Shaken by revolutionary developments in Ukraine and Georgia, Uzbekistan is turning away from the West. Officials in Tashkent increasingly see the democratic ideals espoused by the United States and the European Union as "alien" and destructive for Uzbek society.
Uzbekistan's abrupt cancellation on March 1 of a British diplomat's visit is one of many indicators that Tashkent now views the West as an instigator of instability in Central Asia. Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell had been scheduled to arrive in Uzbekistan on March 2. Uzbek authorities reportedly called off talks because of Rammell's insistence on raising human-rights issues during his visit. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Representatives of President Islam Karimov's administration have long railed against the dangers of outside influences and beliefs on Uzbeks. Until recently, Islamic radical ideas were seen as the chief danger to stability. Official rhetoric in recent months, however, would seem to confirm that radical democratic notions are now also viewed a serious threat.
Karimov signaled his growing distrust of Western democratic ideas in a January 28 speech before a joint session of the Uzbek parliament. He called for vigilance against "alien ideologies, going on to speak in harsh terms about the practices of non-governmental organizations (NGO) in Uzbekistan. From Tashkent's point of view, NGOs promoting civil society apparently are an extension of Western government policy, which is aimed at democratizing the region. NGOs "have no future in Uzbekistan," Karimov vowed, alleging that some unnamed NGOs had been engaged in activities that went "far beyond their declared charters and aim[ed] at certain mercenary goals."
Uzbek authorities have mobilized the mass media outlets in an attempt to stem the influence of NGOs. State television's current affairs program, "Axborot Plus," devoted its February 17 broadcast to the NGO issue. Xurshid Dostmuhammad, a member of parliament, suggested that new technologies -- including computers, the Internet and cell-phones -- were corrupting Uzbek youth. "You bring up your child for 20 years, and he becomes an alien in 20 days, or 20 minutes," Dostmuhammad said. "You hope your child will be become a true son of the homeland, but an influx of pernicious information leads him astray."
During the same program, Sayfidden Jorayev, who was identified as a political scientist, lashed out at the foreign NGOs, alleging that they "hold various seminars and choose the most gifted young people and set them against authorities."
Uzbek officials have also started criticizing the US government's role in promoting democratization throughout the world. Perhaps the sharpest attack on US policy occurred on February 11, when Ubaidulla Yamankulov -- a prominent senator, as well as governor of Jizzakh Province stated that "corruption, lawlessness and dictatorship are all about the United States."
Yamankulov hinted that Washington was hypocritical for criticizing Uzbekistan's domestic political and economic policies when the Bush administration officials justified the use of torture against suspected insurgents in Iraq. "Look what they [Americans] are doing in Iraq; there is no democracy there," Yamankulov said.
Given the authoritarian nature of Karimov's administration, it is unlikely that Yamankulov would make such comments without the president's tacit approval, local political observers say. They add that Yamankulov's verbal volley was apparently meant to send the United States a warning to ease up in its criticism of Tashkent's human rights practices.
If Yamankulov was indeed conveying a warning, it did not have its desired effect. A US State Department country report on Uzbekistan's human rights practices characterized Uzbekistan as an "authoritarian state with limited civil rights." The report, released February 28, went on to provide extensive documentation of "numerous, serious [rights] abuses." [To read the report click here].
Following the September 11 terrorism tragedy, the United States and Uzbekistan began forging a strategic partnership in which Tashkent welcomed the establishment of a US military base on Uzbek territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. When the US-led offensive to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein began, Uzbek media hailed outlets hailed the "campaign for democracy against dictatorship." Observers say it remains uncertain how the current tension in political relations between the United States and Uzbekistan will impact military cooperation.
What seems certain, however, is that Karimov no longer considers Washington to be his primary guarantor of security. The Uzbek leader appears intent on hedging all bets, as he seeks to preserve his authority. For over a year, Karimov has worked to improve his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Of late, Karimov's administration has offered a cautious endorsement for a security initiative advanced by Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev on the creation of a Central Asian union of states. "Uzbekistan regards this initiative, above all, as an attempt to boost the regional integration of Central Asia," Uzbek Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiyev said at a February 25 news conference in Kazakhstan. Observers said Uzbekistan's expression of willingness to explore closer ties with its Central Asian neighbors is a significant development, given that regional relations in recent years has been marked by rancor. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Esmer Islamov is an independent journalist in Uzbekistan.