Uzbekistan: In for the Long Haul
Asia Briefing N°45
16 Feb 2006
Economic misrule and political repression have left Uzbekistan in a woeful state. President Islam Karimov’s intransigence has meant that efforts to encourage economic and political reform have failed. Relations with Europe and the U.S. are the worst since independence in 1991. Religious and political repression and worsening living standards have raised domestic tensions and provoked violence. There is little that Western countries can do now to change Uzbekistan’s direction but they should be doing more to prepare the Uzbek people and the neighbouring states to withstand future instability in Central Asia.
Uzbekistan is well down the path of self-destruction followed by such countries as Burma, Zimbabwe and North Korea, in which an elite prospers while the majority lives in worsening poverty. Even as European governments and the U.S. have encouraged regional development, Tashkent acts as a persistent spoiler and presents a growing threat to its neighbours, with refugees and drugs spilling over its frontiers. The other four Central Asian states and Afghanistan are all relatively weak and vulnerable. Kyrgyzstan was profoundly shaken by the arrival of fewer than 500 refugees after the Andijon massacre in May 2005. Tajikistan has been hard hit by border closures and trade restrictions. Even relatively prosperous Kazakhstan could be seriously troubled if violence were to drive Uzbeks across its border.
Uzbekistan represents no direct security threat to Europe or the U.S., and the government in Tashkent is not at risk of imminent collapse. But Uzbekistan could well become the centre of instability in Central Asia in the medium to long term, and this would have a significant impact on Western interests. It could, for example, prompt an aggressive Russian intervention in the region and stimulate the undercurrents of Islamic extremism that so far have been more of an irritant than a major threat. It would almost certainly create an environment in which trafficking in drugs and people would worsen and hamper the stabilisation of Afghanistan.
Western policies meant to support development of political and economic openness in Tashkent have failed, and the emphasis now should be changed. Although efforts should certainly be made to continue to apply pressure through targeted sanctions, voluntary trade restrictions and OSCE investigative mechanisms, the EU, the U.S. and other donor governments like Japan need to acknowledge that they have almost no influence with the Karimov government and few levers with which to change this in the short term.
The emphasis rather should be on longer term measures, amounting essentially to a lifeboat strategy to maintain political activity, civil society and educational opportunities in the expectation of future change to a more reasonable government, and an effort to reduce the impact likely future instability in Uzbekistan would have on its neighbours. In particular, the key external players should consider the following steps:
stepping up support for Uzbeks to study abroad, journalism training in the region and broadcasting in Uzbekistan, including educational programs and news;
expanding the capacity of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to cope with the economic and political fallout from problems in Uzbekistan, including help in crisis planning, pre-positioning of resources to handle refugee flows, improving policing and border security and increasing aid to ministries responsible for emergency situations;
helping Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan become less dependent on Uzbekistan for energy and transport, for example by providing assistance for hydropower projects, particularly small scale schemes, and improving roads from Almaty, Bishkek and Dushanbe to China, Russia and Afghanistan;
expanding assistance in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan for institutions, focusing on policing, governance, the judicial sector, and parliaments; and
considering a longer-term plan to build trade connections among Afghanistan, Pakistan and the three Central Asian nations, without waiting for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to sign up.
Bishkek/Brussels 16 February 2006