Senior United States diplomats have visited Tashkent for their regular consultations with the government of Uzbekistan, and in spite of continuing tension over Afghanistan and human rights, the Americans were unusually positive in their assessment of ties with Uzbekistan.
"Had a very productive meeting with President Karimov on the growing bilateral relationship and cooperation on regional and global challenges," tweeted Nisha Biswal, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. "Very impressed by the candid conversations with govt of Uzbekistan and civil society on subject of prison management and prison conditions," she added later. The delegation included 22 American officials from seven different government agencies.
Interestingly, in her public remarks Biswal appeared to have not uttered the words "human rights." The U.S. government has come under frequent criticism from human rights groups for overlooking the country's appalling record on human rights for the sake of strategic considerations. But U.S. officials nearly always meet with human rights activists when they visit the country, and at least mention the issue of human rights in their public statements. (Also unusually, while Biswal held a press conference in Tashkent the transcript wasn't released. The State Department didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Russian analyst Andrey Serenko, speaking to Deutsche Welle's Russian service, suggested that U.S. diplomats are treading lightly in deference to Uzbekistan's upcoming elections. "In Tashkent, on the one hand they are expecting that the high-ranking guests from Washington will signal the willingness of the U.S. to not make a big deal out of the undemocratic elections, and on the other hand that the U.S. isn't ignoring the issue of security in the Afghan provinces near Uzbekistan."
Karimov has for several years publicly criticized the U.S. and NATO for their plans to withdraw from Afghanistan; he repeated that criticism just a couple of days before Biswal's visit. "I doubt that peace and stability in the region can be achieved through withdrawing the international peacekeeping force ISAF from Afghanistan without putting an end to the ongoing conflicts and without reconciling the opposing sides in this long-suffering country," he said, according to newspaper Xalq Sozi, via BBC Monitoring.
But Afghanistan, too, was barely mentioned in the public comments by the Americans in Tashkent. "Candid talks covering econ, security & human dimension issues, tweeted Biswal's deputy, Dan Rosenblum.
Another reason the U.S. may be interested in deemphasizing human rights, Serenko suggested, is the advent of the New Cold War and Uzbekistan's resistance to Russian influence, which Washington wants to encourage.
Indeed, newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Tashkent Pamela Spratlen, mentioned Uzbekistan's relations with Russia in her confirmation hearing in September. Security assistance to Uzbekistan has markedly risen over the last several years, both from the Pentagon and from the State Department, after the White House loosened human-rights related restrictions on military aid in 2012. Interestingly, in her testimony Spratlen tied that to Uzbekistan's "deliberate, reliable resistance to Russian pressure":
Our security cooperation with Uzbekistan is in a time of transition, but will continue to focus on the common goal of preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Increased cooperation with Uzbekistan on a number of training programs would help prevent a resurgence of terrorism in the region, stem the flow of illegal narcotics, and prevent human trafficking and illicit smuggling. Our security cooperation also includes efforts to professionalize the conduct of security forces and reinforce the need for accountability in law enforcement institutions. Uzbekistan is an increasingly important partner in these efforts, especially in light of its deliberate, reliable resistance to Russian pressure in the post-Soviet space. If confirmed, I will build on our existing partnership to continue this cooperation.
Spratlen did also mention human rights in her testimony. "I will strongly encourage the government of Uzbekistan to comply with all of its international legal obligations on human rights," she said. "I will work closely with my government counterparts and a diverse array of civil society institutions to
address concerns about forced and child labor, allegations of torture, arbitrary
arrests and imprisonment, restrictions on independent civil society, opposition, and media, and religious freedom."
But that was in Washington. Biswal's rosy tweets from Tashkent got some critical responses from human rights activists: "Will your 'productive meeting' w #Uzbekistan's torturer-in-chief produce freedom for any of his 1000s of political prisoners?" asked Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director for Human Rights Watch. "We hope u sent msg that meaningful consequences will follow absent his agreement to release pol prisoners," added HRW's Steve Swerdlow. Biswal didn't respond.
UPDATE (Dec. 10): The State Department released the transcripts of Biswal's public statements, and she did reference human rights. At a press conference, Biswal was asked about a letter sent by eight U.S. senators to Karimov addressing the cases of several political prisoners. Biswal responded:
We engage on these issues and on those specific cases that you referenced, we raise them with the government not only during our bilateral consultations, but we raise them at every opportunity. We have a consistent policy around the world with respect to human rights and we make that a part of every conversation, every dialogue, and every relationship, and Uzbekistan is no different. We are aware that Uzbekistan has a program of amnesty, and we do hope and believe that these particular cases would be appropriate on the humanitarian grounds to receive such amnesties. Furthermore, members of our delegation have met with the families of a number of these individuals. So this will be an ongoing area of engagement for us.
And at a speech to the University of World Economy and Diplomacy:
We had a very frank or candid conversation on the basis of respect and trust about where we think things ought to be discussed and changes ought to be made in the areas of human rights, and religious freedom, and labor, on the areas of education and exchanges. It is a hallmark of our relationship between our two countries that we can have these conversations as we can talk about difficult and sensitive things and we can come to understandings about where changes can be made on our side as well as your side. That is the trademark of a true partnership where you can have convergences and divergences and have a way forward to bring yourselves together. So I think this has been extraordinary. I think that the spirit of cooperation on both sides has been extraordinary and I see that we will have increasing opportunity to grow closer together as we address all of the range of issues.