When it comes to authoritarian Uzbekistan’s dismal human rights record, the Obama administration says “strategic patience” should characterize its relationship with Tashkent. But the premise of strategic patience in Uzbekistan’s case is flawed because Tashkent plays by a different set of rules.
Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive states on earth. It also happens to be a northern neighbor of Afghanistan, so for most of the 21st century, Tashkent has been as a key cog in the US-led struggle to contain Islamic militants. These days, geopolitical circumstances are changing, yet US policy seems to be lagging behind the times.
Nisha Biswal, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, summarized the administration’s position on Uzbekistan in a recent interview. US policy should be “the right balance of pressure, partnership, and a certain amount of strategic patience in how change can take place,” Biswal said, without mentioning Washington’s recent gift of hundreds of military vehicles to the Uzbek government.
Strategic patience? US troops are now mostly out of Afghanistan, and hence there is a reduced dependence by Washington on Uzbekistan’s railway lines to transport military supplies for the Afghan war effort. Thus, hard questions can now be asked, like where is the evidence to support the US government belief that patience can bring about meaningful changes to repressive Uzbek policies?
More importantly, how much patience are the people of Uzbekistan supposed to have exactly?
How much patience do the thousands of unjustly jailed Uzbeks need, when they have been rotting in prison for years, even decades, subjected to torture and ill treatment, under a government that will not even allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to have regular access to prisons?
How much patience should the over two million adult and child laborers show when they are forced into the fields for weeks every year to pick cotton, a big money earner for the government?
How long are the survivors of the 2005 Andijan massacre supposed to wait for justice? The killing of hundreds of largely peaceful protesters in that eastern city by government forces – firing into crowds from atop armored personnel carriers – was one of Eurasia’s bloodiest mass killings of recent years. It was followed by attacks on witnesses and show trials. Is a decade not long enough to wait for an independent investigation?
How long should the people of Uzbekistan wait for a free press? They have never had anything close since the country gained independence over 23 years ago, as many exiled and jailed journalists will confirm. Just ask the world’s longest imprisoned journalist, Muhammad Bekjanov, who has spent more than 16 years behind bars and has endured torture.
And how patient do Uzbeks have to be for even the tiniest green shoot of democracy to grow? At least five more years, it seems. This month, two political parties in the country’s rubber-stamp parliament “nominated” Karimov for another five-year term. The 76-year-old has ruled the Central Asian nation of over 30 million since being appointed as the then-Soviet republic’s Communist Party boss in 1989. Although the Constitution clearly prohibits a person from serving more than two consecutive terms as president, Karimov is now finishing up his third, and is expected to stand for “election” for a fourth term in March.
Of course, all of these abuses are Tashkent’s, not Washington’s, but how long does the world have to wait for a more effective US policy on Uzbekistan? There is no evidence to suggest that patience will bring about any reform or human rights improvements in Uzbekistan. On the contrary, the state of civil and political rights in the country has gone from bad to worse even during a period of increased diplomatic contacts and military cooperation between the Obama administration and the Uzbek government over the past six years. During that same span, it should be noted, Uzbekistan has remained on the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” for its serial violations of religious freedom.
Some may argue that Tashkent made an important gesture by reducing the numbers of the youngest children mobilized to pick cotton during the annual autumn harvest. However, that only happened after a sustained campaign of international pressure and a boycott of Uzbek cotton by over 153 apparel brands, including Gap, Walmart, and others. It also followed the US State Department’s decision to place Uzbekistan on a list of the countries with the worst records in combating human trafficking, a category that includes the practice of forced labor.
The US government has additional concrete tools readily available to encourage changes in Uzbek practices. These could include re-asserting legislative conditions on the provision of military aid in the Leahy Amendment that the Obama administration has waived since 2012. There is also the possibility of targeted sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act. And Washington could additionally craft a visa ban and asset freeze policy for some Uzbek officials responsible for torture, forced labor, and other egregious rights violations.
Congress has shown a growing interest in Uzbekistan, so if the administration fails to reverse its current policy, it may well be time for Congress to assert itself on the Uzbek question.
Ultimately, the premise of “strategic patience” is dismissive of those who have suffered, and who continue to suffer in Uzbekistan. Moreover, it seems to run counter to a vision that President Obama outlined last September, a vision in which the US government expands efforts to better protect and empower human rights groups and the activists who risk their lives to fulfill their missions.
That vision should hold especially true for Uzbekistan. After over 23 years of facing the same problems and seeing no meaningful improvements in Tashkent, it long ago stopped being “strategic” to maintain “patience” as a policy.
Steve Swerdlow is a Central Asia researcher and Andrew Stroehlein is European media director at Human Rights Watch. HRW receives funding from the New York-based Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices.