The US-Uzbek strategic partnership appears caught in a downward spiral. Uzbek President Islam Karimov's administration has added "so-called democrats" to its internal enemies list, which has long been dominated by Islamic militants. Such a move indicates that Tashkent could be preparing to make a break with Washington.
Since the Andijan events of May 13, the Uzbek government has pursued a broad campaign to eliminate all forms of dissent. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As part of the crackdown, journalists and human rights activists, including Uzbek and foreign nationals, have been targeted for harassment and, in some cases, arrest. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, Tashkent has steadfastly rejected calls for an international investigation into the Andijan events.
Uzbek officials have long viewed Islamic militants -- who have been blamed for numerous instances of violence, starting with a serious of bombings in Tashkent in February 1999 -- as the main source of domestic instability. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But in a television interview broadcast June 15, Uzbek Culture Minister Alisher Azizkhojayev indicated that the government now believes that civil society activists also pose a threat to Uzbek stability. "If we talk about our internal enemies, they come in two types," Azizkhojayev said. "Some are religious extremists and some are so-called democrats who have spread rumors and falsehoods to the outside world."
Uzbek officials, in stark contrast to independent accounts, have insisted that Islamic militants were responsible for initiating the Andijan events. Azizkhojayev suggested that civil society activists, in their response to Andijan, were "knowingly or unknowingly" aiding and abetting the Islamic radical cause.
In a June 16 meeting with foreign diplomats to discuss preliminary findings of an Uzbek government-sponsored investigation into the Andijan events, Deputy Prosecutor-General Anvar Nabiyev revealed that the death toll from the tragedy now stood at 176, up three from the previous official figure. That number is still far lower than most international estimates, which put the death toll in the 750-range.
A comprehensive report published by Human Rights Watch characterized the Andijan events as a "massacre," in which government security forces opened indiscriminate fire on civilian protesters. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the June 16 briefing, Nabiyev did not budge from the official Uzbek version of events. The preliminary findings, he said, confirmed the Uzbek government view that the Andijan events "were a well-planned and organized action of international radical forces whose ultimate goal is to change [Uzbekistan's] constitutional order by force." Nabiyev's rhetoric provided no indication that the Uzbek government would change its current position and accept an international inquiry into the tragedy.
Uzbek defiance has prompted the United States to steadily toughen its stance towards Karimov's administration. At a June 16 briefing, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that only an "independent international investigation" would be "credible."
Uzbek intransigence, coupled with the US insistence on an international probe, could ultimately result in the break-up of a strategic partnership that took shape following the September 11 terrorist strikes. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In recent days, US and Uzbek officials have sparred over the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, which is the lynchpin of the bilateral alliance. Pentagon officials announced June 15 that Tashkent had imposed restrictions on the American use of the air base, including a prohibition against night flights. US officials added that the Uzbek imposition of restrictions was a reaction to American demands for an independent Andijan probe.
Rice, in her June 16 comments, sought to strike a balance between Washington's perceived strategic interests and its desire to promote democratization. "We have arrangements with the Uzbek government and we continue to hope that we can use those arrangements," Rice said, referring to the Karshi-Khanabad base. Rice went on to say that the Bush administration for the last several years has been "urging the Karimov government to do something about the openness of its political system. The answer to the potential threat of extremism in a country is not to close the system down, but rather to open it up to legitimate and more moderate voices in the political system."
In would appear that the Karimov administration is not willing to listen to such calls for domestic policy changes. Recent comments by top Karimov administration suggest that they are profoundly disillusioned with the US-Uzbek strategic alliance, apparently feeling that the United States has not provided the expected level of security. For example, Azizkhojayev, during his June 15 television interview, turned noticeably bitter when discussing US-Uzbek cooperation. "Those who regard themselves as members of the anti-terror coalition sometimes support such people [Islamic militants] in the [current] information war [surrounding the Andijan events]. As a result of this, although the threat posed by international terrorism is common knowledge, the fight against it has not shown any results."
Another factor in recent Uzbek actions towards the United States is the widely held perception within the Karimov administration that Washington was a sponsor of the recent revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In an effort to create an impression that it retains a broad popular support base, and thus is not vulnerable to regime-change pressure, the Karimov administration has organized a serious of pro-government mass rallies in June.
At a June 2 rally in Jizzakh Province, attended by several thousand residents, officials sought to discredit the Karimov administration's domestic and international critics. "Do not believe any of the human rights defenders' words or deeds," Boymurad Yusupov, who represents Jizzakh Province in the Uzbek parliament, told the crowd. "They are all corrupt hirelings who enjoy washing dirty linen at home and exaggerating because they are unable to realize what is going on."
Authorities scheduled a youth festival in Tashkent for June 18. According to a report in the Tashkentskaya Pravda newspaper, the festival has adopted as its motto one of Karimov's sayings: "The Uzbek people will never be dependent on others."