The coming year will determine how much Uzbekistan will be drawn into the war in Afghanistan and possibly spark attacks by both home-grown and foreign militants due to its increasing involvement in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) supplying NATO troops. We will also see if Tashkent’s notion of a non-military solution will have any impact on NATO.
One observable trend is the conversion of the direct war against the Taliban to a more broad-based struggle against the illegal drug-trafficking sustaining it, in part in a bid to gain more cooperation with the West. Russia and the U.S. directly collaborate on fighting narcotics, even if Moscow has been reluctant to bog down in combat in Afghanistan again. In July 2010, Russian diplomat Yuri Fedotov was appointed head of the UN's Office of Crime and Drugs, replacing an Italian who had held the post for years. Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times' Pakistan bureau chief, wrote last month that there has already been collaboration between NATO and Russia's anti-drug agencies in Afghanistan as well. The U.S. has avidly assisted Central Asian nations in combatting drug-smuggling; last month the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent provided forensics equipment and training to Uzbek border guards to help identify drugs. In their dealings with Western capitals, Uzbek diplomats have continued to push their 6+3 recipe for Afghan peace. Shahzad says this plan has been "well received," but the evidence for this appears only to come from regional press sourced in the Uzbek government itself.
In fact, as EurasiaNet’s The Bug Pit blog reported last week, there was a distinct discrepancy between NATO's public statement about the meeting with Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov and the statements the Uzbek government made itself. NATO accentuated both Uzbekistan's role in supplying the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) and NATO's democracy programs, but didn't even mention 6+3. The Uzbek government focused on 6+3 and didn't mention the NDN per se. The online news site trend.az in Azerbaijan even went so far as to say that 6+3 was discussed with NATO and got a positive reaction, but it's not clear what really happened. The West has consistently opposed 6+3 for a number of reasons, chief of which is the fact that Afghanistan itself is left out of the formula; the U.S. has preferred to make elections, and the controversial figure of President Hamid Karzai central to the talks.
A recently-published cable, allegedly written in July 2008 and passed by WikiLeaks to the British Telegraph, indicates that the United Kingdom did not support Uzbekistan's 6+3, and would only support an initiative that involves the government of Afghanistan. That policy has not likely changed since then, although the question must be asked whether Uzbekistan is increasingly in a position to demand more attention to its proposal, given its increasingly important role as a transit state for NDN and a supplier of inter-state transportation infrastructure to Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan has enjoyed a growing rapprochement with the West, after some five years following the 2005 Andijan massacred when troops fired on demonstrators and the U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions. EU trade actually rose during the sanctions period before falling off somewhat after they were limited evidently due to the global recession. Figures released by the Uzbek government in January indicate that trade has declined by nearly 6 percent with foreign countries but is still substantial at $12.4 billion; trade with other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States has increased nearly 18 percent to $9.42 billion.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has invested about €743 million in various sectors of Uzbekistan's economy in recent years and has continued to engage with Uzbekistan despite failure of Tashkent to make progress on the EBRD's human rights and transparency principles. In January, rumors circulated that the EBRD may be withdrawing from Uzbekistan; the semi-official news site uzmetronom.com claimed that the EBRD was leaving after failing to find cooperative partners. The Bank denied the rumors following a query from EurasiaNet, saying that in fact it was committed to operating in the country. To be sure, the EBRD said that it was working with the government to find new offices -- a situation that other foreign agencies have found themselves in that inevitably invokes concerns that they are under government pressure.
As international human rights and Uzbek emigre groups prepared to protest the visit of President Karimov to Brussels, an Uzbek police captain, code-named "Oskar," defected to Norway, bringing with him a bundle of documents purporting to show that the Uzbek government monitors the activities of Uzbek emigres and migrant laborers outside of Uzbekistan. "Oskar" worked with an emigre journalist, Evgeny Dyakonov, who published an Interior Ministry document allegedly signed by former Interior Minister Zakir Almatov, calling to increase preventive measures to combat "lawless actions of Uzbek citizens outside of Uzbekistan." The document said that religious and political activists were "hiding from Uzbekistan's justice and continue to wage active, illegal activity aimed at destabilizing the internal situation in Uzbekistan” and damaging Uzbekistan’s reputation. Although Dyakonov says he cannot confirm the authenticity of the documents, it is already known that Uzbek authorities harass the relatives of refugees who fled after the Andijan massacre and other dissidents, frequently summoning them to the police for questioning or searching their homes.
The Uzbek Service of the BBC has conducted a survey of the most popular Uzbek-language Internet sites and the topics most avidly discussed on web forums, and found that religious sites held the most interest for Uzbeks. Islam was the most debated topic in Internet forums. Articles about religious subjects such as the conversion of a British woman to Islam and the threats of an American pastor to burn the Koran were the most viewed and provoked, at times, incendiary comments from readers. Yusuf Rasulov, editor of the Uzbek site Yangi Dunyo (New World) described how his site originally published the literary works of Uzbek emigres abroad, but then found there was more interest in the topics of religion and democracy. Obidkhon kori Nazarov, a religious scholar and preacher, said the brutality of the Uzbek government was causing people to seek more refuge in their religion, and this caused more frequent debates.
The well-known writer Abdulkhamid Ismailov said that while expression was sometimes radical now, he attributed this to the Uzbek government's brutal suppression of religion outside the state, and said that in time, just as under Gorbachev's glasnost period, as people become more acquainted with information previously hidden, they would become more restrained. "Uzbekistan is at the stage of hungry absorption of everything that is still closed; hence the fanaticism and radical reaction," says Ismailov.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog. To subscribe to Uzbekistan News Briefs, a weekly digest of international and regional press, write firstname.lastname@example.org