TOPICS : Dangers of being Uzbekistan’s best friend

Lawrence A Uzzell

The bloody suppression of an uprising in Uzbekistan dramatises how Islam Karimov’s regime

is now more of a liability than an asset to Washington’s long-term strategic interests. If we want to avoid a “clash of civilisations” with a billion Muslims, the US can no longer afford to be this anti-Islamic dictator’s closest ally. In 2001, Uzbekistan was an essential staging ground

for the war that toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But today it matters more as an example of US hypocrisy about human rights. It seems that a Soviet-style police state can

brutalise its own people with impunity as long as it has good relations with the Pentagon.

Despite Karimov’s efforts to block journalists from the sites of the massacres in Uzbekistan’s Andijon region, it is now clear that hundreds of civilians were killed. Though the insurgents also used deadly force, killing policemen and taking hostages, some of those hostages were slain by Karimov’s own troops who sprayed crowds with automatic weapons fire. The Andijon atrocities follow years of repression that have increasingly alienated the Karimov regime from its own people.

Last month the Forum 18 News Service published its latest survey of religious freedom in Uzbekistan. It is clear from the findings of its Central Asia correspondent Igor Rotar that the State Department’s quiet diplomacy has failed. Unregistered religious activity is still illegal, with believers often punished simply for holding prayer meetings in private homes, Rotar reported. Religious literature is censored: Bibles have been confiscated and destroyed. Muslims cannot travel as pilgrims to Mecca without specific permission from the state. Last autumn saw a new surge of prosecutions of Protestants, Rotar found. The US advisory commission on international religious freedom recently recommended that Washington add Uzbekistan to its official list of “countries of particular concern” - the world’s most brazen persecutors of religion. The commission also urged that aid to the Uzbek government “be made contingent upon establishing a specific timetable for the government to take concrete steps” in observing human rights standards.

That would be a dramatic change from what happened last summer. As required by US human rights law, the State Department cut aid to Uzbekistan by $18 million. Within weeks, the Pentagon gave Karimov a new infusion of $21 million. Unlike Ukraine, Uzbekistan offers no plausible scenario in the near future for genuine freedom. Karimov’s successor might be a member of the current elite, or a leader of a powerful regional clan, or a Taliban-style Islamic extremist; the longer Karimov continues to crush all opposition via brute force, the more likely it will be the latter. Washington need not take radical steps to bring down this hated despot, but it should be putting him at arm’s length. Both he and other dictators need to see that the US does not remain best friends with those who torture and murder their own people. —The Christian Science Monitor