Uzbekistan: GM Opens Plant Where Clinton "Talked Rights"
As expected, General Motors (GM) has formally opened up its new plant in Uzbekistan with local joint venture partner UzAvtosanoat (GM has a 52 percent stake). Like all firms in Uzbekistan, UzAvtosanoat is state controlled and was even founded by President Islam Karimov himself in 1992. The new facility is slated to employ 1,200 people and produce more than 225,000 engines.
GM's plant has become something of a showcase for the US Administration's new Silk Road initiative, and is supposed to be emblematic of the opportunities coming for Uzbek business people/government officials to make money from cooperation with the US. That's why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstratively paid a visit last month.
At a conference November 14 on Central Asia organized by conservative think-tank Jamestown Foundation, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert O. Blake, Jr. responded to an audience question about why Uzbekistan didn't sign the recent Istanbul declaration on post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan -- first with a dodge (he said he couldn't speak for Tashkent) and then with an enthusiastic appreciation for GM:
Secretary Clinton as many of you know was recently in Uzbekistan and also in Tajikistan. She had the opportunity to tour the General Motors plant in Tashkent. That plant itself is quite an interesting example of how Uzbekistan itself can benefit from greater integration. The plant itself is now producing 200,000 vehicles and drive trains. And most of those or a good portion of those are being exported to other parts of the region.
The question was made about Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan did not sign the Istanbul declaration. But nonetheless, Uzbekistan has been a very strong partner and has worked really hard to develop, for example, the rail line from its border to Mazari-i-Sharif, which is quite important. It's also been involved in providing extensive amounts of electricity, much of which now lights Kabul, it has been, again, a very, very important part of development in that part of Afghanistan. It's developing a number of other cross-border arrangements into Afghanistan. So those are exactly the kind of projects that we're trying to encourage. Even though Uzbekistan has evinced some skepticism about regional cooperation, it's important to note that they've been very supportive of trying to develop bilateral projects with Afghanistan, and that those projects have been very, very helpful.
Central Asia-watchers have been arguing about whether or not Clinton should have been more vocal in raising human rights on her visit to Tashkent -- and whether in fact she did, after all, make some statements about democracy -- but it was just that her remarks were censored by the state-controlled state media.
Although it had seemed to me that Clinton was rather muted on rights issues in Uzbekistan by contrast with her town hall in Tajikistan, a Choihona reader pointed out that the US-funded Voice of America's Uzbek Service ran two upbeat pieces, one saying Clinton raised human rights in her two-hour meeting with Karimov and the other with a headline saying she "talked human rights" in her speech at the GM plant.
I took out a magnifying glass to go over the published original text of her speech at the GM plant again, and found that sure enough, at the bottom, in the next to last sentence, there was a line about rights, sandwiched between two other lines about business:
Entrepreneurship is a core value for my country, and we want to encourage it here in Uzbekistan. We believe in order to take even a greater advantage of the global marketplace, Uzbekistan needs to continue its reforms in rule of law, democracy, and human rights. And I’d like to congratulate GM Uzbekistan on being named a finalist for the State Department’s 2011 Award for Corporate Excellence.
It doesn't seem like much, and it's troubling to see that the concept of democracy and rights are referenced not for their own sakes, but merely instrumentally to get "greater advantage of the global marketplace." Of course, generally countries that allow "the free flow of people, information, goods, and services" (as the mantra has it) do better economically. The question is how to get there.
Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch has weighed in on regime change at Foreign Policy with a piece, "Kisses for Karimov."
Some may make the point that "for a little love from the West," Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and suspended support for terrorism, writes Malinowski. But "cultivating Libya's dictator also carried costs," he says. "It reinforced the cynicism with which many people in the Middle East viewed American and European claims that they were pursuing principled policies in their region".
For years, successive administrations told the Uzbek government -- and its beleaguered opponents -- that aid would never be provided absent some improvement in human rights. Now the Uzbeks are in danger of learning what the Qaddafis once thought they knew: If you have something the Americans want, hold out -- they won't stand on principle forever.
What the Americans want -- need -- is the supply route in and out of Afghanistan, adjacent to Uzbekistan. So the question is how to run a credible human rights policy given that exigency.
Malinowski suggested avoiding “happy talk about engagement” in a “transactional relationship," while “consistently condemning human rights abuses." And be ready for the day when it is time to say, in Saif al-Qaddafi's choice words, "bye-bye," he added.
Evidently, US officials don't feel they can be so blunt, and don't see the "bye-bye" coming as soon as Human Rights Watch may see it.
Blake did not seem to be as concerned about being left hooked up to the wrong sorts if regime change did unexpectedly happen to come to Uzbekistan. When a Jamestown audience member quizzed him on whether all the Silk Road projects might disintegrate if America's partners in Central Asia met the same fate as some leaders in the Middle East, Blake was unperturbed, and said that economic advantages would mean that the joint ventures would prevail.