Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbeks Back As US Allies of Convenience

Memories of Andijan fade as Americans re-engage with Uzbekistan to secure Afghan supply route.
By Philomène Remy
  • Hundreds of Andijan residents fled to Kyrgyzstan in the days that followed the shootings. (Photo: Vyacheslav Oseledko)
    Hundreds of Andijan residents fled to Kyrgyzstan in the days that followed the shootings. (Photo: Vyacheslav Oseledko)

Five years after the Andijan massacre, the United States’ re-engagement with Uzbekistan to secure a safe transport route into Afghanistan is coming under growing scrutiny.

Human rights activists and Central Asia experts recall that the relationship foundered in 2005 over allegations of Uzbek government brutality, and warn that western states risk being burned a second time since the human rights situation has not improved.

The US rapprochement with Tashkent centres on the Northern Distribution Network, NDN, an overland route allowing military supplies for the Coalition and NATO forces to come in from the north of Afghanistan, given that the southern routes through Pakistan are fraught with danger.

Uzbek-US agreements to secure the supply route come as western states are reviving relations with Uzbekistan on a broader raft of diplomatic and economic issues. But rights groups are worried that re-engaging with a state that shows little sign of reciprocating means that human rights are once again taking a back seat to realpolitik.

BLOODSHED AND DENIAL

When hijacked planes smashed into targets in the US on September 11, 2001, Uzbekistan swiftly offered the use of its territory to supply the US-led Coalition moving into Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda members and their Taleban allies. Tashkent concluded a deal allowing the American military to operate out of an airfield at Karshi in the south of the country.

The US partnership with Tashkent reflected a swing towards pragmatic security relationships led by the Pentagon, while the more complex diplomacy pursued by the State Department – which included raising concerns about human rights abuses and lack of democracy – receded into the background.

That all changed after May 13, 2005, when Uzbek security forces opened fire on crowds of demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan.

Eyewitness accounts by IWPR’s Galima Bukharbaeva and other reporters told of large numbers of people gathered on Andijan square who were mown down by automatic fire, with the wounded finished off at close quarters. The authorities continue to state that 187 people died, but calculations by local and international rights groups put the figure closer to 1,000. IWPR reporters interviewed people who saw bodies being bundled away for secret burial.

The government asserted – as it still does – that it was facing a coup attempt by a dangerous group of fundamentalists. In the days and weeks that followed, it moved swiftly to close off alternative accounts of events by arresting not only alleged ringleaders, but also human rights campaigners and others who had witnessed the shootings.

The scale of the violence and the government’s adamant refusal to listen to concerns about it led to mounting calls from the international community for an independent investigation.

The European Union imposed sanctions and Washington demanded a proper investigation. The Uzbek government reacted badly – forcing western NGOs and media organisations to leave the country, and summarily ejecting the Americans from the Karshi airbase.

Relations cooled dramatically, and the Uzbeks swung back towards Moscow, which offered economic support without insisting on a better human rights record.

RENEWED TIES AND COMMON SECURITY CONCERNS

From around the beginning of 2008, however, Uzbekistan and western states embarked on rapprochement, at first tentatively but then increasingly with confidence.

Tashkent began putting out feelers to the West, and both the US and the EU reciprocated with renewed attempts at dialogue. The EU eased its sanctions, which were largely symbolic anyway, in 2007 and 2008, and dropped the remaining ones in October 2009, clearing the way to better relations.

For Washington, the impetus for reviving the relationship came from the need for alternative supply routes to roads through volatile Pakistan. Uzbekistanagreed to allow its territory to be used for the NDN. Before that, the only route in from the north was by air, via the Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan.

As Richard Norland, the US ambassador in Tashkent, told IWPR, “The Northern Distribution Network is certainly important because it gives military forces different transportation options, in addition to the southern and air routes.”

In an interview for the US publication Defense Standard last summer, the director of the US military’s Defense Logistics Agency, Vice-Admiral Alan Thompson, spoke of “huge challenges in moving things on the ground into Afghanistan”, given that the two roads through Pakistan were effectively dirt tracks, and were periodically attacked by the Taleban insurgents.

The NDN had already reduced this bottleneck “to a large degree”, he said, and was supplying roughly 70 per cent of the fuel the US was bringing in for forces in Afghanistan, for example.

Aside from its immediate military purpose, Washington argues that the NDN will enhance regional trade and economic activity.

“It is creating the backbone for investment activity and expanded trade once the situation in Afghanistan will be stabilised,” Norland said.

