Europe’s friendly rogue state

Early next week, Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov will visit Brussels for meetings with the Council of the European Union, with European Commission president Barroso, and with NATO. It is difficult to imagine a stronger contrast between the regards for Karimov, and the EU ban and pariah status put upon Belarus’ Lukashenko, another, yet certainly not worse, post-Soviet dictator.

  • Reuters Uzbek president Islam Karimov Reuters

Uzbekistan’s Bouazizi

Even though the media hardly paid attention at the time, in early 2007 Uzbekistan had its own version of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian unemployed who set himself ablaze. Hadisha Aripova, a widow and mother of two, eked out a living at the Kök Bazar market in the town of Jizak. She desperately set herself alight after police and tax inspectors seized her goods and, thus, her income. Like Bouazizi, Aripova didn’t made it. She was 38. Unlike Bouazizi, Aripova’s gruesome end did not sparked nation-wide protests and riots. There was a reason for that, of course: less than two years earlier, Karimovs elite troops massacred hundreds of demonstrators in the city of Andijan. The trauma was still fresh. The police officers who took on Aripova were suspended. Yet, the overall social conditions in which the tragic incident happened are still there in Karimov’s Uzbekistan.

In 1989, Karimov came at the helm of the Communist Party of what was then still Soviet Uzbekistan and remained in power even since the country became independent in late 1991. Since then, Karimov has been leading one of Eurasia’s most ruthless regimes. So far, it indeed kept Uzbekistan stable and quiet, yet at what price and at the detriment of whom? Even if we leave the clichés which are eagerly picked up by the international media every now and then, for what they are, life for many in Uzbekistan is not easy to say the least. The expulsion of foreign NGOs and the curtailing of media freedom is by far not felt as the most frustrating by the population.

That the regime, despite its lip service and fancy declarations that international organisations want to hear, is essentially a police state with prison camps for political prisoners, torture, arrests on the bases of fabricated evidence and threats to take on relatives of suspects, is no news to everyone who is somewhat familiar with the region. Along with the police informers’ network that runs through families at times, this creates a climate of fear and suspicion that slowly dislocates society. Occasional visitors might not notice this, for most people remain jovial. Yet it is reality.

Crony empire

‘The repression and the apparatchiks of the USSR are still here’, one Uzbek once said to me. ‘The social advantages that Soviet Communism definitely brought are gone. That is what it comes to.’ The key sectors of Uzbekistan’s economy, from cotton and natural gas to provincial bazaars, are basically controlled by the presidential family or by members of a connected entourage and province satraps through a complex system of personal networks, pseudo-privatisations and the use of state institutions and the judiciary to enforce these groups’ and individuals’ monopolies. Several foreign investors got entangled or came a cropper in this system. Worse for Uzbekistan’s society is, that much economic initiative that is not connected to the elites and their networks is made very difficult at best. Notwithstanding fancy official statistics of economic growth, many are kept into structural poverty and unemployment that way. Many Uzbeks, especially men and also people with a higher education, have little choice than to vote with their feet and do seasonal work in Russia, Kazakhstan or, to a lesser extent, Ukraine. Their remittances form one of the main financial lifelines for numerous families. That, and the seasonal absence of tens of thousands of men of active age, allows the regime to buy time.

Most tourists who gawk at the Registan in Samarkand and the Lyab-i-Hauz in Bukhara and do not speak a regional language get to see little of this, just like the well-framed delegations of foreign excellencies, parliamentarians and international development banks often see and hear little more than what the regime wants them to see or hear. The regime is also keen to use tourism to promote the country as stable and ‘only very moderately Muslim’. It often works, including with people who should know better. ‘What’s your problem with Uzbekistan? When we were there, it was clean, well-organised and we could get beer everywhere.’ As long as one sticks to the essentials indeed.

This being said, does Karimov has no support base in the country, besides his security apparatus and of course the privileged few, at all? He has. His regime savvily capitalises on the uncertainty of what will come next, and on the spectre of instability and civil war like in neighbouring Tajikistan during the nineties and in Afghanistan up to today. Certain ethnic minorities are definitely afraid to become a target of popular wrath in case of post-Karimov unrest. Others sincerely believe that ‘the Taliban’, ‘the Wahhabis’ and other ‘the Islamists’ will take over in no time once Karimov is gone, or personally respect Karimovs career from modest provincial origins to party leader and president of independent Uzbekistan. It is difficult to know what percentage of the population we are talking about. Perhaps a quarter would be a fair bet.

