WikiLeaks: Karimov Played U.S. Off Against Russia
The activist site WikiLeaks recently released a reported State Department cable declassified February 11, 2010 and dated February 11, 2000 that describes Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov as critical of what he characterized as Russia's meddling and even provocations in the Central Asian region, and portrayed the Uzbek leader as ready for closer cooperation with the U.S.
In a one-hour meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador John E. Herbst, who was then presenting his credentials, Karimov claimed Moscow was trying to bring Tashkent "back into the fold". He said the Russian media exaggerated the danger of a Taliban victory, claiming the Taliban were "supposedly massing forces on the other side of the border from Termez and acquiring boats to infiltrate across the Amu Darya". Karimov said this was done deliberately "to sow panic among Uzbekistan's people.
According to the cable, Karimov said he believed Russian threats of air strikes on terrorist bases in Afghanistan made in May 1999 were designed to set the Taliban against Uzbekistan -- and manipulate Tashkent into cooperating more with Russian-dominated security arrangements for the region. Yet he said Tashkent wanted to "avoid needlessly provoking conflict with the Taliban" and supported a settlement with "an inclusive government encompassing many different political forces.
In this 2000 meeting, Karimov said the U.S. and Uzbekistan had a lot in common, including on issues in the Middle East, and referenced a meeting with Israeli political leader Natan Sharansky. Karimov said he believed that Russia had "no resources to offer and therefore could not contribute to Middle East peace"
The cable came a decade before another alleged cable released last December which said that 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 in Ferghana Valley who was beaten and hospitalized for demonstrating against a corrupt prosecutor.
The author of that dispatch said that on 18 March 2009, Ambassador Richard Norland, then envoy to Tashkent, "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). The U.S. appeared to mute its human rights criticism after this incident, and for some months did not invite human rights activists to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent.
Another reported cable recently released by WikiLeaks datelined Moscow, February 17, 2010, describes Uzbekistan's increasingly "assertive" role in the region -- and its pushback against Russia:
Uzbek Embassy Political Counselor Farkhad Khamraev termed relations with Russia as "stable and positive," although he was quick to dispel any perception that Russia still dominated the relationship. He said the West should understand that "the old political dynamics in the region have changed," and that Uzbekistan pursued its own national interest. Offering an example of the "new dynamics," Khamraev (quite boldly) claimed that Russia scaled down its plans for a military base in southern Kyrgyzstan after the Uzbeks voiced concerns about its proximity to their border. He said the facility would now be used as a training center for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Obviously, Karimov plays one power off against another, and blows hot and cold on the U.S. and its allies -- after the meeting with NATO in January 2011 apparently didn't go as well as planned, he raised the tariffs for U.S. companies shipping goods on the NDN.
And when Karimov wants to, he warms to Russia opportunistically, as he did last April during a visit to Moscow, when Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in Bishkek, signalling a potential threat to Karimov's regime.
As Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group commented acerbically in January at the time of Karimov's trip to Brussels, "Karimov has played the international community off against itself with the talent that comes from boldness and the experience that comes from more time in the top office than almost any leader in the world".
Washington has to thread the needle carefully in this region. Yesterday, Tajibayeva announced that she was returning the award the State Department had given her last year (and which led to the U.S. ambassador's tongue-lashing) in protest against the award the State Department is giving this year to Kyrgyzstan's President Roza Otunbayeva. Tajibayeva said in an open letter that the Kyrgyz president did not respond adequately to the pogroms last June in Osh region that killed at least 400 people and injured thousands mores, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Announcing her rejection of the U.S. award, Tajibayeva wrote that President Otunbayeva
let my compatriots in Kyrgyzstan be violently killed...did not do anything to prevent the stealing of humanitarian aid sent to my people, [and] failed to stop the 'ethnic cleansing'...[and] who is unable to stop persecutions of Uzbeks, which continue even now...to be on one list with Roza Otunbayeva for me would mean a betrayal of my nation, my people. I cannot be on one list with a person whose hands are covered in blood...
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the first cable was dated February 11, 2010; in fact that was the date of its declassification and it was dated February 11, 2000.