“I am delighted to be back in Uzbekistan. I’ve just had a long and very interesting and helpful discussion with the president … Uzbekistan is a key member of the coalition’s global war on terror. And I brought the president the good wishes of President Bush and our appreciation for their stalwart support in the war on terror … Our relationship is strong and has been growing stronger.”
– US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Tashkent, February 2004
Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov’s army, which last Friday opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters in Andijan, in the Ferghana Valley, has been showered by Washington in the past few years with hundreds of millions of dollars (US$200 million in 2002 alone) – all on behalf of the “war on terror”.
So you won’t see the White House, or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, hammering Karimov. You won’t hear many in Washington calling for free elections in Uzbekistan. The former strongmen of color-coded, “revolutionary” Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were monsters who had to be removed for “freedom and democracy” to prevail. So is the dictator of Belarus. Not Karimov. He’s “our” dictator: the Saddam Hussein of Central Asia is George W Bush’s man.
‘Either with me or against me’
This is what happened in Andijan. Twenty-three local businessmen – who even resorted to hunger strike – have been on trial since February, accused of “Islamic terrorism”. They were part of Akramia, a small Islamic movement whose platform privileges economic success over ideology and religious fundamentalism. Soon after they had set up a construction company – and apparently also a mutual fund – to help local people get a few jobs, the businessmen were arrested.
Washington has listed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as a terrorist organization. Hizbut Tahrir (HT) – which does not condone armed jihad – may soon follow, as Washington always follows Karimov’s leads. In Uzbekistan, any opposition against the Karimov system is considered terrorism. Karimov blames HT for a series of bombings – which the group vehemently denies – as well as unspecified al-Qaeda-connected organizations (it was the IMU which was responsible for the 1999 bombings in Tashkent). According to Alison Gill of Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan, Karimov’s security apparatus cracks down heavily on HT, but now Akramia is also a target.
The group was founded in 1992 by a math teacher, Akram Yuldashev, and it’s in fact a splinter group from HT. It’s very popular with relatively educated youngsters in the Ferghana Valley – as it promotes a direct connection between an honest, pious Islamic way of life and economic success. Amplifying the Islamic tradition of zakat, Akramia also insists that part of business profits must be consecrated to help the poor and the needy. Yuldashev has been in jail since 1999. His wife, a defense witness at the trial, vehemently denied that Akramia’s teachings encouraged political subversion: it’s all about economic freedom.
Last Thursday, exasperated protesters close to the 23 businessmen organized a commando raid to release them, taking over the local administration center – with many also demanding for Karimov to go. According to the protesters, had they not acted this way, the 23 would have been condemned, tortured and killed: that’s how it works in the Karimov system. The next day came the bloodbath. Galima Bukharbaeva, on site for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, described a column of armored personnel carriers firing at will – and unprovoked – at the protesters. As many as 500 may have been killed, including women and children, and more than 2,000 wounded. People were angrily protesting against the corruption of the Karimov system, which they blame for their appalling living conditions. Karimov blamed it all on “terrorist groups”. The White House copied him almost verbatim.
Seven decades of the Soviet system imprinted their atheist mark on Uzbekistan. This is not an Islamist haven. Talibanization is a deadend (and that’s why the IMU is only a minor sect). The only true national religion is vodka – capable of alleviating even economic distress. Most women in Tashkent use makeup and mini-skirts with thigh-high boots. HT preaches peaceful jihad. The Karimov system’s repression is relentless. All Muslim organizations and even mosques have to be registered. Sheikhs need a work permit issued by the government. If you don’t pray in a state-sanctioned mosque and wear a long beard, traditional turbans or a hijab, you can go to jail.
A throne drenched in blood
When Uzbekistan became an independent republic in 1991 Karimov operated a classic emperor’s new clothes facelift: exit the communist apparatchik, enter the president; exit Marx, Lenin and Stalin, enter Tamerlan. Karimov, stony face and vacant eyes, is the new Tamerlan – without the conquering spirit (Tamerlan built an empire stretching from Egypt to the Great Wall of China).
The legendary, last nomadic ruler of the Central Asian plains used to order pyramids of skulls to be erected after battles to better terrify subdued populations. Karimov relies on proven “counterinsurgency” torture methods with a macabre, creative touch (immersion in boiling water) thrown in. He once declared, on the record, that Islamists should be killed by a bullet in the head – exactly like scores of wounded may have been killed in Andijan by the Uzbek army, according to some witnesses. In 2004, Human Rights Watch released a book with more than 300 pages of case studies in Uzbek torture. One of the key objectives of torture is to give the US “intelligence” connecting the Uzbek opposition – any kind of opposition – to al-Qaeda and “terrorist groups”. Once again: the Karimov system regards any kind of opposition as “terrorism”.
Everything in Uzbekistan is Soviet/clannish, Karimov-controlled. Practically every square inch in every neighborhood (mahalle ) in Uzbekistan is under surveillance by the so-called “White Beards” – the system’s informants. Karimov’s only weakness is his daughters. Gulnara Karimova, the eldest, practically owns the country – factories, mobile phone companies, travel agencies, the nightclubs where the micro-power elite dances to Russian techno. There may be lots of gas, oil and cotton – but the majority of 26 million Uzbeks subsist with less than a dollar a day. The currency – the som – is virtually worthless: 0.0007 euros. Changing money in Tashkent can become a war operation lasting a full hour.
If Orson Welles could remake Citizen Kane (Citizen Karimov?) Uzbekistan’s Rosebud would be Khanabad. Khanabad embodies a graphic post-Cold War irony. It used to be the biggest Soviet airbase during the 1980s war in Afghanistan. Now it hosts the Americans – ostensively serving to help the “war on terror” in Afghanistan.
The Washington-Tashkent “special relationship” started as early as the mid-1990s, during the Bill Clinton administration. In 1999, Green Berets were actively training Uzbek Special Forces. Khanabad has nothing to do with Afghanistan: Bagram takes care of this. But Khanabad is crucial as one of the key bases surrounding Bush’s Greater Middle East, or to put it in the relevant perspective, the Middle East/Caucasus/Central Asia heavenly arc of oil and gas. It’s on a seven-year lease to the Pentagon, due to expire in late 2008.
So Karimov in Uzbekistan is as essential a piece in the great oil and gas chessboard as Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. Inevitably, there will be more uprisings in the impoverished Ferghana Valley that has reached a boiling point. Karimov again will unleash his American-funded army. The White House will be silent. The Kremlin will be silent (or dub it “green revolution” – by Islamic fundamentalists, as it did with Andijan). Corporate media will be silent: one imagines the furor had Andijan happened in Lebanon when Syrian troops were still in the country. Uzbeks in the Ferghana won’t be valued as people legitimately fighting for freedom and democracy: they will be labeled as terrorists. And Rumsfeld will keep cultivating a “strong relationship” with Karimov’s Rosebud.