The Andijan events in Uzbekistan have sharpened the debate among policy makers in Washington over whether American support for Uzbek President Islam Karimov helps or hurts US national security interests. Many in Washington have grown disenchanted with Karimov's authoritarian methods. However, some continue to view the Uzbek leader as a bulwark against Islamic radicals in Central Asia.
On May 29, three US senators visited the Uzbek capital Tashkent and condemned the Karimov administration's handling of the Andijan events, which began May 13. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Uzbek authorities insist that Islamic militants started the Andijan confrontation, in which, according to the official death toll, 173 people died, including 36 Uzbek soldiers. Human rights groups say at least 750 people were killed during the Andijan events, and allege that Tashkent has engaged in a cover-up concerning the extent of the violence used against largely unarmed civilians. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
One of the visiting American senators, John McCain, an Arizona Republican, repeated calls for an independent investigation into what he termed the Andijan "massacre." In addition, McCain pointedly refused to concur with the Uzbek government view that the Andijan protests were started by Islamic terrorists. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Karimov has rejected the demand for an independent investigation.
The Andijan events have helped turn Uzbekistan into a proving ground for competing US foreign policy priorities. One the one hand, Karimov remains an ally of the United States, having helped Washington in its prosecution of the anti-terrorism campaign by making an Uzbek air base available to the American armed forces. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On the other, Karimov has shown himself to be inimical to the global democratization trend advocated by US President George W. Bush. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Washington insiders are now struggling with the question: which policy should be prioritized? Should the United States support a dictator who has pursued a generally pro-American policy? Or, should Washington promote democratization regardless of the strategic, military, energy and other geopolitical costs? No consensus has yet emerged in Washington on this issue, and none may ever develop. Even so, the Bush administration may have to make a choice, and many Washington analysts believe that strategic necessity will probably trump the best of democratic intentions.
The Uzbek dilemma could reignite a turf battle among the State Department, the Pentagon and other US governmental agencies. The Defense Department clearly has no qualms about allying with dictators in the pursuit of enhanced US security. For example, at a recent conference in Washington, a senior military officer raised the possibility of deploying US forces to Turkmenistan. Such a deployment, the officer theorized, could exert pressure on Iran to agree to and comply with international demands concerning Tehran's nuclear program. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Civilian conference participants cringed at the Turkmen base suggestion, but the US officer remained staunchly "open-minded" about opening a "dialogue" with Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov on base possibilities.
The officer seemed to ignore the fact that Turkmenistan has adhered to a policy of neutrality during the post-Soviet era, as well as the fact that Niyazov has acted in recent years to shut the country off from outside influences, and thus it would be highly unlikely for Ashgabat to agree to any kind of basing arrangement. Niyazov sits atop what is generally recognized as one of the most despotic regimes in the world. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The State Department appears to retain hope that Bush will press ahead with his democratization goals. Phillip Zelikow, an adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stated at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference on US-Saudi relations that Bush was aware of the possibility that Islamist forces which are not pro-American may come to power amid the democratization trend, "and he is willing to take that risk."
Many US policy-makers believe that pressure, both bilateral and multilateral, must be exerted on Karimov in order to compel the Uzbek government to implement long-promised political and economic reforms. Such reforms could include giving opposition political parties, including Erk, Birlik and the Sunshine Coalition, greater room for maneuver, and the loosening of state control over mass media. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On a bilateral level, the Bush administration could possibly make continued strategic cooperation with Uzbekistan conditional on Tashkent's implementation of a reform blueprint.
While the best available option may be to press Karimov to reform, a significant number of Washington analysts believe that the Uzbek president is incapable of changing. This inability to open up Uzbekistan's political and economic systems is detrimental to US security interests, as Karimov's continued reliance on force pushes Uzbeks, out of desperation, to resort to violence, and possibly embrace Islamic radicalism. As a result, distaste for Karimov seems to be growing in Washington, and many wouldn't mind seeing a new leader in Tashkent, provided that stability could be maintained.
At present, though, US officials probably can't abandon Karimov because of the credibility of the Islamic radical threat. Indeed, if Karimov's administration collapses there is no force outside of Islamic radicals that could stand a chance of filling the power vacuum.
Helping to restrict US options is the fact that both Russia and China are providing staunch support for Karimov. On his recent visit to Beijing, Karimov was rewarded with a $600 million natural gas pipeline deal. Such assistance certainly serves as a disincentive for Karimov to make domestic changes, and lessens whatever leverage that the United States has with Tashkent.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author and editor of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, 2005)