During a Central Asian tour that focused on regional security issues, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gingerly applied pressure on the presidents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to improve their dubious human rights records. When pressing Uzbek President Islam Karimov to reform, Clinton reportedly secured a commitment from him to change his ways. But the lack of any specific reform pledges made skeptics wonder if Karimov was merely saying what the secretary of state wanted to hear.
Clinton visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on October 22 as part of a regional tour that earlier had taken her to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Karimov reportedly told Clinton -- according to a senior State Department official speaking on background -- that he wants to go down in the history books as a reformer.
“The Secretary noted the need for progress on [rights-related] issues. President Karimov commented that he wants to make progress on liberalization and democratization, and he said that he wants to leave a legacy of that for his – both his kids and his grandchildren,” the State Department representative said, without mentioning any specific reforms planned. “The Secretary welcomed that and said that that would help to build a long-term foundation for Uzbekistan but also for our [bilateral] relations.”
In both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan Clinton mentioned that crackdowns on religious expression risked going too far, and could ultimately bolster Islamic radicals, rather than contain them. In the Tajik capital Dushanbe, Clinton suggested that recent steps to control faith could drive “legitimate religious expression underground” and thus fuel extremism.
Admonitions aside, a central purpose for Clinton’s stopovers was to thank Uzbek and Tajik leaders for their support for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. Both countries border Afghanistan and serve as transit points in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), an overland supply route that delivers non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan from Europe through Central Asia.
Beyond offering effusive thanks, Clinton assured Karimov and Tajik President Imomali Rahmon that the United States will remain engaged in the region after the planned pullout of troops from Afghanistan in 2014. “I thanked the president [Rahmon] for the critical role Tajikistan has played in the international community's efforts to bring security and peace to Afghanistan,” Clinton said in Dushanbe, in remarks quoted by the State Department. She also described Dushanbe as “a strong partner.”
Uzbekistan is the key cog in the NDN network, handling the bulk of Afghan-bound supplies. The senior State
Department representative said no new initiatives concerning NDN were discussed during the secretary’s visit. “She didn’t get into that much detail,” the State Department official said. “It was more of just thanking them and then, again, talking about everything that we’re trying to get accomplished and a real focus, again, on the New Silk Road.” The New Silk Road is commercially oriented initiative that seeks to expand trade links between Central and South Asia, with Afghanistan acting as a transit hub.
The day before arriving in Central Asia, Clinton was in Islamabad urging the Pakistani government to take steps to contain Islamic militants. In a particularly pointed remark, she told Pakistani officials that “you can’t keep snakes in your back yard and expect them to only bite your neighbors.” Against the backdrop of US-Pakistani tension, the strategic significance of the NDN has risen rapidly. Over half of coalition supplies going into Afghanistan by land now travel via the NDN network.
Of late, Washington has stepped up its engagement of Uzbekistan, apparently with the aim of ensuring Tashkent’s support for NDN’s expanded operations. For example, the Obama administration has moved in recent months to lift restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan. In addition, Clinton angered human rights activists in September, when she announced she saw “some signs” of progress in Uzbekistan’s democratization record. Clinton – who offered no specifics – was speaking on September 29 after meeting Uzbek Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiyev in Washington, the day after Barack Obama called Karimov and thanked him for supporting the NDN.
Uzbekistan had taken a PR battering in early September, when rights activists caused organizers of New York Fashion Week to cancel a runway event to showcase apparel designed by the Uzbek leader’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova.
Prior to Clinton’s arrival in Tashkent, Uzbek human rights defender Norboy Kholzhigitov was released from prison in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as “an advance gesture ahead of Clinton’s visit.” Hugh Williamson , HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director, described the release as “an encouraging development,” but the organization said that at least 12 other rights activists remained behind bars “on wrongful charges.”
“Washington should not allow Uzbekistan’s standing as a strategic partner to distort reality about the government’s deplorable record,” the rights watchdog cautioned.
In one of the most notorious instances of abuse in Uzbekistan, two prisoners died after being immersed in boiling water in 2003 – a practice that the same State Department official described at the Tashkent briefing as “a thing of the past.”
Clinton made it clear during this trip that she favors engagement, rather than trying to isolate governments with rights-record issues. “I can assure you that we have raised all of the human rights issues in Uzbekistan and elsewhere,” she said at a meeting with civil society leaders in Dushanbe. “But we have also learned over the years that after a while, after you’ve made your strong objections, if you have no contact, you have no influence.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.