the Disillusioned kid: Blogging For Uzbekistan
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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Blogging For Uzbekistan

Today, September 1, is Uzbekistan's independence day. This has been selected as a day of action in which bloggers are encouraged to write about the situation in Uzbekistan and stimulate debate about possible responses (primarily an embargo on the country's cotton trade). If you blog and haven't yet got onboard please consider doing so. If you don't then keep on reading, I hope you'll discover something of interest. What follows is my contribution to the discussion...


Nosemonkey was probably onto something when he described Uzbekistan as "one of those dodgy Central Asian regimes with a weird name ending in 'stan' [which] few people know much about". Craig Murray, former British ambassador to the country, fired after criticising the regime, has done a huge amount to raise awareness of the situation in the country, but there remains much to be done.

I've personally been interested in the Uzbekistan since reading an article on it by George Monbiot in October 2003. This drew explicit parllels between the west's relationship with Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov and their earlier relationship with Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. This inspired me to write an article on Western hypocrisy which was published on the News Insider (although it's no longer available there). I later rewrote this to focus specifically on Uzbekistan for the February 2004 edition of Ceasefire (the Nottingham Student Peace Movement newsletter). As I began to blog more I decided to try and follow developments in the country fairly closely. As such I've accumulated a considerable amount of material on the subject, although I'd be lying if I claimed to be any kind of expert.

One of the unfortunate aspects of following the situation in a country like Uzbekistan is the sense of powerlesness. It's easy to denounce the Karimov regime for its human rights abuses, criticise those cosying up to it and celebrate outbursts of resistance, but doing so has little, if any, impact on the ground. This is why Craig Murray's suggestion that an embargo be imposed on the country's cotton trade struck me as such an interesting one. Finally there seemed a chance to try and do something to weaken Karimov. But before turning to what is to be done, let's take some time to consider the problems were are dealing with.

Karimov and Democracy

Islam Karimov rose through the ranks of the Communist Party to become the organisation's First Secretary in Uzbekistan in 1989. He became the President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic on March 24 1990 and declared the country independent on August 31 1991 (although for some reason Independence Day in Uzbekistan is celebrated on the following day). In elections in December of that year, Karimov emerged victorious with 86% of the vote. His official biography describes these as "multi-candidate elections," but they were widely viewed as unfair. In 1995 he extended his term using a widely criticised referendum.

In 2000 he was re-elected with 91.9% of the vote. The Organisation for Security and Co-Operation (OSCE) declined to even send observers to the vote, determining that there was no hope of a fair outcome. The US asserted that the elections "was neither free nor fair and offered Uzbekistan's voters no true choice." Indeed, the candidate ostensibly running against Karimov had openly declared his intention to vote for his opponent. Tellingly Karimov responded to criticisms by noting, "The OSCE focuses only on establishment of democracy, the protection of human rights and the freedom of the press. I am now questioning these values." Karimov extended his tenure again in 2002, with a referendum to alter the constitution in order to allow seven year terms.

In December 2004 elections were held to elect delegates to the new lower house. This was part of a reform which would replace the unicameral parliament with a bicameral body, in which the upper house was to be appointed. Opposition parties universally boycotted the vote, however. Some had initially tried to field candidates as independents (as the parties themselves are banned), but had given up on the idea in the face of extensive government machinations to hinder their participation, others had dismissed the charade from the beginning. While five parties did take part, they all espoused pro-government policies and there was little to tell them apart. In one of those great moments of historical irony, the vote took place on the same day (December 26) as the Ukrainian recount brought about by the "Orange Revolution".

In light of the above it is clear that the chances of change being brought about in the country at the ballot box are nill.

Human Rights and Wrongs

Throughout Karimov's reign the human rights situation in Uzbekistan remained serious. Concerned about the influence of Islamic groups such as the apparently peaceful Hizb ut-Tahrir (The Party of Liberation) and the al-Qaeda linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Karimov has waged a vicious camapign against "fundamentalism" since the mid-90s. This has seen some 7,000 people incacerated and many of them tortured. Muzafar Avazov is a particularly shocking case. The 35-year old father of four was accused of membership of HUT. He was sentenced to 20-years, although on appeal this was reduced to 19. Avazov died in 2002. When his body was returned to his family for burial, sixty-seventy percent of it was burnt. Doctors who saw the injuries report that they could only have been inflicted by imersing the victim in boiling water.

Even those who survive their time in the Uzbek penal system have horrifying stories to tell. Journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Shapirov, who now lives in the US, was incacerated in various facilities for 13 months. He recalled officials at the Ministry of Internal Affairs bragging about who had killed the most "hizbutchiks" (HUT members); wardens and prisoners raping female inmates; a reign of terror in inmate-controlled prison camps; and extreme discrimination against those accused of being homosexual.

