Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Uzbekistan, part of a Central Asian and Middle Eastern/North African tour, essentially sealed a new political and military pact with the dictatorship of President Islam Karimov for geostrategic goals that human rights advocates said came at the expense of principles.
The State Department and Pentagon have been working for months to enlist Tashkent in support of the Northern Distribution Network, the supply line to NATO troops, and also involve Tashkent in post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan following planned US troop withdrawal in 2014. Last month at the US Administration’s request, the Senate Appropriations Committee added language to the foreign operations bill in support of a waiver for restrictions against military aid to Tashkent that had been in place for seven years. Uzbekistan’s reward was Clinton’s visit, which inevitably lent legitimacy to the regime, which has been notorious not only for imprisonment of human rights activists and religious believers but unscrupulous business practices and harassment and even seizure of assets of foreign companies.
Was it worth it? As relations deteriorated with Pakistan, which has been both a key military partner as well as providing the supply route in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the new relationship with, and route through, Uzbekistan, seem dictated by necessity. Yet, Washington does have some leverage with Tashkent – Karimov, who has held power for 22 years, since the Soviet era, has always sought a relationship with the US to play off against Russia – the hegemony of the former leader of the Soviet Union has challenged his own hegemony in Central Asia. The State Department has crafted one of its “21st Century Diplomacy” constructions with Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations: if these nations help the US supply troops for the next few years, the US will help build an infrastructure of trade in the new “Silk Road” and gradually the “engagement approach” will yield more democracy dividends than condemnation and isolation.
Accordingly, a centerpiece of Clinton’s visit to Uzbekistan was her tour of a General Motors plant that is in a joint venture with an Uzbekistan state company to produce vehicles and engines. Clinton announced a new entrepreneurs’ contest where eight Uzbek engineers would receive prizes of $20,000, and also boasted that the existing plant and one soon to open would create jobs – including for Americans. Perhaps this was a nod to a Republican candidate, Herman Cain, about whom Clinton had joked with Afghan President Hamid Karzai when she stopped in Kabul – Cain famously told reporters that if asked who the president of “Ubeki-beki-stan-stan” was, he would say he didn’t know, and it wouldn’t matter because it was unrelated to creating American jobs. Given the precarious conditions for doing business in Uzbekistan, as European companies have found, it is not certain yet how this joint venture will work out. But it’s part of a bargain with a despot that has human rights groups vigorously protesting.
On the eve of Clinton’s visit, a coalition of several dozen human rights activists and labor unions as well as industry and investment groups concerned about forced child labor in Uzbekistan’s lucrative cotton industry urged the Secretary of State to raise the issue of Tashkent’s refusal to let the International Labor Organization enter the country to inspect the fields. Uzbek human rights activists also expressed concern about reports that at the very GM plant Clinton visited, workers had been forcibly mobilized to pick cotton – a common practice throughout Uzbekistan. There has been ample documentation this year as in past years that children as young as 8 and 10 are working in the fields, and that many are certainly below the permissible age of 15 when under some conditions (not involving loss of school time), students may work. The conditions under which they labor are abominable – they work long hours and are exposed to pesticides, they sleep on cardboard on the floors of barracks or sheds, with primitive washing and cooking facilities and insufficient food, for five cents a kilo of cotton.
Clinton apparently raised the forced labor and other issues with Karimov, but mainly in indirect or private statements, according to State Department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity with journalists, AFP reported. Karimov postured for the cameras, saying he hoped to leave democracy as a legacy for his children and grandchildren.
In Tajikistan, Clinton had been vocal herself in her town hall speech in Dushanbe about the need to refrain from persecuting ordinary devout Muslims in an Islamic religious revival, as this may force them to become more extreme. While Karimov has jailed many thousands more Muslims active outside strict state controls on religion, the message was less emphatic in Uzbekistan as it was in private talks. In Dushanbe at a town hall, a Tajik woman asked Clinton why she was meeting with the dictator Karimov, given his brutal rule, and Clinton replied that it takes time to make changes and “it’s a balancing act.”
The State Department has delivered confusing messages about just how they are assessing any changes that might exist. After her meeting with Uzbek Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiev in Washington, before her trip, Clinton said there was certain progress in human rights, although not specifying what was meant. Later, in a letter in reply to an appeal from 20 human rights groups, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake said, “This limited waiver and the provision of defensive border protection equipment to Uzbekistan would not in any way diminish our efforts to encourage respect for human rights in Uzbekistan. It also does not state that we think Uzbekistan has made substantial or adequate progress to date.”
Yet again, a senior State Department official, speaking in Tashkent to travelling reporters on condition of anonymity, said the Uzbek government was making progress on human rights, Bulgaria’s news site Focus-fen.net reported. "I'd say we do have, we do see more willingness on the part of the Uzbeks to work with us on a lot of these big concerns that we have, like trafficking in persons, like religious freedom," the official was quoted as saying. It was not clear what he could have in mind, as in recent months dozens of Muslim religious activists continued to be tortured and tried behind closed doors without sufficient legal aid, Christians continue to be persecuted, and no easing of crackdowns on literature seem to be evident, although Muslims were allowed to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog.