the post-Soviet leaders, was thrown out of office by a popular uprising. Is Kyrgyzstan better off as a result? Hardly, as Mr. Karimov's likely to see it. Kyrgyzstan is teetering on the brink of state failure and chaos, threatening the rest of Central Asia. 

Are there countries in the area that offer Mr. Karimov models to emulate?  Certainly in Azerbaijan, former KGB chief and Communist Party boss Geydar Aliyev handed over the presidency to his son Ilhom.  The opposition in Azerbaijan complained, as did the NGOs outside the country and the OSCE. But the NEW AZERI LEADER even got a congratulatory phone call from then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. Mr. Karimov must think then that there is hope for leaders like him, as long as they stick to their guns.

The domestic threats Mr. Karimov sees are not merely a product of his propaganda machine. According to the State Department, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan remains a terrorist organization with links to Al-Qaeda. Terrorist attacks have taken place in Tashkent and elsewhere in the country. Karimov¹s own policies may be radicalizing his opponents, and threats to his regime may be self-inflicted, but they do exist.  

Uzbekistan's domestic politics is an interplay of competing clans and regional factions. Over the past decade and a half, Karimov has skillfully manipulated and balanced them. He probably views himself as indispensable to the survival of the country and the state. 

Karimov is likely to see his survival as essential to the stability of the entire Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan has already imploded. Tajikistan, is recovering from a long and violent civil war. Kazakhstan's future is uncertain too, despite its oil wealth and relative calm.  Turkmenistan, the hermit kingdom sandwiched between Uzbekistan and Iran can compete with North Korea for the title of the last surviving Stalinist regime.

In Central Asia, democracy and stability have proven elusive.  Regimes that have been more tolerant of dissent have not been more stable. U.S. efforts to promote democracy and enhance stability in the region so far have demonstrated that our leverage is limited and our sanctions can do little to influence local regimes.

U.S. threats to curtail U.S. security cooperation with Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan are likely to accomplish little. The problem so far has been too little security cooperation with Uzbekistan's military and security services for U.S. influence to be felt. If we cut it off now, we will be hurting only our own interests, severing  contacts with some of Uzbekistan's key institutions and undermining our ability to induce long-term change in that country. 

A U.S. investigation of Karimov's military and security services¹ role in the Andijon massacre would be viewed in Tashkent as the height of hypocrisy. These are the same military and security services we recruited in the war on terror when we needed them after the September 11 attacks.

The Karimov regime has proven quite resilient and willing to use force to suppress dissent. It appears to have the support of the military and security personnel. It may have the support of the majority of Uzbekistan's population. In the absence of polling data, Uzbek public opinion is hard to gauge, but it is possible that most Uzbeks may prefer the devil they know the regime that is brutal, but stable.  Tajikistan's civil war and Kyrgyzstan's implosion must serve as a powerful reminder to many in Uzbekistan that stability in their part of the world is a precious commodity.

The Andijon massacre has turned Karimov into a persona non-grata in the United States and in Europe, but not in Moscow or Beijing, where he was treated like royalty during recent visits.  Reports of an imminent palace coup in Tashkent have been circulating in recent weeks. But their credibility cannot be tested. The notion that  internal opposition to Karimov is mounting because  of international pressures is naive, given the insular nature of Uzbek  power structures and their reluctance to open up to Western influence.  Moreover, even if these rumors were true, there is no guarantee that a  palace coup against Karimov will lead to a more reformist or  stable regime in Uzbekistan. 

U.S. security cooperation is not a favor to Uzbekistan. It serves U.S. interests in the region access to Afghanistan, counter-proliferation, counterterrorism. We can continue to be critical of Uzbekistan's domestic policies, but we should recognize the limits  of our influence and the fact that alternatives to its  current regime could be worse.

July 18, 2005

Eugene Rumer: Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Updated 7/18/05