The US and global democracy: the test case of Central Asia

Malika Kenjaboeva
10 June 2003

In the first week of May, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) held its annual meeting in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. The meeting attracted a lot of attention from foreign media as well as human rights groups. But even before it was scheduled, human rights organisations urged the bank to reconsider its decision, because of the abysmal human rights record of Uzbekistan under its authoritarian president, Islam Karimov.

Indeed, as recently as December 2002, the UN special rapporteur against torture declared – after visiting Uzbekistan and its prisons – that torture in the country was systematic. Yet the bank decided to continue with the meeting in hope that the Uzbek government would have an incentive to push reforms in political, economical and human rights areas, as well as to secure the EBRD loan of over 600 million euros (around $500 million) it was seeking.

In the event, both EBRD officials and human rights activists were disappointed by Karimov’s cavalier attitude towards the meeting. When Jean Lemierre, the EBRD’s president, began criticising him for not promising to stop torture in prisons and to improve human rights conditions, Karimov contemptuously took off his earphone. Meanwhile, across Tashkent the secret police prevented demonstrators from voicing their concerns and held a tight grip on the media so that no negative information leaked out to the general public.

At one point Nursultan Nazarbaev, the president of Kazakhstan, came to the rescue of his long-time rival and friend Karimov by declaring that all these countries are too young and twelve years too little time to create western-style systems, pointing out that it took 250 years for the United States to develop into a mature democracy.

But as one journalist put it, “does it really take 250 years to stop torturing people in prisons?”

Central Asia: a kaleidoscope of repression

The EBRD meeting was important in regional as well as European terms: many heads of states from the neighbouring Central Asian republics attended and gave speeches. The EBRD is urging them all to open up their internal borders so that people are able to trade without harassment by border patrol, thus contributing to the growth of the regional economy.

Yet the overall prospects for the vast majority of the 56 million people in the five states of Central Asia – the ‘Stans’ – are currently bleak. All, not just Uzbekistan, are suffering from a combination of corruption, authoritarian political rule, and social crisis – in which the United States’s ‘war on terror’ plays a baleful and regressive role.


Oil-rich Kazakhstan opened up its country for foreign investments as long as these kept pouring bribes to keep Nursultan Nazarbaev and his cronies in power. A former member of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev had by the late 1990s become one of the wealthiest people on earth, while the living standards of people in the vast country’s towns and villages plunged below the poverty line.

The media in Kazakhstan was and is still controlled by the leader’s daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva. Any independent journalist or human rights activist lives under real threat of being thrown into jail, death or physical violence. Corruption is flagrant, and the benefits of any pockets of growth in the economy are reserved to specific clans and families.


Kyrgyzstan, a small country with 5 million people, has few natural resources and its economy is largely dependent on foreign aid. The scholar Barnett Rubin, in a recent lecture on Central Asian countries and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, called Kyrgyzstan the most democratic of the five republics. It would perhaps be more accurate to say the least dictatorial. Indeed, the country does have a relatively active opposition, a limited free press and civic protest is more frequent then in any of the other states. But the will to stay in power by force leads President Askar Akaev to imitate his other counterparts’ methods in dealing with an often angry and hungry population.


Tajikistan suffered the most during its first decade of independence – a five-year long civil war and 150,000 dead in the course of it. The war between secularists in power and opposition Islamic parties was overlain by regional and ethnic disputes. In 1997, the UN brokered a peace treaty which drew some of the opposition forces into the government. The predominantly agricultural, cotton-based economy was ravaged by the war; many Tajik males are believed to be working in Russia to support their families back home. However, a useful earner for Tajikistan is that it is one of the main routes for transporting Afghan opium, which is also believed to be the livelihood for hundreds of thousands of Tajiks.


In its political absolutism and personality cult, Turkmenistan is reminiscent of North Korea under Kim Jong II. President Saparmurat Niyazov likes to be called ‘Turkmenbashi’ or “father of all Turkmen” and is not only a brutal dictator but a rabid lunatic. He has sealed off his country with an iron curtain even stronger than the one separating the Soviet bloc from the west. In a totalitarian society, he controls everything from politics to medicine and education.

Niyazov’s parliament rubber-stamps all of his many eccentric decrees, often with praises for his wise policies. He has abolished ballet, theatre, mathematics tuition below university level and university entrance for women. Yet the parliament elected him president for life and even proclaimed him a new prophet.

The country is rich in natural gas and the Turkmenbashi exchanges it for political support from Russia and Turkey. In April 2003, the Russian foreign minister signed a contract for much-needed cheap gas with the statement that he did not consider Turkmenistan and its leadership dictatorial. Yet in November 2002, an assassination attempt on Niyazov was reported, after which thousands of dissidents were thrown into jails, with resulting accounts of severe torture and deaths in custody.