LIMITS TO SECURITY COOPERATION

Uzbek president Islam Karimov made it known in February 2009 that NATO could use his country’s territory and airspace to deliver “non-lethal” military freight to Afghanistan. In May that year, Tashkent granted South Korea rights to modernise the airport at Navoi in the west of the country, with a view to providing transit services for NATO planes carrying non-military freight to Afghanistan. Navoi has good road and rail connections to the Afghan border.

The indirect arrangement involving the South Koreans allows NATO access to air transit facilities without having to agree a new airbase deal with Tashkent.

No-one, however, is talking about returning to the pre-2005 situation where the Americans had their own military base.

According to Bruce Pannier, a Central Asia analyst with RFE/RL radio in Prague, “They (the US) are trying to get as much as they can, but the limits have been set after 2005.”

The renewal and expansion of US-Uzbek security cooperation is also bringing a wider engagement on political and economic matters, though human rights are not high on the Uzbeks’ agenda.

“The key objective is to rebuild a relationship of trust, working on issues that matter to both,” Norland said.

One of those issues is clearly Afghanistan, where the presence of Taleban insurgents and their links to Central Asian militants over recent years has been a constant worry for Uzbek leaders. Karimov has proposed a regional format for bringing neighbouring states into talks on securing Afghanistan’s future.

“The Uzbekistan government is quite concerned about what is happening next door, as we are,” Norland said. “It remains a fragile region, and every responsible actor is looking at how to enhance long-term stability.”

In December, the Uzbeks and Americans held their first formal “bilateral dialogue” since 2005. Norland said the talks focused on four key areas – security, political issues, economics and the “human dimension”.

Senior officials like Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command,have also visited Tashkent recently.

An action plan approved by Karimov in late January includes a programme of reciprocal visits with the US and joint projects concerning political, economic, defence and security matters, including the NDN. 

“There’s been a change of administration in America, and more intelligent people have come to power,” commented Viktor Ivonin, an analyst based in Tashkent. “Stability [in Uzbekistan] is to their advantage. They’ve realised that things would become difficult for them if there were tensions here. They are trying to work with Karimov.”

DISPUTED PROGRESS ON HUMAN RIGHTS

The period from 2001 to 2005 was marked by frequent accusations from international campaign groups that Washington was ignoring abuses in Uzbekistan in order to promote its security interests. In the end, though, it was the Andijan violence, with allegations of human rights violations too large to ignore, that soured the relationship.

The question now is whether the new engagement, again with a heavy emphasis on security matters, comes at the expense of human rights.

Western states are now arguing – as they have done during every period of engagement with Uzbekistan in the last two decades – that this time round, the country really is making progress.

When EU foreign ministers dropped the last of the sanctions against Uzbekistan in October, they said in a statement that progress on Tashkent’s part including engaging in a “human rights dialogue”, releasing several activists, introducing the habeas corpus principle into national legislation, and ratifying international conventions banning child labour. The statement expressed hope for “further substantive steps to improve the rule of law and the human rights situation”.

Ambassador Norland cited similar moves, and also the abolition of the death penalty and efforts to combating human trafficking.

“No one can say that there has been no progress in terms of human rights,” he said.

At the same time, he made it clear that the argument for respecting human rights could not be outweighed by citing security concerns such as the threat posed by extremist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group which was active in Central Asia in 1999 and 2000 and has since operated from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“As in every country including the US, there is a need to balance measures taken for national security with support for civil society and human rights,” he said.

Rights activists contest the argument that things are getting better, saying what are presented as incremental improvements are no more than tactical window-dressing by Tashkent.

“There are absolutely no improvements in the respect of human rights since the dramatic events of Andijan in 2005. The situation might even be getting worse.” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch's advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia.

Human Rights Watch says that five years after Andijan, the authorities are still persecuting the relatives of people suspected of involvement in the protests. On April 30, Dilorom Abduqodirova, a refugee who returned to Uzbekistan in January after the authorities promised she would not be penalised, was sentenced to ten years in prison.

On March 26, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a set of damning findings on the situation in Uzbekistan, following its periodic review of human rights in that country.

It said the authorities in Uzbekistan had failed to investigate the Andijan violence properly; torture and other forms of ill-treatment continued to be reported in the judicial system, and trial evidence based on them; and human rights defenders, independent journalists and NGO activists continued to be “imprisoned, assaulted, harassed or intimidated because of the exercise of their profession”.

In a statement issued by Human Rights Watch, Holly Cartner, the group’s Europe and Central Asia director,said, “The [UN] committee’s findings are damning and underscore just how pressing the need is for serious, sustained pressure on the Uzbek government over its abysmal rights record. Getting the Uzbek government to take the steps the committee has identified should be a key component of international dialogue with Tashkent.”

