Michael Andersen

Base motives

Michael Andersen on the double standards behind US support for the brutal Uzbek President, Islam Karimov

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The Kyrgyz-Uzbek border

To people in Central Asia, home to some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, President Bush’s inaugural speech in January was important. ‘When you stand for liberty, we will stand with you,’ said Bush, and his words sounded very promising. Thirteen years after the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship, no country in Central Asia has yet held elections which could be described as even remotely free or fair. While the presidents, their families and entourages amass enormous fortunes, 80 per cent of the population struggles to survive on less than $1 a day.

Celebrating VE Day in the Baltic states, the US President lambasted the Soviet occupation and ‘secret deals to determine somebody else’s fate’. A couple of days later, speaking in front of 100,000 people in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square, the US president talked enthusiastically about ‘the idea of countries helping others become free’ and ‘a rational, decent and humane foreign policy’.

‘The path of freedom you chose is not easy, but you will not travel it alone,’ Bush promised. As Julian Evans reported last week in these pages, the US is actively fomenting revolt in Belarus. In Central Asia, however, US policy is characterised not by supporting the oppressed, but by showering the oppressors with millions of dollars and political support in return for access to the region’s military installations and energy resources.

For three years experts have been warning against this hypocrisy. In the words of David Lewis, Central Asia director for the Crisis Group, ‘the list of countries which are described as tyrannies is very selective. Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan are exactly as tyrannical as Cuba or Iran, but are not on the list because they are security allies of the US. The double standards in US foreign policy are very clearly demonstrated in Central Asia. And there are no signs that this will change.’

The explanation is not difficult to find. Within a few weeks of 9/11, the Bush administration agreed to pay $500 million for a strategically important military base in Uzbekistan from where its special forces operate into Afghanistan. The other Central Asian countries immediately granted the US landing rights and intelligence-sharing. An old study mate of mine, now an adviser to Donald Rumsfeld, told me in Tashkent, ‘What we need in this region is an aircraft carrier in a smooth, calm sea and Uzbekistan is that aircraft carrier.’ He laughed and told me to ‘grow up’ when I asked him about the human rights abuses of the Uzbek regime. ‘Mr Rumsfeld is right,’ he sarcastically told me, ‘Uzbekistan is stable — stable and quiet as a graveyard.’

The Uzbek President Islam Karimov certainly seems pretty stable. In January 2002 he extended his rule until 2020. ‘Sometimes authoritative methods are necessary,’ he said. And two days later the US secretary of state Beth Jones was on Uzbek TV enthusing over the ‘new warmth’ between the two countries, wishing the dictator a very happy birthday and inviting him to visit the White House.

The following spring the Uzbek police — who receive $80 million a year from the US — boiled two prisoners to death; an act which did not deter Colin Powell, a couple of months later, from testifying to Congress that Uzbekistan is ‘making progress’. ‘Such statements are designed to keep the Uzbek regime happy and to fool people in the US,’ says an angry Matilda Bogner from the Human Rights Watch office in Tashkent.

‘US foreign policy in Central Asia is run by the Pentagon,’ says David Lewis. ‘In the summer of 2004 Congress forced the State Department to reduce its funding to Uzbekistan because of human rights abuses. But two weeks later the Pentagon gave $25 million to the Uzbek government. This is a clear signal to the Uzbek regime not to take international criticism seriously.’

Many Western diplomats in Tashkent were disgusted with the US policy, but their governments kept them ‘on message’. That is until Craig Murray arrived. At 44, Murray was Britain’s youngest ambassador, with a promising career ahead of him. With the waistcoat of his three-piece suit barely concealing his pot-belly, his thick glasses and unkempt grey hair, he looked like a quirky professor from a softer, more decent era. Uzbekistan shocked him. ‘At the Foreign Office, they prepared me with language lessons, but nobody ever mentioned the 10,000 political and religious prisoners,’ he said.

In October 2002 the US ambassador gave a speech in which he praised the close relations between the US and Uzbekistan and argued that Uzbekistan had made ‘some progress’ on ‘democratic reforms and human rights’. The broad smile he bestowed on his new British colleague as he handed over the microphone quickly disappeared. ‘Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy,’ said Craig Murray, adding (and contradicting what his US colleague had just said), ‘nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy.’ He then described, in detail, the case of the two boiled prisoners.

‘Murray is a finished man here,’ one US top diplomat told me over lunch the next day. ‘A shame that Blair could only find an alcoholic to send here,’ another remarked.

