Uzbekistan Weekly Roundup
A trip to Germany May 24-26 by Uzbek First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov became an occasion for human rights groups to put pressure on Berlin to gain more concessions from Tashkent. Germany has enjoyed increasingly cooperative relations with Uzbekistan in recent years. Even after the 2005 massacre in Andijan, when the US was expelled from its military base after criticizing the firing on demonstrators by government troops, Germany retained the lease on its base at Termez related to operations in Afghanistan. Recently, Germany’s substantial payments to Uzbekistan for the base came to light: €67.9 from 2005 to 2009; an additional €25.9 million in 2010, and starting in 2011 an annual €15.95 million for the lease alone, not including associated costs, EurasiaNet reported.
On the eve of Norov’s trip to Berlin, in an apparent conciliatory gesture, the Uzbek government released Yuzuf Juma, a prisoner of conscience, and quickly put him on a plane to the US. But while welcoming the resolution of one case, human rights groups were unimpressed. Juma, who had reported being tortured in confinement, was forced to recant and the five-year sentence against him, of which he had served three years, remained in effect. He was also stripped of his citizenship. The doling out of just one political prisoner on the eve of a high-profile meeting only served to underscore the unjust fate of many thousands more.
While in the past, Germany has engaged only in quiet diplomacy with Uzbek officials, apparently with mounting frustration, this time the German government made public condemnations about Tashkent's rights record, Cornelius Graubner commented for EurasiaNet. Markus Löning, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at Germany ’s Federal Foreign Office, publicly questioned the use of forced child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan and specifically raised the question of Uzbekistan receiving a fact-finding mission from the International Labor Organization -- but received no answer.
Germany has also grown frustrated with its business relationships with Uzbekistan. While in 2009, German exports to Uzbekistan amounted only to €327 million, contrasting with other Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan where exports totalled €1.4 billion, German manufacturers were hoping for further opportunities as trade turnover increased in 2010. Yet with the crash of Zeromax, once the largest conglomerate in Uzbekistan, German investors were left with a lot of unpaid invoices, including one contract to build
a huge new palace in Tashkent costing an estimated €700 million.
It's not clear, however, if these sorts of losses are enough to discourage Germany's long-held policy of Ostpolitik, or engagement with the Eurasian governments for the sake of incremental change. Germany's Ostpolitik is usually seen within the context of the EU's Realpolitik -- engagement with despotic regimes for the sake of pragmatic reasons of energy and security rather than insistence on moral principles. In fact, it’s more complicated than that: the German leadership has come to believe that abusive regimes do not change due to sanctions or harsh condemnation by outsiders, but can only make reforms through the constructive involvement of foreign partners.
This perspective relies on a theory of democracy as the natural evolution of development, although events not only in Eastern Europe in the past but currently in the Middle East would suggest otherwise. In those settings, despite decades of support by Western governments of autocratic regimes, democracy has comes about by grassroots movements confronting the powers-that-be, and ultimately involves the regimes’ willingness to cede power -- or face the overturn of their governments. Thus the "developmental" approach to the problem of Central Asian despotism helps keep regimes in power that might naturally be reformed or even overthrown in the long term.
Yet Uzbekistan is not at such a crossroads yet, in part due to the state's blanket suppression of civil society and the high price activists pay for dissent. The lack of any kind of movement approaching those of Ukraine or Egypt was thrown into sharp relief last week by a false rumor planted by a Russian politician, Aleksei Mitrofanov, who claimed on his popular blog on the website of the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy that supposedly "10,000 people were demonstrating" in the streets of Tashkent. The rumor was quickly squelched by independent press such as fergananews.com and human rights monitors in Uzbekistan, who reported no unusual activity.
Mitrofanov, active in the Just Russia party, said to be close to the Russian leadership, is described as a Russian nationalist and was formerly a member of the Russia’s notorious Liberal Democratic Party of Russia headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. His unfounded claims immediately fueled speculation that Russia was trying to foment unrest in Uzbekistan, with whom it sometimes has uneasy relations, although it seemed unlikely that Moscow would want to destabilize Central Asia further.
How likely is any Facebook-style revolution in Uzbekistan? So far there's at least one Uzbek dissident Facebook page -- with just 327 "likes" to date. It is part of a new political movement named Uzbekiston Halk Harakati (Popular Movement of Uzbekistan or PMU), made up of activists from the older opposition party Erk and various Andijan justice groups operating outside and inside Uzbekistan. The page and an associated small group enable exiles outside of Uzbekistan to talk to activists inside, although sometimes such Facebook pages are blocked. Such civic activity does not yet presage demonstrations on the street -- not when the memory of Andijan is still very fresh and even small pickets by grandmothers lead instantly to arrest. Even so, few people expected the spontaneous large demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and in President Islam Karimov, the Uzbek people have the same kind of long-term dictator propped up by foreign states as the Egyptians.
Analyst Joshua Foust asks in a blog entry at Registan.net whether the US, in engaging so closely with dictators like Karimov, isn't essentially making the same mistake it made with the Pakistani leadership all over again. As Foust notes, Pakistani-trained militants are killing hundreds of NATO soldiers and thousands of Afghan civilians each year, yet the US has been forced to cooperate with the Pakistani government. Similarly, the US has justified close relationships with the governments and security forces of Central Asia for the sake of the war in Afghanistan, yet the Uzbek government in particular, with its corruption and injustices, is fueling the very extremism it claims to be combating in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its offshoots.
As Foust concludes, "the reason why we even face an IMU—which continues to assert control over Northern Afghanistan and threaten to undo the war’s progress there—is because we chose not to care about what was going on in Uzbekistan in the early-to-mid 1990s. Even today, a single-minded focus on counterterrorism clouds our actual understanding of the countries and groups involved, which leads us to misjudge both the situation and what to do about it."
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