Both the EU and the US made a concerted overture to Uzbek President Islam Karimov to participate in the NATO coalition’s plans for international meetings later this year to discuss peace in Afghanistan after planned US troop withdrawals in 2014, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported. On October 11, Marc Grossman, the American special envoy for Afghanistan, and German envoy Michael Steiner discussed support for Afghanistan's economy with Karimov. Steiner then later told the press that President Karimov had agreed to take part in the two conferences -- in Istanbul November 2 and on December 5 in Bonn. Steiner made it clear why the West is so assiduously seeking Uzbekistan’s cooperation –to ensure “we don't repeat the mistake of '89, but stay engaged both in Afghanistan, as well as in the region," he said, referencing a widely-made criticism of the West’s failure to help Afghanistan recover after Soviet troop withdrawal.
Earlier in Dushanbe, Grossman met with Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon and discussed the US Administration’s concept of post-conflict prosperity: “This vision of the new Silk Road is a way to bring economic development and prosperity to the very important region from Central Asia to New Delhi." For now the path of future prosperity tracks the Northern Distribution Network, the supply line for troops in Afghanistan in which Uzbekistan has been increasingly participating. In the future, the businesses helping the US deliver non-lethal goods to soldiers, if only given the infrastructure, are supposed to morph into a revamped “Silk Road” for trade.
Western diplomats have pushed the concept bilaterally as well as in multilateral settings. About 25 countries met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September to discuss the idea of reviving the Silk Road by developing closer economic ties between Afghanistan and its neighbors, RFE/RL reported.
Uzbekistan has traditionally called for a political solution to the Afghan conflict involving a “six plus two” initiative – a coalition of Afghanistan’s neighbors of China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, plus the United States and Russia, In 2008, Karimov expanded this to “six plus three” to include NATO. Yet while the US took part initially in UN-sponsored meetings a decade ago with this group, it does not accept the formula due to the inclusion of Iran, which is now under sanctions. Even so, Washington is looking for a way to engage Uzbekistan in NATO’s end-game in Afghanistan.
The Popular Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), a new organization made up of the Erk Party and Andijan refugees seeking justice for the mass murder of demonstrators in 2005, suffered a blow recently with the murder of one of their leaders. Fuad Rustamhojaev, a 38-year-old Uzbek émigré businessman who helped set up the PMU and who was actively involved in the organization, was gunned down in late September outside his home in Ivanovo, a city in western Russia. A native of Andijan, Rustamhojaev, had obtained Russian citizenship in 2005. He was married with two young daughters, and ran a business importing textiles from his homeland. Rustamhojaev, whose father was an Arabic scholar and diplomat, spoke Arabic as well, and served as an imam in the local mosque. Russian police are investigating possible political or business motivations in the murder. Eyewitnesses say a taxi drove up to his building, and several men began arguing in Uzbek with each other, before shots rang out.
Fellow PMU members were quick to allege the involvement of the Uzbek secret police (SNB) in the murder, as the Uzbek security services monitor émigrés abroad. “We believe there are serious grounds to suppose that the trail of the murder leads in fact to Tashkent, to the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of National Security,” the PMU said in a statement. A month before his death, SNB agents reportedly visited Rustamhojaev’s home in Andijan and threatened reprisals if he continued his political activity abroad, fergananews.com reported.
Ten days before his assassination, Rustamhojaev gave an interview to the BBC Uzbek Service, defiantly stating that more and more Uzbeks were coming to Russia and even seeking Russian citizenship because conditions were oppressive at home. Tashkent’s relationship with Russia has become prickly in the last year, evidenced by the removal of Russian street names and Soviet-era statues in Tashkent, and Uzbek officials’ de facto boycott of the Moscow-dominated Collective Treaty Security Organization. Rustamhojaev’s frank comments may have rankled some in the Uzbek leadership. In order to import textiles from his homeland, Rustamhojaev would have had to maintain some sort of business ties with officials. While a business or personal dispute is always possible as a motive, because of his high-profile as a political activist, there is concern that the émigré was targeted for his opposition.
The PMU has vowed to continue their efforts to build resistance to the Karimov regime. It is difficult to say how many supporters the mainly exile-driven movement has inside the country. A Facebook group has steadily grown over the last year to 500 members, a relatively small numb`er which reflects both the fear of reprisal for making political statements with one’s real identity and the lack of Internet or mobile phone access in Uzbekistan, where about 25 percent of the population is Internet users. Even so, this is 500 more people who can safely form a political group without interference in Uzbekistan, and in the last year Internet users have doubled in Uzbekistan, one of the fastest growing nations on the web. The PMU has staged demonstrations in Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and other Western cities and increasingly attracted press attention. Yet claims made by some exiles of mass uprisings in Uzbekistan similar to the Arab Spring seem not to be substantiated. Even with heavy censorship in the state media, a network of independent human rights defenders cover pickets and arrests, and they have not reported any large demonstrations.
A new law “on keeping suspected criminals in custody during the investigation of a crime” has drawn mixed reviews from lawyers and human rights activists, uznews.net reports. While for the first time, the law now specifies legal conditions for suspects held in detention, given how much law-enforcers flout existing laws for treatment of detainees, there is skepticism about how effective the new measure will be. Abdurakhmon Tashanov of the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Goodness) human rights center told RFE/RL that he fears the law will do little to change the actual “grim” situation in Uzbekistan's hundreds of pretrial detention centers and jails.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog.