Revelations from the WikiLeaks site confirm what many observers have sensed in the last decade: that Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov is playing Russia and the US off against each other, alternatively blowing hot and cold about each one and complaining of each to the other, to gain maximum advantage for himself. An alleged declassified cable dated February 11, 2000 describes Karimov as critical of what he characterized as Russia's meddling and even provocations in Central Asia, and portraying himself as prepared for closer cooperation with the US. US Ambassador John E. Herbst was just presenting his credentials at that time, and Karimov claimed to him in a meeting that Moscow was trying to bring Tashkent back into its orbit, exaggerating the threat of the Taliban. He thought that stories of forces massing on the Afghan side of the border across from Termez and Russians threats to make air strikes at terrorist bases at the time were efforts to try to wrangle Uzbekistan into the Russian-dominated security arrangements for the region.
To butter up the US, Karimov said the US and Uzbekistan held common positions on the Middle East and referenced a meeting then in 2000 with Israeli political leader and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. He even went so far as to say Russia had nothing to offer and couldn't contribute to Middle East peace.
A decade later, another cable was sent with the opposite scene: Karimov "flew into a rage" after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bestowed the State Department's "Women of Courage" award on Mutabar Tajibayeva, a human rights activist from the Ferghana Valley. The cable author said that Ambassador Richard Norland on March 18, 2009 "submitted to a personal tongue-lashing from Karimov" with an "implicit threat to suspend transit of cargo for US forces in Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network" (NDN). And in 2010, yet another cable February 17, 2010 described an Uzbek official saying relations with Russia were "stable and positive" and that "the old political dynamics in the region have changed" -- citing as evidence of this Russia's scaling down of its plans for a military base in southern Kyrgyzstan after Uzbekistan voiced concerns about its proximity to their border. The facility would still be used for a training center for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In April 2010, Karimov opportunistically visited Moscow at the time when Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in Bishkek, signaling a potential threat to Karimov's own regime. After a meeting with NATO in January 2011 apparently didn't go as well as planned, Karimov raised the tariffs for UScompanies shipping goods on the NDN.
As fickle as Uzbekistan can be, the US values its favoritism -- when it can get it. For the sake of the war effort in Afghanistan and the NDN, human rights have received somewhat of a light touch from the US administration. Evidence of this came at a recent US hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee at which Assistant Secretary of State Robert O. Blake, Jr. testified, which emphasized the dialogue about "democratic reform" and de-emphasized the many severe human rights problems as "the many challenges" in the region. Blake did mention the raising of the issue of forced child labor in Uzbekistan's profitable cotton industry, and noted the need for "opening up the media environment" (i.e. stop the arrest of journalists on libel charges), curtailing abuses by security forces (a hint at the rampant torture in Uzbekistan), and ending harassment of domestic and international NGOs. Regrettably, Blake didn't include religious freedom and the mistreatment of thousands of devout Muslims who have been jailed, tortured, and tried behind closed doors and sentenced to lengthy terms.
Ezgulik (Mercy), a leading human rights group in Uzbekistan, is facing criminal prosecution in a libel case for which the group has already been tried in civil court, the independent Uzbek online news service uznews.net reported. The case stems from a statement Ezgulik made in 2007 regarding popular singer Dilnura Kadyrjanova after her death, on behalf of her family. In December 2010, police raided Ezgulik's office and confiscated equipment to pay for the fines in the libel suit. In February, police informed Ezgulik that a criminal case involving the same statement that had been the subject of a civil suit was now opened under the criminal libel statutes of the Uzbek Criminal code, punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine as high as $12,600.
The case is the latest in a series of libel suits launched against both journalists and human rights activists who have been critical of abusive Uzbek state practices. They illustrate the lengths to which the regime will go to control the independent press -- if there are people willing to publish information outside the state confines, they will suffer harsh consequences. This sort of retaliation explains why popular movements have a difficult time getting started in Uzbekistan. In an essay on the silence surrounding the 2005 Andijan massacre published on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's web site, Dana E. Abizaid explains a key factor as to why the demonstrations at the time -- and the subsequent massacre -- could not obtain very much resonance in the international community: there was no Al Jazeera on the scene to film the atrocity and broadcast it around the world.
To ensure that the coverage of the Middle Eastern revolutions doesn't give people in Uzbekistan any ideas, the state media has essentially kept a blackout on the news, and now state authorities are going even further: mobile operators are now required to notify the government if they see any mass distributions of text messages with "suspicious content," EurasiaNet reports, citing Russia's RBC Daily..
The Turko-File notes that Uzbek authorities are cracking down on Turkish stores operating in Uzbekistan, and have rounded up 54 Turkish nationals and closed 50 Turkish businesses for alleged violation of the law and "damage to the economy," The Hurriyet Daily News reported, citing the main state Uzbek television channel.
The BBC's Uzbek Service has some more details and theories about the crackdown on the Turkish businesses, which were accused of being fronts for an extremist Islamic group. The stores were said to be supporting the banned Nurchilar or Nurcus movement, which attracts followers of the teachings of the Turkish Islamic philosopher Nursi. According to Uzbek television, about 400 million soums (approximately $174,000) were confiscated from the stores' accounts and managers were prosecuted. Armed and masked agents burst into the stores and forced managers to the floor; an unnamed Turkish Embassy official called the actions "terrorism.” They rightly asked why the government was going after them now, when they have been operating in Uzbekistan for years. The evidence of some kind of Islamic activity hasn't been provided, and sources told the BBC that it was more likely a turf war between various business groups in Uzbekistan.
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 email@example.com
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