20 july 2018

Central Asia news

Uzbekistan: The Andijani issue and mistakes made by the West

20.05.2008 14:03 msk

Sanobar Shermatova

Analytics Uzbekistan

Sanobar Shermatova of the RIA-Novosti Expert Council

The situation when an ally of the West becomes a rogue regime, then seeks to restore friendly relations with the international community over a brief period of seven to eight years, is hardly ordinary. It is clear that the transformations taking place in the relations between Uzbekistan and its Western partners could not be caused by any single reason, even of the magnitude of the tragedy in Andijan on May 13, 2005.

Change of vectors

The geopolitical landscape revolving around Uzbekistan began undergoing dramatic changes when Islam Karimov visited the People's Republic of China in late May 2005. Official Beijing insisted on a state visit. The event was designed to demonstrate Chinese support of Karimov, who had been castigated throughout the West for the "excessive use of force" in Andijan. During the China visit, a treaty on relations of partnership and cooperation and more than 20 other cooperative agreements were signed, including energy production, oil and gas field development, and expansion of trade. Also, China promised to invest $1.5 billion in the Uzbek economy.

At the same time, Uzbek authorities did not forget Russia. Karimov made a trip to Moscow for negotiations with President Vladimir Putin in late June, barely a month after his visit to Beijing. He followed this with his second state visit to Russia in September. It was an obvious violation of international protocol since a president is normally allowed only one state visit to any given country. Throwing the diplomatic rule book out the window, Moscow indicated the importance it was attaching to relations with Uzbekistan.

This renewed contacts with Russia and China upset the West. "Uzbek leader's state visit to Russia is a disturbing development," The Herald Tribune pointed out. Developing its successes in the East and the North, Tashkent found itself under ever-increasing pressure from the West. The European Union, NATO, OSCE, and U.S. Department of State kept insisting on an international investigation of the Andijani tragedy. Karimov avoided European and US officials while his subordinates missed all OSCE meetings with the Andijani issue on the agenda.

In late July 2005, official Tashkent banned night flights of U.S. heavy transport planes from Khanabad. The U.S. Army was compelled to move the planes to its base in Bagram, Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. Secretary of Defense, never abandoned attempts to reach an agreement with Tashkent and blocked other NATO members' calls for international investigations. However, it was too late for that. Uzbekistan refused to prolong American military presence on its territory and nothing official Washington tried to do could bring about any reconsideration.

All these developments do look like Tashkent's has decided to reorient its foreign policy in light of criticism from the West. Yet, this is so, to a certain degree. However, relations between Uzbekistan and the West developed cracks even before Andijan. For instance, a counter-terrorism partnership launched during the onset of the military campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 was soured by criticism of Uzbekistan by human rights activists and U.S. lawmakers.

At first, Uzbekistan ignored all criticism, particularly since the Bush Administration and Defense Department did not participate in the criticisms. In fact, Karimov had been quite optimistic before his official visit to the United States in 2002. "This country possesses a colossal investment potential," he said. "Our close contacts with the United States will help us with economic reforms."

Reality, however, failed to live up to the expectations. "Major investments did not materialize”, a senior Uzbek diplomat said. "The United States never intended to develop the Uzbek economy the way it had helped the Japanese or others after the war. Private investors, on the other hand, always insist on guarantees and clear rules of the game. Uzbekistan could offer them neither. Karimov, himself, admitted to Putin that, "We thought they were actually waiting to greet us."

A serious blow to Uzbek-American relations was delivered, quite inadvertently, by a New Jersey court that ruled that Karimov's daughter, Gulnara, must leave their two children with their father, U.S. citizen Mansur Maksudi. However, Gulnara had taken the children to Uzbekistan prior to the trial and was, therefore, convicted and became a wanted criminal. The trial lasted several years and concluded in 2003. The Karimovs saw the verdict as a personal insult from a strategic partner. That the US justice is independent was not something the Karimov family would accept.

Tashkent's cooperation with the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development ended in disappointment, too. Previously seen as a prime source for Uzbekistan to finance future reforms, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development withdrew from Uzbekistan in 2003.

At the same time, Western partners were either not ready to head the economic reforms in Uzbekistan (like the United States) or their thinking differed from that of Uzbekistan as the failure of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development plainly showed. Its leaders demanded Karimov publicly condemn violence in prisons, which they hoped would demonstrate the Uzbek leadership's readiness to launch liberal reforms. Karimov never acknowledged shortcomings in his speech, however, and leaders of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development condemned the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. The scandal their criticism fomented put an end to cooperation.

Capitulation of the West

These developments might have encouraged countries in the West to try something new by way of promoting democracy and reforms in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, the West opted for the so-called color revolutions, viewing them as an effective means of dethroning authoritarian rulers. Revolutionaries saw these rulers as a barrier blocking their people's road to the brilliant future. They erroneously assumed that every people were ready to embrace democracy by default.

Installation of new regimes in Georgia and Ukraine, and speculations on export of revolutions to Central Asia, upset Karimov greatly. Tashkent denied official accreditation to the Soros Foundation, an active participant in organization of the Rose Revolution in Georgia. Seeking a counterweight to Western influence, Uzbekistan turned to its old partners, and specifically to Russia. Development of relations with Russia was actively pursued. The cordial meeting between the two presidents in Samarkand in 2003 became a catalyst of energetic development of bilateral relations.

Also, an event that had taken place six weeks before the Andijani tragedy also played its part in severance of contacts with the West. President of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev, fled the country on March 24, 2005 when crowds stormed the Government House in Bishkek. The events in Kyrgyzstan were branded as another color revolution, just like the ones in Georgia and Ukraine. Akayev pinned the blame on drug-dealers and Americans and Tashkent advanced a similar opinion. The sharply worded note released by the Foreign Ministry called revolutionaries "destructive forces".

The Uzbek authorities do not doubt that the Kyrgyz revolution was orchestrated by Western embassies and that Uzbekistan was to be their next target. The events in Andijan confirmed their suspicions. Uzbekistan promptly ousted all American non-governmental organization from its territory and closed down most non-governmental organizations in the country as potential troublemakers.

Karimov challenged the West and actually defeated it. The United States and Europeans were licked. The international investigation they had insisted on was never launched. Finally, Washington and Brussels tried to mend fences. Washington's new position is illustrated by the laconic condolences to the Uzbek people the US Embassy released on the third anniversary of the tragedy.

The West learned from past mistakes and has become thoroughly pragmatic in Central Asia. The war in Afghanistan and the global struggle for energy resources necessitate active partnership with Tashkent. These considerations take precedence over the state of affairs of democracy. The Andijani issue that put an end to the former relations between Uzbekistan and the West is no longer on the political agenda.