Political Murder in Central Asia: No Time to End Uzbekistan’s Isolation
Asia Briefing N°76
14 Feb 2008
There are strong indications that Uzbek security forces murdered one of Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent journalists, Alisher Saipov, in October 2007 during the build-up to Uzbekistan’s end of year presidential elections, most likely because of his involvement in Erk (Freedom), a leading exile opposition party. If this is the case, it would appear that the security organs, which are the key to keeping President Islam Karimov in power, are increasingly willing to move against any perceived danger, even if it involves pre-emptive strikes in foreign territory. This may be a sign not only of the ruthlessness of the regime but also of its increasing fragility. At the least it underlines the need for the U.S. and the European Union (EU) to resist the temptation to respond to Karimov’s dubious December 2007 re-election with efforts at re-engagement, in the apparent hope of regaining or retaining military bases for Afghanistan operations or of outflanking Russia.
Saipov’s murder shook Kyrgyzstan’s establishment and deeply embarrassed its law enforcement agencies. Politicians and police investigators officially denied it was a political assassination carried out by Uzbekistan’s secret police, claiming instead it was the result of the victim’s dubious dealings with Islamic fundamentalists, but there are strong circumstantial and other indications of Tashkent’s motives and responsibility.
The killing laid bare a deeply ambiguous Kyrgyzstan government policy with regard to its powerful neighbour. Kyrgyz security and law enforcement bodies appear to have been aware of Uzbek threats against Saipov and to have done nothing to neutralise them. Indeed, Bishkek complains that its ethnic Uzbek citizens in southern Kyrgyzstan make excessive demands for political power in the border areas, and it allows Uzbek special services virtual carte blanche on its territory.
However, senior Kyrgyz officials privately express frustration at the political situation in Uzbekistan. They complain that Karimov’s single-minded insistence on retaining power and his brutality are the main factors in the development of a radical Islamic underground but that his government refuses to discuss the resulting security issues. The president’s abrasive character and paranoia, they say, have alienated even his inner circle, and worry that his departure, whenever it happens, will leave a dangerous vacuum and create the possibility of massive cross-border refugee flows.
On 16 January 2008, Karimov was sworn in for a third presidential term after defeating three candidates in an election that was strongly criticised by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), though praised by the heavily Moscow-influenced Commonwealth of Independent States. Uzbek officials subsequently expressed confidence the EU and U.S. would now soften their line on Uzbekistan, and they may be right. Karimov received a senior EU diplomat the day after his inauguration and the admiral who leads the U.S. Central Command a week later.
The Saipov affair, if the Uzbek regime indeed was responsible, indicates, however, that any efforts to soften the sanctions the EU put in place after the May 2005 massacre in the Uzbek city of Andijon, to restore the aid the U.S. reduced or otherwise to lessen the Karimov regime’s political isolation, would be misguided. Those measures sent a strong message; in spite of Tashkent’s official contempt for Europe, for example, it has deployed major diplomatic resources to have the Brussels sanctions removed. Nevertheless, Saipov was murdered less than two weeks after the EU announced it was suspending some of its travel restrictions on Tashkent officials to “encourage … positive steps” by the Uzbeks.
The West wants to start a meaningful dialogue with Karimov, but offering unilateral and unreciprocated concessions is likely simply to encourage a dangerous and unpredictable regime that has stimulated the rise of radical Islam while bringing misery to its own people and becoming an increasing menace to its neighbours. It would be a poor geopolitical bet.
Bishkek/Osh/Brussels, 14 February 2008