Uzbeks Back Away From America

A once close relationship is souring rapidly as the Uzbek leadership rejects the United States’ right to ask what happened in Andijan.

Uzbeks Back Away From America

A once close relationship is souring rapidly as the Uzbek leadership rejects the United States’ right to ask what happened in Andijan.

Sunday, 20 November, 2005

The Uzbek government’s four-year-old alliance with the United States appears to be winding down, with reduced operations at the American military airbase and mounting press attacks on the West.


Uzbek leaders are annoyed by the United States’ insistence on a full, unbiased investigation into the May 13 violence in Andijan, and have suggested that outsiders have no right to question what happens in their country.


When the US came under attack on September 11, 2001 and decided to retaliate against al-Qaeda and its Taleban allies in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan was among the first countries to offer the use of its territory for American military flights.


President Islam Karimov’s decision was a groundbreaking move because even though Central Asian republics had joined the OSCE and held a few joint exercises with NATO, the region was still widely viewed as lying firmly within Moscow’s sphere of influence.


Since then, the US has maintained an outpost at Khanabad in southern Uzbekistan, a former Soviet Air Force facility near the city of Karshi less than 200 kilometres north of the Afghan border.


For US policymakers, the strategic requirements of its “war on terror” appeared to outweigh continuing concerns about Uzbekistan’s record on human rights and democracy. From Tashkent’s perspective, the arrangement appeared a happy one because of the kudos and assistance that US support brought, and because Karimov framed his own struggle with Islamic militants within the context of the international counter-terrorism effort.


However, US-Uzbek relations were marred by the violence in Andijan, in which security forces opened fire on thousands of demonstrators. While the Tashkent government says 173 people died, and all the civilians killed were armed militants, reporters and human rights activists who witnessed the police action suggested the fatalities ran into hundreds, including women and children.


Immediately after May 13, human rights groups suggested that the US government’s response was muted by the desire to maintain the strategic partnership. But the US position has since evolved and hardened.


The State Department has stepped up pressure for an independent inquiry involving the international community, a proposal so far rejected by the Uzbek government. In mid-June, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said US policy towards Uzbekistan was under review, and he cited previous cuts in assistance as an example of possible measures that might be taken.


Addressing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly when it met in Washington on July 1, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was openly critical of the Uzbeks’ refusal to allow outsiders to play a role in investigating the Andijan crackdown.


“The governments of some OSCE states, most notably Belarus and Uzbekistan, are failing to live up to their commitments on human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” she said. “They reject OSCE’s offers of assistance, charging interference in their internal affairs. That was a false charge when the Soviets made it, and it is a false charge now.”


Uzbekistan has reacted badly to the mounting diplomatic pressure. Without making an explicit link, it placed restrictions on US operations at the Khanabad base including a ban on night flights. Announcing this decision on June 15, a Department of Defence spokesman Bryan Whitman said “some limitations” had been imposed in the previous two weeks.


The Pentagon spokesman did not provide details of the disruption the changes had caused, but the Washington Post reported that Hercules search-and-rescue planes had been moved to Bagram in Afghanistan, while cargo planes were now operating via the US airbase in Kyrgyzstan.


This was confirmed by staff working at the Khanabad base, who told IWPR that most of the American aircraft were “long gone”. They reported that many of the 1,500 US personnel at the facility were “packing their bags”, and one Uzbek national working with aircraft at Khanabad said the US military was busy dismantling radar systems and other types of equipment.


At a local level, many people were unaware of the restrictions their government had imposed on the US military, and attributed the changes instead to rumours of a planned attack by some Islamic group. They argued that a heightened state of alert explained the tighter controls introduced at the base, with everyone going in having to undergo a thorough search.


For local staff employed at Khanabad, the prospect that the US could leave altogether is worrying. “The work has to some extent improved our lives,” said one worker, who did not want to be named. “If the Americans go how will we live, how will we feed our children?”


On July 5, a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional security grouping which brings Russia and China together with Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, issued a statement calling for a date to be set for the US and its coalition allies to withdraw from Central Asia. It was not clear what role Uzbekistan played in formulating the statement. The US government rejected the statement, making it clear that it would talk to its countries where it had a military presence only on a one-on-one basis. “Our presence… is determined by the terms of our bilateral agreements under which both countries have concluded that there's a benefit to both sides from our activities,” said the State Department’s McCormack.


The Uzbek leadership’s displeasure at being criticised by a formerly supportive ally has been communicated at arm’s length, principally through the media and leading public figures.


Towns across Uzbekistan have hosted a series of public meetings at which speaker after speaker harangues the US. In a place like Uzbekistan, events of this kind do not take place unless they have been set up by the authorities.


At rallies in the central town of Jizzakh, local human rights activists and internet journalists were branded as “American stooges”. Afterwards, some were threatened by groups of civilians and told they should move out of the area.


At one such event held at on June 14 at the Jizzakh regional government, among the leading journalists called to address an audience of young people was Ibrohim Normatov, editor of the Mohiat newspaper, who informed those present that “the events in Andijan were organised by the United States and Britain, with the help of NATO”


“The Americans are spreading slanderous rumours about our motherland all over the world. They want us to adopt the western way of life and western democracy. We know for a fact that the West means prostitution, corruption and impunity. We don’t need that way of life.”


Normatov’s rhetoric took an odd turn when he and other speakers began hurling abuse at the tractors the United States has supplied to the agricultural sector, blaming this “obsolete American technology” for the consistently poor grain harvest in this part of Uzbekistan.


The print and broadcast media are tightly controlled by Uzbekistan’s government, so that strongly-worded editorial comment can be taken as an officially-sanctioned view.


For example, the Ishonch newspaper launched a broadside against the West –specifically the US and Britain - saying they had a covert plan to destabilise and “re-divide” the whole of Central Asia. It said they were using Islamic militants to create tensions in the region.


After one criticial article in the government-run Narodnoye Slovo, US Ambassador Jon Purnell responded with a June 15 letter to the editors, reiterating calls for an “independent investigation with international involvement as the best means of determining what happened and how to prevent such incidents in the future”.


Uzbek state media officials are so keen to follow the government line that even entertainment programmes have been switched to reflect the new thinking. After the State Department began using tougher language, TV schedulers retaliated by taking American-made films off the screen and replacing them with Arab and South Korean soaps.


More ominously, the authorities have shown their apparent rejection of working with the US by hitting out at non-government organisations, NGOs, funded by Washington.


On July 4, Internews Network, a major media development NGO, which has had a presence in Uzbekistan for a decade, found itself facing charges of illegally producing broadcast and print material. Two people who had worked with Internews were slapped with criminal charges.


Internews said in a statement that the charges came at the end of “a year-long campaign to limit the activities of western non-governmental democracy organisations”. But the process appears to have been exacerbated by As a result of the international community’s calls for a proper investigation into what happened in Andijan, “pressures on international NGOs working in the country have only increased”, it said.


When President Karimov visited Moscow last week, he was not forced to listen to talk of massacres from his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, merely praise for restoring stability to the area.


The two men appeared to strengthen the growing rapprochement between two countries whose relationship was until recently lukewarm, because of Tashkent’s desire to play the lead role in the Central Asian region and its refusal to join Moscow’s economic and security partnerships with former Soviet neighbours.


As Karimov arrived back in Uzbekistan, people there started talking about foreign military airbase again. But this time, they reckon, it’s the Russians’ turn.


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