Uzbekistan, the most populous of the Central Asian states, is also the closest to being a frontline ally of the US. While the State Department can be relied on to make somewhat low-key criticisms of its human rights violations, the core of the Bush administration regards Uzbekistan as central to its strategic doctrine, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

Islam Karimov, former head of the old Soviet republic has been in power in Uzbekistan since independence. In 1993, he crushed its main opposition forces, and from then on targeted as ‘terrorists’ thousands of members of groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

The IMU had indeed become a militant force and there are some accounts that it physically attacked government forces in 2000 and fought alongside the Taliban during the US assault on Afghanistan in late 2001; some also believe that the IMU was completely destroyed during the latter campaign. Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s activities usually consist of disseminating leaflets and prayer sessions, and their political objective of creating a Caliphate on the territory of Central Asia and the Middle East is pursued by peaceful means. Yet both organisations are included in the State Department’s list of terrorist organisations.

The government of Uzbekistan has kept the country closed to investors by sustaining an atmosphere very hostile to business investors. There seems no rational explanation as to why the debts mount even as foreign investors are eager to access the country’s natural resources like oil, gas, gold and cotton (and its cheap labour force). In 1996, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stopped lending Uzbekistan money after promised reforms on convertibility and free market were not delivered. The turning-point of 9/11 and the consequent war in Afghanistan saw Karimov welcome US forces to use one of Uzbekistan’s largest military airbases, yet even this has not reopened the funding channel from the IMF.

The US role: from indifference to cynicism

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States was concerned only to ensure that the newly-independent states did not replace their allegiance to Moscow with a move into the orbit of Iran, Afghanistan and Islamic fundamentalism. The US’s interest in the region’s oil reserves overrode any concern with the communist past of the leaders of these ‘new’ states, and with the continuity in the authoritarian character of their rule.

In the post-1991 geopolitical environment, all the Central Asian rulers were of course sophisticated enough to undertake the formalities of election, and adopted the appearance of legitimate rulers. Yet only the first post-independence elections in the five states were even nominally free, and after a flurry of political activity there was a marked trend back towards authoritarian rule in the early 1990s. Any criticism by the United States administration during the Clinton period (1992-2000) was muted and passive.

During the early and mid-1990s, Islamist missionaries and militants flocked to the region, attracted by millions of nominal Muslims who were eager to rediscover their national and religious identities. The incipient popularity and consequent political threat of revived or recently constituted Islamist parties meant that they were brutally suppressed by state forces under the banner of secularism. For President Clinton, this was much more tolerable than having another set of Islamic states so close to Iran and the Middle East; repression labeled as a war against fundamentalism was deemed acceptable.

A decade later, either out of inertia or deliberate policy, the US is moving from indifference to embrace. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are deemed essential allies in the US ‘war on terror’. As with other countries far from the US homeland, they interest the US administration because of their natural resources (mainly oil) and their geo-strategic position in the vicinity of Afghanistan, Russia, Iran, and China.

For many decades American administrations told their own citizens about their struggles to extend democracy abroad. They still do. In the past they overlooked Central American military regimes and tyrants in the face of the struggle against communism. Now they are doing the same in Central Asia, using the war on terror as an excuse for their cynical blind eye to repression.

The cost of blindness

Only a few weeks after the EBRD meeting, yet two more torture victims died in the custody of the Uzbek police authorities. The relatives of 38-year-old Orif Eshonov received his body, which had visible marks of torture. Eshonov was held on suspicions of belonging to the outlawed Islamic group Hizb-u-Tahrir, but did not have any specific charges laid against him.

Another prisoner, Otamirza Gafarov was due to be released in September 2003 from Chirchik prison in northern Uzbekistan. Instead, he died there on 3 May 2003. According to family members who helped to wash his body, there was a large wound to his head that appeared to have been caused by a sharp object, and bruising to the back of his head. Gafarov’s rib cage, chest and throat were also bruised, and his hands were scratched.

More recently, three more journalists were detained under bogus charges of homosexuality, which is illegal in Uzbekistan.

The Bush administration supports all five Central Asian governments – even Turkmenistan, because the Turkmen authorities allowed US planes fly over its territory. This support clearly contributes to further oppression of the region’s people, and even more anti-American sentiment in the region – possibly leading to more terrorist attacks against Americans. Thus, any short-term benefits for the US administration will in the long run be outweighed by a long-term ‘blowback’ with fatal consequences to American interests and people.

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