A hotbed of Islamism?

The problem is, that there no viable alternative at present or, at least, not one that the international community would like to see. The secular opposition in the country is, partly due to government repression and partly due to its own flaws, all but dead. The historical opposition leaders who rose during perestroika and the early independence period have been living in exile for the last fifteen years or more, and lack a proper base in present-day Uzbekistan. Others are more individual dissidents than a real movement. And among the more recent secular opponents one can also find people who were once part of the establishment but fell in disgrace for one reason or another ─ as one Uzbek told, “not the sort of people one would risk prison or worse for.” There do are what one could call ‘day-to-day-related protests’, for instance by people who are personally affected by arbitrary expropriations or bazaar crackdowns. But these are mostly very local and easy to suppress.

This leaves us with ‘the Islamists’, the public enemy the regime is most keen to point at to justify its policies. Real and, more often, suspected, Islamists and dissident Muslims form the bulk of Uzbekistan’s political prisoners today. That Islamism in Uzbekistan is a mere invention of the Karimov regime and its intelligence service, as some pretend, is not true either. One has to look at the real proportions and nature of the phenomenon though. The armed Islamist groups which appeared at times in or around Uzbekistan since the late nineties hardly had any popular support. Many of those targeted by Karimovs anti-terror policies are Uzbek Muslims who are repulsed by the social situation and abuse of power in their country, who do not trust official imams and elders who serve as mouthpieces for the government and as informers, or who are considered ‘too pious’ by secular, and in practice anti-religious, officials. One lesson from Tunisia that could be applicable to Uzbekistan sometime is, that Muslims can be genuinely frustrated and outraged without any global Islamist conspiracy telling them to be so.

Silence for the sake of access

After the Andijan massacre, the EU issued an arms embargo against Uzbekistan and an EU travel ban for several of the country’s security officials, yet this was hardly taken seriously. It becomes tempting to explain everything by ‘the oil’: ‘Uzbekistan has oil and gas and Belarus not, which is why Karimov is welcome and Lukashenko is not’. Of course energy plays. It’s not by coincidence that Karimov is also to meet European Commissioner for Energy Oettinger. Yet Uzbekistan’s real energy reserves are nor clear and subject of a diplomatic smokescreen set up by the regime for years already, to make the outside world believe that it needs Uzbekistan — the regime that is — more than the other way around. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s major producers of cotton, a commodity which has seen steady price rises lately.

Energy and cotton aside, Uzbekistan’s relevance at this time especially lays in the so-called war on terror. Pretty much like Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Karimov has the benefit of doubt because at least he keeps ‘the Islamists’ out (or under). Uzbekistan’s territory, and the border town of Termez in particular, is part of a supply route for the international coalition in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Bagram air base, and contingents from EU member states that are based in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz, for instance, are supplied to one extent or another via Uzbekistan. It’s not that the cooperation with Uzbekistan’s regime is going smooth in that respect. It mainly exploits its strategic advantage to the maximum, now that convoys via Pakistan, the Khyber Pass and Kandahar are increasingly targeted by the Taliban and associated guerrilla groups.

And now what?

There was one joking comment which circulated that said that Karimov will also be looking at mansions in Brussels in case he has to flee one day. In Uzbekistan and Eurasia, few still believe that the EU and the West in general can have any positive influence on the regime through ‘constructive engagement’ or whatever it is called in diplomatic jargon. Even if certain EU circles are privately embarrassed by Karimovs visit, he is being received, and his regime will not hesitate to present this as an act of approval and recognition in its domestic propaganda and its international public relations efforts. Some speculate that Karimov, who is 73, will disappear the natural way in the foreseeable future. Hence, in that line of thought, it is important to keep a foot in Uzbekistan for who or what succeeds him.

Theoretically, this would make sense, be it that much depends on how a change of ruler, which will sooner or later happen in Uzbekistan too, will go. Like much in this story, this is as opaque as it is unpredictable. Karimov himself can still hold for years and is master at playing off foreign stakeholders to the extent that sometimes, it says more about the latter than about Karimov. His glam daughter Gulnara, who is presently ambassador in Madrid and at the UN and often presented as her father’s likely successor, is widely loathed, not only among the population but also among parts of the elite. That leaves everything possible, from violent chaos to a quiet arrangement that brings a hitherto unknown figure to power. Will the EU be as realist in dealing with the consequences when things do not go as hoped or planned?

Bruno De Cordier works for the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University.


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