Uzbekistan is 90% Muslim, yet Karimov seems to regard any and all followers of Islam as a potential threat who need to be controlled. Forum 18 (a group seeking to acheive the universal application of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees religious freedom) note, "The leadership of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims is virtually an agency of state authority." They also comment that the current arrangement is merely an imitation of the one which operated in the days of the USSR "when religious communities were formally separated from the state, but in fact were merely compliant instruments of the communist authorities." Imams are only allowed to preach state sanctioned texts and must pass through nominally independent attestation which in practice is controlled by the state. According to Imams who have passed through the system, questions asked included the number of stars on Uzbekistan's flag and when Karimov was born.

Although Muslims have been particularly targetted, followers of other religions have not been left alone entirely. Those from religions regarded as "non traditional" in the region such as Protestantism, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna have been a particular focus of attention as government officials seek to prevent their spread. Baptism has even been declared illegal and its practitioners subject to increasing pressure. Somewhat bizarrely, the regime justify their campaign against "proselytism" (attempts to convert others to your faith) on the basis that given the difficult economic situation the conversion of Muslims to other faiths could lead to riots.

Friend and Ally

Despite all these abuses, the US and UK had little compunction about cosying up to Karimov, particularly in the aftermath of Septmber 11. Karimov saw his opportunity and announced that his campaign against Islamic extremism was part of the "War on Terror". He also allowed the US to make US of Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase for operations in Afghanistan. This relationship was never entirely agreeable to both sides. Uzbekistan had originally intended that the US would only be there for a year and raised the issue six times between 2002 and 2005 (when they eventually decided to terminate the arrangement). Nevertheless, the West seemed happy to allign itself with the regime and stay quiet about its excesses.

In 2002, the US provided the regime with $500 million of aid, $79 million of this was destined for the police and intelligence agencies responsible for many of the human rights abuses in the country. US special forces have been training Uzbek soldiers since 1999 and it emerged in June of this year that British soldiers had been training their Uzbek counterparts in "marksmanship" only months before the Andijan massacre.

This alliance reached its low-point with the treatment of British ambassador Craig Murray. After speaking out on the regime's abuses he was censored by the British government; threatened with the sack; investigated on trumped up charges and ultimately removed from his post ostensibly because the Foreign Office no longer had confidence in him.

The alliance always had its difficulties. Like so many dictators before him Karimov is paranoid and not always good at doing what he's told. The massacre in Andijan was a major embarrasment to the West, although comparisons between the support of other coloured revolutions and their lukewarm response to the uprising in Uzbekistan do not reflect well on our leaders. The alliance seemed to have come to an end in July when the US was given notice to leave K2. While many commentators saw this as a response to US criticisms of the regime and its efforts to protect refugees from Andijan, Craig Murray argued that it was part of a decision to turn to Gazprom and the Russians to develop Uzbekistan's oil and gas.

While the relationship does not appear to be completely over it is clear that it has cooled considerably. It is in this context which talk about sanctions has the potential to have some real effect.

Why Cotton?

The focus on cotton stems from the massively detrimental effect the trade has on those involved in it and the fact that it primarily benefits Karimov and his cronies. The cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is reliant on child labour and essentially condemns all those involved to serfdom. It is also hugely environmentally damaging; irrigation neccesary to grow the stuff has been a major contributor to the drying up of the Aral Sea. While some 25% of the country's population is involved in the harvest, which uses 38% of its agricultural land, there is only one buyer of cotton: the government, who set targets, prices and impose regulations on the whole industry.

Nathan at Registan suggests that the US considered an embargo on Uzbek cotton in 2001 over the use of child labour, although this was almost certainly dropped after September 11. This coupled with the colloing relationship between the West and Karimov suggests that sanctions are not simply a hollow slogan; they really could be implemented. No doubt there are real concerns about the potential ramifications of sanctions. One need only look to Iraq to see what a devastating effect economic sanctions can have on the people you are ostensibly trying to help.

It is also worth asking whether any embargo is likely to have a sufficient impact on Karimov to bring about reform. Would it be sufficient to improve conditions for those involved in the production of cotton (it's worth noting that the situation is little better in neighbouring Tajikistan and Turkmenistan)? Would it be sufficient to weaken the Karimov regime more generally? In Iraq quite the opposite happened, but this was in large part because the sanctions regime meant that the only place people could get food from was the government, this was hardly likely to make them rise up. An embargo targetted against cotton shouldn't have the same effect.

Others may disagree; that's fair enough. The important thing is to stimulate debate. The situation for those living in Uzbekistan is severe; repression and poverty are daily realities. It's worth noting that the effects of this may well be felt beyond Uzbekistan's borders as disillusioned and angry Uzbeks find themselves pushed into the arms of Islamisic extremist groups who claim to offer a response to the brutality and inequities of the Karimov regime. Too often such people are dismissed by the poweful as mere pawns in their struggle for influence in the region while remaining unknown to ordinary people in the West. We may have the opportunity to do something about their plight. At the very least lets talk about it.

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