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Interview with Nancy Lubin on U.S.-Uzbek relations

Interviewer: Lionel Beehner
Interviewee: Nancy Lubin
September 21, 2005

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On May 13, a protest and prison break in the eastern city of Andijan, Uzbekistan, turned violent as police reportedly opened fire on unarmed civilians, leaving as many as 700 dead. Human Rights Watch has called for an international investigation and issued a recent report that charges the Uzbek government with covering up the massacre, forcing confessions from suspects, and silencing witnesses. Tashkent has denied these charges and has opened the first trial against fifteen suspects who confessed to involvement in the uprising.

Nancy Lubin, senior fellow for Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council and president of JNA Associates, Inc., a research and consulting firm on Central Asia and the Caucasus, says Uzbekistan’s behavior after Andijan is to be expected. In Uzbekistan, she says, “there’s always been a real tension between control and democratization, and maintaining control has always won.” She also discusses the uprising’s impact on U.S.-Uzbek relations, saying it “complicates our political relationship.”

Were you surprised by recent reports of forced confessions and other human-rights violations in the aftermath of the Andijan uprising in Uzbekistan?

No, mainly because there’s a good deal of precedent, in general, for the government of Uzbekistan when challenged to respond in such a way. It’s also typical that the strong crackdown on Uzbekistan’s own citizens would be accompanied by a good deal of spin on how to interpret this Andijan uprising in the first place. There’s certainly been a good deal of foreign support [for Tashkent], at least from Russia and China, which also limits the cost of [the government’s] reaction and the activity we see going on in Uzbekistan today. So, no, it’s not surprising. It’s certainly the way the government might have been expected to respond.

There’s been a highly critical report released by Human Rights Watch on the aftermath of Andijan. Do you think it will have any effect on the Uzbek authorities?

Uzbekistan cares deeply about its reputation in the world, but it’s balancing that against questions of maintaining stability and control at home. The tradeoff is leaning more toward cracking down and regaining strong, authoritarian control while trying to manipulate the way these events may be viewed abroad.

The report was timed to coincide with a trial of fifteen suspects charged with inciting the uprising. Will this be a show-trial of sorts?

I just received a report a few minutes ago stating that all fifteen suspects had pled guilty. So that’s a miracle of judicial efficiency that the trial could open and close on such a significant matter in one day.

Some experts say the Andijan massacre may have been overblown in the media and that there’s some shred of truth to the Uzbek government’s claim the police were quelling a terrorist uprising. Is there any truth to these claims?

There’re many reports lying around. The incident started when citizens stormed a prison in Andijan to free twenty-three businessmen accused of fomenting Islamic extremism, but ultimately sparked the freeing of hundreds of other prisoners and thousands took to the streets in protest against the Uzbek government. The government line has been that these businessmen, and those at the heart of the uprising, were closely aligned with Muslim terrorists in the region, who want to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state. Others claim the reason the government felt so threatened is that these particular businessmen were themselves very popular, in some cases eroding the government’s own political authority in Andijan. Still others argue that thousands of people spilled out onto the streets because of the enormous and growing discontent and poverty throughout the region itself. Whichever line you take, I think at the heart of it is this question of political power and control in Tashkent, and the perceived need on the part of the government to maintain strong, centralized authority over all parts of the country.

Human-rights groups have called for an international investigation of the Andijan massacre. Is it safe to say that will never happen?

There can be no international investigation without the concurrence of the Uzbek government and that’s very unlikely. The government has very little to gain and a great deal to lose from such an investigation. So the likelihood is very low, and were there to be some kind of investigation, it would be very much controlled.

Why were Russia and China so quick to come to Uzbekistan’s defense after the Andijan uprising?

Uzbekistan and its neighbors have been the focus of competition among China, Russia, the United States, and other major actors in the region for a whole host of reasons. A good part of everyone’s interests is what some call the continuation of the “Great Game,” simply the location of Central Asia as a whole situated right smack in the midst of many countries of the world that matter—Russia, China, Afghanistan, South Asia as a whole. So geography alone makes the region pretty critically important, as it has for centuries. But beyond that, certainly there are a host of economic, political, historical and societal questions the region raises. Central Asia has become, almost in spite of itself, a region of importance to all, and this only grew after the events of 9/11 and the advent of a concerted war on terrorism.

Do you think Russia and China are trying to push the United States out of the region?

I see it as part of the competition that has always been there and will be there for a long time to come.

Describe U.S.-Uzbek relations. Has the relationship always been a marriage of convenience?

I think what’s happened now both complicates and simplifies our relationship with Uzbekistan. On the one hand, much of what was driving our own interest in the region since 9/11 has been the K-2 Airbase, right near the Afghan border. With that gone, and with the Russians and Chinese making greater inroads, it certainly complicates our political relationship and foreign-policy interests in the region. At the same time, looking specifically at the myriad assistance programs we began, particularly since 9/11, in areas like anti-terrorism and law enforcement, this simplifies our assistance agenda and makes it more incumbent upon us to look at [our aid] more comprehensively and more seriously to see where those programs are really supporting our own objectives in the region, and where they may have been backfiring and supporting a regime cracking down on its own people.