Murray went on to compare Karimov with Saddam Hussein: ‘Why do we remove one dictator and support another who is just as bad?’ he cabled home. He also protested against ‘extraordinary rendition’ — when suspected terrorists are delivered by the CIA for interrogation to countries well known for using torture, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Uzbekistan.

‘In Central Asia, Bush applies the model which failed in Iran,’ Bahodir Musayev, a Tashkent sociologist, told me. ‘First priority the Shah, second priority the military and, at the bottom, the population. The US support for Karimov has led to a genocide. Anybody who disagrees with the regime is exterminated...only the extreme Islamic underground opposition has managed to survive.’

In 2004 a number of suicide attacks on the brutal Uzbek police, as well as one on the US embassy, provided worrying evidence that the Karimov regime is indeed provoking such a radicalisation. The bloodshed started last Friday in Andizhan, a region 10 miles from where I used to live. Here you can find villages where most families have one or more relatives (often youths of between 12 and 20) serving long jail sentences — for having a ‘Muslim’ beard or for conducting prayer meetings in their houses. In some streets there are practically no young men aged between 18 and 35 left.

This time the violence was the culmination of demonstrations which had been going on for weeks over a trial of 23 local businessmen. Without a shred of evidence, the Uzbek regime accused the 23 of being Islamic terrorists. Several of the men do belong to the group Akramia, a group of pious Muslims named after its founder, Akram Yuldashev, an Islamic dissident who was jailed in 1999 for allegedly planning President Karimov’s overthrow. The Akramis are very able businessmen and form the heart of the small business community in Andizhan, providing several thousand jobs in the area. Many there believe the charges were trumped up by local officials in order to seize the property of the accused.

After weeks of orderly demonstrations for the release of the 23, armed gunmen stormed the prison and freed not only the 23 but 2,000 other prisoners and seized a government building and 10 police hostages. Soon thereafter thousands of people converged on the city’s main square for an anti-government rally. According t o all independent accounts this was completely peaceful. Many women and children could be seen in the few pictures that appear on the internet — the Uzbek government then closed off the region in an attempt to quash both the demonstrators and the story. Within a few hours the army attacked the crowd; according to many eye-witnesses, they fired indiscriminately, killing hundreds.

‘The innocent perished,’ Nadyr, a worker at the Andizhan market, told the AFP news agency. ‘They placed weapons near the killed civilians to make people think that they were terrorists.’

The Uzbek President immediately blamed Hizb-ut-Tahrir for the violence. ‘The centre of planning was in southern Kyrgyzstan and the territory of the Ferghana Valley,’ he said. ‘Their aim is to overthrow the constitutional regime.’ Karimov also claimed that his security services had tapped phone conversations between the rebels and their colleagues in neighbouring Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabad just across the border, and even in Afghanistan. As anybody knows who has ever used a phone in this part of the world, the idea of such calls is nonsense. Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Central Asia is an outlandish but absolutely peaceful sect. Its goal is to (re)establish an Islamic Caliphate from North Africa across Arabia to Central Asia. Despite many attempts by Central Asian regimes, Hizb-ut-Tahrir has never been proved to have used violence, and it has swiftly denied any involvement in Andizhan.

‘The terrorists of tomorrow are the people whose rights are trodden on today,’ Craig Murray said to me in the summer of 2003. Later that night a stooped old woman approached me as I left the British embassy. Her son had been jailed for 20 years for attending private prayer meetings. Murray had tried to help him. She was afraid to go in but said, ‘Please tell Mr Murray that I pray for him. Britain should be proud to have such an honest man as its representative.’

A month later Craig Murray was locked out of his embassy, recalled to London and accused of power abuse, including being drunk on the job and selling visas for sex. Sources in the Foreign Office told me that ‘a systematic campaign’ was waged against Murray, partly directed from Downing Street. His honesty cost Murray his job, his marriage, a nervous breakdown and a spell in hospital on suicide watch.

All accusations were later withdrawn, and in February Murray received £315,000 in redundancy from the Foreign Office. He used some of the money to stand for Parliament against his former boss, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Blackburn. ‘There are fundamental values like human decency and opposition to torture which I hope we as Europeans stand for. In his eagerness to be George Bush’s poodle, Blair has sold out these values,’ he says.

Michael Andersen has reported from Central Asia and the Caucasus, for the past eight years.