In early April, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Uzbekistan and urged the government to honour the international conventions it has signed up to. “It is time to deliver; to put them fully into practice,” he said while giving a lecture at Tashkent university. 

RIGHTS ISSUES OFF THE AGENDA

Activists say that in engaging with Uzbek leaders, the US and its western allies are not doing enough to persuade them to ease up on repression.

“Western [officials] are doing what they call constructive engagement, which means avoiding calling for human rights, because the Uzbek government doesn’t like to be criticised,” Szente Goldston said. “There are absolutely no improvements in respect for human rights since the dramatic events of Andijan in 2005. The situation might even be getting worst.

“They are coming to Tashkent and meeting with officials, but human rights simply don’t seem to figure on the agenda.”

Umida Niazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, believes Washington is ignoring human rights, “It is clear that the new [Obama] administration is ready to cooperate with Karimov’s regime despite the deteriorating human rights record…. There is no indication that the Americans are aligning their cooperation agenda with the domestic situation, the situation with human rights and civil freedoms.

“Obsessed with a successful operation in Afghanistan, the Americans are strengthening dictatorships in neighbouring countries.”

It is not just advocacy groups that are saying this.

“We can definitely say that there is an improvement in the [US-Uzbek] relationship, and it runs the risk of repeating past mistakes,” said Sean Roberts, a Central Asian expert who is assistant professor of international development at George Washington University. “I am worried the US is not paying attention to domestic politics [in Uzbekistan]. And that might be interpreted to mean they are supporting violent dictatorship to profit their strategy for the Afghanistan war.”

Scott Radnitz, a Central Asia expert at the University of Washington, added, “It has been decided that the benefits of the NDN outweigh the costs of cooperating with a repressive regime. Right now, Uzbekistan is an ally of convenience due solely to its geographic position, sharing a border with Afghanistan.”

WARINESS ON BOTH SIDES

Although there seem to be parallels with the 2001-05 period when Uzbekistan was seen as a partner in President George Bush’s “war on terror”, the current rapprochement differs because both Washington and Tashkent appear more cautious than before.

For the US, the transit arrangement with Uzbekistan is based on pragmatism, securing the final link in the NDN route to which states like Russia and Kazakstan are also crucial. 

“Perhaps the hope is that by propping the door open through the NDN, the US can eventually widen and deepen the scope of engagement with Uzbekistan to encompass economic cooperation, and perhaps – at some future unspecified date – democratisation and human rights, but no one is holding their breath for this,” Radnitz said. “This time, the [US] military wants to keep a ‘light footprint’ in the country, knowing that it is vulnerable to a sudden shift in the Karimov regime's attitude, or pressure from Russia. It is a sense of once bitten, twice shy."

For its part, Tashkent has made the limits clear – it may be prepared to discuss human rights as part of diplomatic talks, but the evidence gathered by local and international rights groups since 2005 suggests it does not plan to make significant concessions.

IWPR contacted the Uzbek embassy in London and the foreign ministry in Tashkent but was unable to obtain comment from officials.

However, public statements by Uzbek leader reflects a suspicion of western states’ intentions, even when criticism of its human rights record is relatively muted.

Ivonin expressed a view that Uzbek officials have articulated more than once in the past that Washington, in part through the local and international NGOs it funded, was a prime mover behind the “colour revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. These NGOs, he said, were funded by “security services abroad”, and Uzbekistan had done the right thing since 2005 because it had “shut down and expelled all covert ideological organisations”.

This position does not suggest the Uzbeks will be responsive to pressure to introduce democracy or fulfil human rights commitments.

RENEWED UNREST WOULD TEST WESTERN-UZBEK RELATIONS

As time passes, western calls for an investigation into Andijan have faded as an obstacle to relations, with the notable exception of the recent UN human rights report.

The real test of Tashkent’s new relationship with the West could come, analysts say, if a new domestic crisis arose involving allegations of substantial human rights abuses. Western states would again be placed in a difficult situation.

“If there is a ‘new Andijan’, the US will be obliged to criticise,” Pannier said, “and the Uzbek government doesn’t take criticism very well, especially on domestic affairs.”

According to Roberts, the US has “no strategy” for such an eventuality.

An employee of Uzbekistan’s interior ministry, which controls the uniformed police, told IWPR the authorities would take a tough stand on anything resembling the Andijan uprising.

“If anything like that happens, and armed terrorists are involved, we will use force again,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We won’t let another Andijan happen as we have the situation entirely under control.”

Philomène Remy is a journalism student at City University, London. Additional interviews by Saule Mukhametrakhimova in London and Andrei Saidov in Moscow.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.