Karimov Moves to Bolster Authoritarian Rule in Uzbekistan
On December 6, a day before United States Secretary of State Colin Powell was due to arrive in Uzbekistan's capital city of Tashkent, the Central Asian nation's parliament endorsed a proposal to make Islam Karimov president for life. The move offers confirmation that Karimov is taking advantage of Tashkent's key position in the anti-terrorism campaign being waged against Afghanistan to reinforce Uzbekistan's authoritarian system.
One Washington, DC-based Central Asian expert suggested the timing of Karimov's move, on the eve of the Secretary of State's visit, was designed to embarrass the United States. "Even if he did need a referendum or face an [organized] opposition, why announce this two days before Powell is showing up in your country? It is the most remarkably deliberate provocation I've seen in a long time."
Reports that the United States is helping to prop up Karimov's regime with economic assistance could prove an additional source of embarrassment for Washington. On December 5, the Uzbek newspaper Narodnoye Slovo carried what it claimed was a memo dated November 30 in which the United States pledged $100 million in aid and $50 million in credits to Uzbekistan. The Export-Import Bank, announcing the credit on November 30, characterized it as a way of helping small and midsize Uzbek businesses buy American goods. The State Department did not immediately return a phone call asking for confirmation of the $100 million pledge, but recent press reports have bandied about that number.
The parliamentary endorsement of the lifetime extension of Karimov's power came suddenly, when Uzbek television carried footage of Parliament Speaker Erkin Khalilov defending the idea of leaving Karimov in office permanently. In calling for parliament to endorse the measure, Khalilov claimed to have seen numerous letters from Uzbek citizens in support of the president-for-life concept.
Since terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, Karimov has sought to seize political advantage from the tragedy. He made speeches in mid-September claiming early leadership on the antiterrorist issue, and negotiated American aid commitments in exchange for supporting the military campaign in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has proven useful to American war aims, providing key support bases for both the military and the humanitarian aid efforts in Afghanistan.
The war also has proven useful to Karimov. Allied soldiers reportedly killed Juma Namangani, the notorious leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has waged a three-year insurgency aimed at ousting Karimov.
Powell, who has spoken of the need for Central Asian countries to become more open and transparent, will have an uncomfortable time dealing with questions about Karimov's recent moves, says one observer. Yet Karimov seems relatively unlikely to back down. The discussion of a life presidency "may be his way of showing that even though the terrorist threat has been severely weakened, that doesn't mean he's going to do anything to give up his power," an expert said.
The urgency associated with the anti-terrorism campaign may have encouraged Karimov to extend his presidential term, says the expert. "They [Central Asian leaders] think the United States now sees the world differently than it used to," the observer said.