Maynes was interviewed on April 1, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.
Who’s behind the attacks in Uzbekistan?
We’ve had a wave of suicide bombers that have directed their attacks mainly against police and symbols of authority there. And nobody really knows who has done it. There are allegations by the government and suggestions by the United States Embassy, but I think at this point, no one really knows.
Press reports mention two groups, but some observers suggest that the government instigated the trouble.
Let’s go through the possibilities. The government initially alleged that it was Hizb ut-Tahir (Party of Liberation), which has its headquarters in London. It’s a worldwide movement, and it is strong in Uzbekistan. It is a movement that calls for a restoration of the caliphate in the Muslim world. It has a radical agenda, but it has always stated that it would never use violence to achieve power. There has never been any evidence that it has used violence. The United States has refused to put it on the terrorism list, although we have been pressed by the Uzbek government to do that. Then, recently, the Uzbek government has suggested that it was al Qaeda that was responsible, and it has backed away somewhat from the allegation that Hizb ut-Tahir did it. Hizb ut-Tahir’s London headquarters has denied, by the way, that it was involved.
Another suggestion is that the terrorism is caused by a splinter group of Hizb ut-Tahir. The repression in Uzbekistan against the movement is very strong. The U.S. government says that there are between 5,000 and 6,000 political prisoners, many more than there were in the Soviet Union in its last couple of decades. So the argument is that maybe the movement has a non-violent philosophy but that some splinter group did it.
The [political] opposition in Uzbekistan has suggested that the government did it itself, because apparently, a few days before the attacks, the police chief visited one of the areas that was bombed. That to me doesn’t seem very plausible, because the government wouldn’t organize day-after-day attacks against itself.
And finally, the United States Embassy has stated, without attribution to any particular official, that it is probable that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] did it. The IMU has called for the violent overthrow of the government. The main leader of that organization, Juma Namangani, was killed in Afghanistan, but the recent efforts to try and find al Qaeda leaders in northern Pakistan apparently has flushed out and wounded a senior member of the IMU, and so the suggestion is that somehow they struck back. [There were reports from Pakistan that Tohir Abdouhalilovitch Yuldeshev, a senior IMU leader, had been wounded and was on the run]. I don’t think anybody really knows.
What is the situation overall in Uzbekistan? It is one of those former Soviet republics where the ex-Communist Party boss is in charge.
Most of the leaders in Central Asia [which is made up of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan], with the exception of the president of Kyrgyzstan [Askar Akayev], are former members of the Soviet Politburo. With that exception, they had strong positions in the Soviet power structure. Islam Karimov, the Uzbek leader, has his own economic policy, different from that of the others. As in Belarus, he decided to take the Soviet legacy and basically not change it. The result was that, for years, the decline in the standard of living in Uzbekistan was much, much less than it was in neighboring states. But the problem with that kind of approach— this is also true in Belarus— is that it is almost like getting an inheritance from your father and not investing it, just spending it. As the years go by, the shortcomings of this policy become more and more evident. The Uzbeks haven’t made the reforms that are necessary to make the transition, and the situation becomes more and more difficult as time passes.
Do the Uzbeks encourage private industry?
There is almost none there. And they have lacked convertibility of their currency for many years. Now they have established convertibility, but it’s a change without a difference because, in order to protect the economy from the impact of convertibility, they have made it much harder to import goods.
They’ve also been concerned about the flood of Chinese goods on the market, so they have recently prohibited the sale in the bazaars of all non-food items. This is supposed to protect domestic industry. It is also to try to get control of these would-be entrepreneurs. They are being encouraged to go out and set up shops with cash registers, but of course few of them have the capital to do that. So the result is that thousands of them have lost their jobs, and the level of destitution and desperation is quite high among these people. There have been several cases of self-immolation of people who have just given up hope.
What about the cotton industry? Is it still the strongest part of the economy?
That still is their big crop [the CIA says Uzbekistan is the world’s second largest exporter of cotton]. They raise good cotton. And the main destination has been and remains Russia. It is interesting as a footnote that the cotton crop got started there on the scale that it is now because of the American Civil War.
When the North blockaded the South, the then-emerging Russian textile industry lacked material. That was one of the reasons the Russian empire looked south. It was trying to get a source of cotton.