As you mentioned, Uzbekistan has a long history of human-rights abuses. Was the United States wrong to overlook Tashkent’s past behavior?

I don’t think the United States overlooked human-rights abuses in Uzbekistan. The past few years have been a real balancing act, trying to address all of our policy objectives at the same time, but with a couple of objectives, namely the K-2 Airbase, being paramount. So in some ways, that base hamstrung our efforts to address some of these human-rights issues head-on. Now with the eviction notice that [the U.S. military] be out by January, our hands may be less tied and we can look at all of our programs with a little more serious scrutiny.

Were you surprised the Uzbeks kicked U.S. forces out?

I personally wasn’t surprised. I think that’s been an important area of negotiation for some time and one of the strongest cards that Uzbekistan had in its own hand. With the shifts that were occurring, it’s not a surprise we were invited to leave. The real challenge will be over the next six months. We’ve had a whole array of anti-terrorism and other training programs with the Uzbeks [for security purposes] for some time now, and how we handle those [military and human-rights interests], balancing both sides of our relationship with Uzbekistan, may end up being a bigger challenge for us.

Will the United States withhold aid from Uzbekistan, or tie it closely to Tashkent’s human-rights record?

The purpose of U.S. assistance is as much to pursue our own interests as it is to help Uzbekistan. We have to keep in mind that often the help we offer is not seen as constructive or welcome on the part of the Uzbek government. We’ve not only seen in the past couple months a crackdown on the participants in the unrest in Andijan, and on their families, but we’ve seen a real crackdown on the activity of international donors and international NGOs [non-governmental organizations], with the government closing some down, suspending the activity of others, denying accreditation to their employees, bringing in the heads of NGOs for often protracted court proceedings, and generally, really obstructing their work. This is something that started before May but has accelerated. One therefore shouldn’t view assistance as a gift to the Uzbeks but something that is supposed to be in pursuit of a joint objective—democratization and opening society up—but very often an objective that the Uzbek government doesn’t share. Viewed in this light, it would make little sense to punish Uzbekistan by withholding aid if there is a possibility that U.S. assistance can be re-shaped to be more effective in light of all these recent events.

Is Uzbek President Islam Karimov cracking down because of what happened at Andijan or because he fears he may fall victim to Uzbekistan’s own “color” revolution, similar to what befell leaders in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan?

There’s always been ambivalence on the part of Uzbekistan toward opening up and democratization as a whole. The main priority of the Uzbek government is maintaining authoritarian control, opening up only in those areas where this control is not threatened. Watching three governments fall in the near vicinity certainly doesn’t help promote any democratic agenda there. For a government intent on maintaining control, there’s always been a real tension between control and democratization and maintaining control has always won.

What does Uzbekistan sacrifice by severing relations with the United States?

On both sides, we are not critical to the Uzbeks and they’re not critical for U.S. foreign policy in the region. We remain involved elsewhere in the region, and I believe we’ll remain involved in Uzbekistan because it’s in our interests to do so. So I don’t think this spells the end of the relationship, but it is a major and badly damaging shift in our relationship that we’ll have to address in the months ahead.

Will the United States continue to assist the Uzbeks with their own fight against Islamic extremists in the Ferghana Valley, a region that is divided between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan?

I believe we should, but with much greater scrutiny over the impact of our involvement there—particularly our assistance programs—than we’ve ever had before. You’ll recall after the Andijan uprising, there was question in the U.S. press about the extent to which we ourselves may have actually trained the Uzbek troops sent in to shoot upon their own people. Whether or not we trained those particular individuals, the perception that we are training and equipping a government that may use this to so brutally crack down on its population is something we have to take far more seriously than we have in the past. The inadvertent impact of all our programs has to be looked at with much greater care to ensure they’re not backfiring, and we need far more oversight. In some areas, that oversight is practically nonexistent.

What do Islamic groups in Uzbekistan want? Are they separatists like the Chechens, or do they seek the overthrow of the government?

It is difficult to navigate among the agendas and actual activities of the several Islamic groups and those political opposition groups that have been labeled “Islamic” but have little in the way of an Islamic agenda. Hizb ut-Tahrir [a radical Islamic group] has become one of the most well known, advocating the establishment of an Islamic state but allegedly renouncing violence. Sorting out what that means in practice in Uzbekistan is not that straightforward. It would be hard to sort out the many other “Islamic” groups targeted by the government, particularly the extent to which they are Islamic extremist groups, or are simply labeled that in support of a broader political agenda on the part of the government.

Do these Islamic groups have links to Al-Qaeda?

There are alleged links, but as in other parts of the world, it’s hard to clearly define their reach.

Last question, do you think President Karimov will remain in power?

Karimov is facing some of the biggest challenges to his leadership since [1991 when he took power and] Uzbekistan became an independent country. We’ve seen protests in other parts of Uzbekistan as well. But he has a good deal of staying power, so I don’t think we should write him off.

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