Jarvik on Uzbekistan

Over at The Argus, Laurence Jarvik urges the U.S. not to cut aid to Uzbekistan, arguing that it plays a positive role in the country, and that cutting it would only push Uzbekistan towards China and Russia – obviously countries with even less interest in promoting democracy. Since I’ve urged precisely the opposite position on Uzbekistan here, Jarvik’s post is worth noting. A sample or two:

On June 17th, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will have an anti-terrorism meeting at its new headquarters in Tashkent. Also in June, the American government will decide whether to suspend aid to Uzbekistan on human rights grounds. Clearly, Uzbekistan is at a crossroads. What happens next will in large measure depend on what America decides to do with its Central Asian ally — and Uzbekistan is an ally, like it or not. For example, only Israel votes with the USA more reliably in the United Nations.

If the root cause of bombings last March in Uzbekistan were government repression, then American human rights groups, NGOs, and editorialists from the New York Times and Washington Post would be right in their call for a cutoff of American aid.

However, to someone who spent last year living in Tashkent, the situation on the ground looks more complicated From this vantage point, American aid — sometimes indirect via groups like the Soros foundation, currently closed in a licensing dispute; at other times direct to the Uzbek government — is an incentive for Uzbekistan to move towards political and economic liberalization.

Repression in Uzbekistan has nothing to do with the United States, nor do residents blame America for police brutality. America is well-liked, although the Iraq war is not. Even in the Ferghana Valley, home to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, vendors in an Andijan market greeted my declaration of American citizenship with broad grins, thumbs up, and the exclamation, �America-Yaxshi!� (America-Good!).

The Uzbek police state dates at least to the Russian empire. Since the Bolshevik revolution, prisoners have been tortured by interrogators trained in KGB methods, while Soviet-era laws make confessions almost obligatory. Islam Karimov�s government is unpopular because of draconian austerity measures intended to please the IMF, including unpaid salaries, closed borders, and currency controls�not because of anti-terrorism policies. Although Islamist propaganda has unsuccessfully tried to capitalize on such legitimate grievances, extremists have never managed to garner public support, most likely because what they stand for is far more frightening than the status quo. Hence, the failure of recent bomb attacks to incite rebellion.

Such terrorist assaults, however, provide the government with an excuse to delay reform, giving rise to widespread conspiracy theories claiming that bombs may have been planted by government agents in order to crack down on political opponents. The reverse is more nearly the case, since the existence of terrorist cells is a major obstacle to democracy-building.

. . .

Because Uzbekistan�s economy is not dependent on US aid, America needs to carefully consider the consequences of any major change in policy. Neither Russia nor China can permit another Islamic state to appear in Central Asia. Needless to say, neither Russians nor Chinese see democracy as their top priority in Uzbekistan.

The choice facing Uzbekistan is not between Islam Karimov�s repression and American-style democracy. At this point, it is between Karimov�s authoritarian rule and something worse. This United States is the only major power simultaneously working to fight terrorism and support human rights in Central Asia. American efforts and aid programs have been aimed at eliminating the most flagrant violations, while promoting democracy, respect for human rights, and free markets.

Without financial aid from America, internal and regional pressures will tend towards a reversion to the greater repression of the Soviet system in order to fight terrorism in Uzbekistan�one that crushed threats to the social order at a much higher cost in human suffering.

I confess I too worry about the effects of completely severing ties. This kind of thing doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and Russia and China wouldn’t even insist on making token gestures about human rights.

Still, I don’t buy Jarvik’s thesis. I’ll just make three very modest points for now. First, Jarvik claims that the U.S. is not yet associated with the repressive regime in Uzbekistan, despite supporting it. Fair enough, but they haven’t been at it very long. Give it time, I say, and you’ll get something similar to what you find elsewhere in the world (Egypt now; Iran under the Shah) when the U.S. props up an authoritarian regime over a period of time.

Second, I think I’m inclined to be sceptical here because I see such a strong parallel with the Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and many of its authoritarian client states. Client states rarely respond to pressure unless they know the U.S. is serious and willing to make human rights a priority. Otherwise, it’s just a hypocritical game of dancing around mostly notional standards that does no one much good. In the meantime, an enormous amount of damage is done to the broader ideological effort, since the hypocrisy is pretty obvious to everyone.

Finally, I think there is something to be said for the idea that your own participation in evil is a matter of special concern to you. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. can simply leave Uzbekistan to Russia with the consolation that at least they’re not the morally responsible senior party anymore. But it does matter. How much, I’m not sure. But I think it does.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, Tajikisan drifts ever more firmly into Russian orbit.