It took the Russian empire years to conquer the Central Asians, did it not?
Yes. We have this Islamic opposition now in Central Asia and, of course, these are same forces in society that for decades resisted Russian and then Soviet rule.
Talk about the Uzbek military relationship with the United States.
September 11 brought a sharp U-turn in American policy toward four countries—Russia, China, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. And all for the same reason. We wanted to change the regime in Afghanistan, and in order to do that we needed two things we did not have: proximity to the problem and intelligence about its nature. Uzbekistan and Pakistan were critical because they abut Afghanistan, and an air base in Uzbekistan was critical to the war because the supply route for the ground forces that ultimately had to take the country went through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. [The U.S. air base is at Khanabad, near Afghanistan].
The United States uses or controls it?
It controls it. It is a former Soviet airbase.
How much aid does the United States give Uzbekistan?
It has skyrocketed in recent years. It was about $160 million the first year [after 9/11]. These figures are going up and down because of the war in Iraq. But there was an original surge of money that went into Uzbekistan.
Before 2001, I suppose it was virtually nothing.
No, we had a program earlier. But I think you could argue that before 9/11 we were in the process of basically giving up on Central Asia. The lack of reform had caused the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to pull its mission out of there, I am sure with our encouragement. It was decided that this was just too tough a territory to work in. The United States hadn’t pulled out, but the direction was one of withdrawal. You may remember that [then-U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright went out to Central Asia and went to Kazakhstan and got in a public dispute with the president [Nursultan Nazarbayev] about democracy. So the growing attitude within the bureaucracy was that the countries in Central Asia were not on the right path. Suddenly after 9/11, we needed them.
The State Department’s annual human rights report blasts the Uzbeks, correct?
They get very poor grades.
Does that factor into the aid program?
Yes, there is a certification process that is fast approaching. This will be a very difficult decision for the administration.
Can the secretary of state issue a waiver?
The department has to certify that the Uzbeks have “made progress.” What’s been happening in recent years is that just before the certification, the government usually takes some steps—releases a key prisoner or allows an organization to register—something the administration can cite.
When does this have to be decided?
Is the State Department on a collision course with the Pentagon on this one?
The Financial Times argues in a major piece [on April 1, 2004] that this is what is happening. The Pentagon obviously is very interested in the base—there is no question about that—and so is the rest of the United States government. Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld went out there recently and in his talking points were issues of democratization and human rights. He did raise them with Karimov when he saw him.
There are reports that Karimov is in poor health.
He may well be in poor health. But we don’t really know.
How popular is he?
No one knows. One of the difficulties is that the level of repression is so high that no one knows the extent and depth of the opposition.
What would happen if the United States did not certify that Uzbekistan was making progress in human rights?
There would be a crisis in the relationship. Let’s say we were looking at this decision in terms of, on the one hand making progress, and on the other hand avoiding an explosion. I equate Uzbekistan now to a pressure cooker where the heat has been turned up so high that if you pull the lid suddenly there will be an explosion. And so, you could argue that meeting all our demands on economic and political reform would induce that explosion. What is needed is to find a way to stop turning up the heat, set out on a path of slowly opening up the society and the economy. The economy would have trouble if it were to totally open up right away and adopt global standards of openness. Local industry would collapse. On the other hand, this bell jar approach to economic development, where there is no outside influence, is in the long run extremely damaging.
Do the Russians have influence in Uzbekistan?
They have significant influence. A lot of people in the United States are needlessly concerned about a restoration of the Russian empire. That is simply impossible. The glue to hold that together would be some kind of common ideology, and there is nothing left. Russia does not have resources or the impulse to conquer these areas and hold them against their will. They do have influence in the sense that Russian is the common language, there is a common historical association, and Russian goods are beginning to have an impact, but the Russian government has no aid program and finds it very difficult to reach out. They have set up a base in Kyrgyzstan, which is just a few miles from the American base, to keep an eye on the United States and to indicate they haven’t conceded the area as an American “lake.”
The Russians have no military base in Uzbekistan?
No. Uzbekistan, of all the countries in Central Asia, has taken the most standoffish approach to Moscow. There are many reasons for that, but I think the main reason is that they see themselves as the Russia’s replacement as the natural leader in the area.