Uzbek Opposition Leader Released into Changed World

With little popular support, Sanjar Umarov hoped the West would back his calls for political change, but this proved illusory.

Uzbek Opposition Leader Released into Changed World

With little popular support, Sanjar Umarov hoped the West would back his calls for political change, but this proved illusory.

The release of Sanjar Umarov, a high-profile political prisoner in Uzbekistan, passed unremarked in the domestic media, although it was reported by a handful of media outlets in Russia and Kazakstan.

Umarov, head of the Sunny Coalition, was given early release on November 7 after spending four years in prison. He has now travelled to the United States, where his family has lived for some years. 

In 2005, Umarov was sentenced to just under 11 years imprisonment, later reduced to seven, after being convicted of economic crimes including embezzlement, money laundering and tax evasion.

It was clear, however, that the real reason for his incarceration was political, and followed the emergence of the Sunny Coalition as a new opposition force in Uzbekistan in March 2005. Later that year Umarov was among those calling for an independent investigation into the May violence in Andijan.

Appeals which international organisations and US Congressmen made to the Uzbek government on Umarov’s behalf fell on deaf ears over the years.

Although his release was ostensibly on health grounds, the reason it became possible was because the diplomatic climate has now changed.

He was freed following the European Union’s decision to lift the last of the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan because of Andijan. The decision taken by EU foreign ministers on October 27 drew a line under four years of strained relations between Tashkent and western states.

The ending of sanctions appears to have involved a verbal arrangement whereby the EU would normalise relations once the last of the prisoners arrested in the aftermath of Andijan walked free.

Another factor in Umarov’s release is the fact that Washington’s policy towards Central Asia has shifted. President Barack Obama has effectively abandoned the promotion of democratic values in the region in favour of pursuing US strategic interests there.

During President George Bush’s tenure in the White House that a series of revolutions ousted authoritarian leaders in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (March 2005). These changes were a source of inspiration for Umarov as he conceived plans for changing the political system in Uzbekistan.

Umarov was sent to jail at the height of the euphoria surrounding the so-called “colour revolutions”. By the time he came out, political realities in the region had changed dramatically. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, President Askar Akaev was ousted after concentrating power in the hands of his friends and allies. Now the post-revolutionary leadership that so inspired Umarov is busily engaged in doing exactly the same thing, this time with President Kurmanbek Bakiev in charge.

If an objective account of Uzbekistan’s recent history is ever written, it will undoubtedly contain several paragraphs on Umarov. The son of a prominent Soviet solar energy engineer, Giyas Umarov, he was well-connected in the upper echelons of Uzbek society. He became a successful businessman with assets in the US before turning into an opposition activist.

What set him apart from other opposition figures in post-Soviet Uzbekistan is that he tried to achieve political change by enlisting members of the ruling establishment, the so-called “nomenklatura” class. Some were members of President Islam Karimov’s inner circle, others had fallen away from it.

Simultaneously, Umarov was also counting on receiving external support, most notably the US administration which at that point had significant influence in Tashkent. In late 2001, the Uzbeks became allies in the “war on terror” by extending the use of the Khanabad air base to support US-led Coalition’s intervention in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Umarov outlined his somewhat utopian plan for political reform in a letter to the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Detailing how political power should be redistributed, he proposed reducing the president’s executive authority to matters of defence and security. The government would then step down, and opposition members would return from exile to take part in a parliamentary election.

These ideas failed to answer one key question – what would spur President Islam Karimov, with all his authoritarian instincts, to voluntarily curtail his own powers and agree to his opposition rivals playing a role in the political mainstream?

Umarov was probably hoping this obstacle would be removed with Washington’s help.

“Sunny Uzbekistan is appealing to the United States to be part of creating a free and democratic Uzbekistan,” Umarov wrote in his letter to Rice. The letter started with a quote from a speech which George Bush made in Tbilisi in 2005 about the desire for freedom in the hearts of young people.

Pinning hope on support from abroad proved a mistake. US influence in Uzbekistan swiftly evaporated after Washington condemned the authorities’ actions in Andijan, and Tashkent responded by ordering the Americans out of the Khanabad air base. The authorities also shut down many non-government organisations receiving foreign funding, and the Uzbek services of the BBC and RFE/RL were closed and their staff forced to leave the country.

Nor did Umarov’s reliance on disgruntled Uzbek officials who had promised to back his cause come to anything. They rapidly distanced themselves from him and his project the moment his star fell.

There are some important lessons to be learned from Umarov’s attempt to build up opposition momentum.

First, the idea that the US and EU would somehow be able to squeeze Karimov into embarking on democratic reforms proved to be wrong. The West turns out to have very limited leverage at its disposal to put pressure on Central Asian states. Moreover, it lacks a clear road map for bringing democratic values to Central Asia, nor have the efforts to achieve this been either systematic or consistent.

The new approach is visible in a letter which European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso sent to President Karimov on November 11, making it clear Uzbekistan was an important partner with which the EU wanted to build closer relations.

Second, the concept that entire political systems can be reformed by changing the people at the top has proved unfounded. Take Turkmenistan, where Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov replaced the late Saparmurat Niazov in a seamless transition; or Kyrgyzstan, where Bakiev is turning out to be not so very different from his predecessor. These examples demonstrate how new political leaders settle quickly into the ways of a system rooted in the old order, which does not shift in any fundamental way.

The conclusion to be drawn from Umarov’s failed experiment is that democracy cannot be parachuted in, and that maverick figures like him are doomed to marginalisation.

However, even negative experiences offer valuable pointers for future attempts at political change. It is now clear that such reform efforts will only be successful if they draw in and carry along a much broader section of the local population.

Sanobar Shermatova is a Moscow-based expert on Central Asian affairs and sits on the RIA Novosti news agency’s advisory council.


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