Journalists, Foreign Policy, and Speculation

by Nathan Hamm on 4/12/2007 · 6 comments

Scary dude...Conventional wisdom claims that the Uzbek government wants a closer relationship with Europe. But how badly it wants an improvement of ties depends on whom you ask. One hears quite often that Karimov is now worried that he went too far in breaking ties with the West and aligning with Russia, and that he now wants to Kazakhstan style balance in his foreign policy. I have even pointed out that unhappiness in the Uzbekistan-Russia relationship may be motivating Uzbekistan to look West.

Something contradictory is going on at the same time. Empirical evidence suggests that Uzbekistan could care less about relations with the West. Foreign Minister Norov bluntly told the EU to keep its nose out of Uzbek affairs. Western NGOs are still being shut down. Journalists and human rights activists are still being harassed and arrested.

In fact, the harassment of particular journalists is very important to the EU’s attempt to build stronger ties with Uzbekistan. There are now apparently three Uzbek Deutsche Welle reporters facing criminal charges. It seems odd that Uzbek officials would be bringing the charges at the precise time that EU delegations are in town, assuming that the Uzbek government actually does want better ties. How to explain this strangeness? UzNews mentions one idea.

An article signed by Kurkmas Muminov says that the latest criminal cases against Deutsche Welle journalists create an impression that someone wants to demonise the Uzbek authorities, above all, President Islam Karimov.

The first criminal case launched against Deutsche Welle journalist Natalya Bushuyeva coincided with an EU-Central Asia meeting in Astana on 28 March so that Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov felt very uncomfortable at the meeting.

Muminov blamed directly the president’s spokesman Alisher Azizhojayev, who is allegedly aiming at the presidential post, for prosecuting the German radio journalists.

I am extremely skeptical that these arrests are evidence of competition between political networks, or, to use the more common, but loaded and imprecise term, clans. I believe Karimov to be a weaker executive than he is commonly portrayed, but I have a hard time accepting that the arrests of these DW journalists is a play for the throne. Right off the bat, it is hard to see how this hurts Karimov’s domestic position in any serious way. The mere existence of his daughter seems to be far more politically damaging.

If these arrests are meant to send a message at all, it is a bit more economical to think that it is that Karimov’s government is serious letting Europe know that it will accept a relationship on its own terms or not at all. It wants no criticism of its internal policies, and if it can get Europe to agree that all is improving even when circumstances clearly show that the situation is degrading, then perhaps all can go well between the two.

Speculation certainly can be fun, but it is important not to take it too far. Uzbekistan is similar to the Soviet Union in that our information about its politics is severely limited. We, by necessity, fill in a lot of blanks with certain assumptions or with bad information that we get from people who pass off their own speculations as truths grounded in well sourced facts. The reality is though that our best bet is to observe repeated behaviors and draw our conclusions about Uzbek politics from them. Back when relations between Uzbekistan and the US were good, we heard that reformers in the Uzbek bureaucracy needed the US to make sure that relations stayed strong so that pro-Russian hardliners would not sweep them away. And we hear all the time about “clans” in Uzbek politics. Both of these tell us something partially true about Uzbek politics. Yes, there are likely pro-Western reformers in the Uzbek government. And yes, they probably have been discredited as Uzbekistan has turned toward Russia (in fact, and here I go rumor-mongering, I hear that Russia has pushed for them to be punished, demoted, and/or removed from their positions — see Kadir Gulyamov). But I certainly have seen nothing that indicates there was ever any meaningful cleavage between reformers and hardliners in Uzbekistan’s government. Likewise with clans. Few authors take the time to even define what they mean when they use this term, but I think most Uzbekistan watchers agree it gets at something important in the way Uzbek elites divide themselves up. It’s just that we cannot have meaningful debates about just exactly what this something important is unless we know what the term actually means, making its use usually absolutely meaningless.

Anyhow, I think this is important because, taken in isolation, it is easy to think of certain events as indicating a particular direction in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. The arrest of DW journalists suggests Uzbekistan wants to stay the course with minimizing the ability of the West to “interfere” in Uzbekistan. The aforementioned tensions in relations with Russia seem to signal a willingness to move West. Even Abdulaziz Komilov’s willingness to do a public talk in Seattle hints at an openness to the United States (especially because he canceled last year). And then there’s another interesting data point. I think that Anna Skalova is 100% correct in their analysis of Lt. Col. Sanjar Ismailov’s conviction on treason charges for spying for Russia.

By imprisoning Ismailov, Uzbek leaders have sent a signal to Moscow that Tashkent does not consider itself geopolitically dependent on the Kremlin. While tension may be lingering beneath the surface, both countries don’t appear anxious to have their differences become the subject of public scrutiny. Neither Uzbek nor Russian officials have commented on the Ismailov case. Bondar, Ismailov’s wife, says that Russian officials have ignored her pleas to take action on her husband’s behalf, explaining that the case was an internal affair for Uzbek authorities.

In fact, it seems that Russia got the point. Uzbekistan’s government will do as it sees fit without deference to others. Put this datum alongside even just the recent data, and one sees what may be the defining characteristic of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy, which is that it doesn’t have to do what anyone tells it because it’s sovereign damn it!

I do not, however, want to dissuade anyone from speculation too much though. For example, read the last three paragraphs of this article. There is a lot there that sets off my BS detector, but it does bring up an interesting question. Is Rustam Inoyatov a possibly viable successor to Islam Karimov? He is, from what I’ve read, not originally a product of the country’s most powerful elite networks. What is more important is how he is perceived now. But being an outsider can be helpful. After all, Karimov was a nobody in a dead end position in Qarshi when Ismoil Jurabekov put him forward as a compromise candidate to lead the Uzbek SSR. Interesting stuff, but too much of it can draw us away from determining what is actually going on in Uzbekistan’s political arena.

Also interesting? This story.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Laurence April 14, 2007 at 3:18 am

Nathan, Thank you for an interesting post.

Rurrik April 14, 2007 at 7:36 am

I have gathered lots of pictures from various sources of the mass protests that have taken place in Moscow this past Saturday (and tomorrow in St.Petersburg). Please visit my site!

Botir April 14, 2007 at 3:35 pm

Stuttgart arena, Germany, WBO Championship. 14.04.07
Ruslan Chagaev (the White Tyson) versus Nikolai Valuev (the Russian Giant)

The First Uzbek World Boxing Champion in Heavy Weight..Ruslan Chagaev.

A very important step for Uzbek politicians…Another arguement for cynics: Dogs bark, caravan goes on its way

Botir April 14, 2007 at 3:44 pm

Sorry for a mistake…it is WBA championship

Rustam April 14, 2007 at 5:31 pm

Stupid comments of an idiot Botir, word to word copied from Karimov’s meaningless speeches.
Could you be more specific how this WBA championship would help 27 million people in Uzbekistan?
When it comes to Inoyatov he did not came from an elite per se because former KGB always tried to stay behind the curtains but always nevertheless controlled the stage and during the last 15 years working at the CNB and becoming its head he is and does represent the elite of the Karimov’s Uzbekistan; after all he represents the mbodiment of Karimov’s grip on power and all “law enforcement” support behind dictator Karimov.

Al April 16, 2007 at 6:52 pm

The best uzbek boxers live and train in Germany or another country of Europe. This is also true about the Klitschko brothers. Chagaev, Grigoryan seem to be more comfortable defending the Uzbek flag from a foreign territory. This just shows how bad the conditions are for professional fighters to live and train in Uzbekistan. But we should still thank them for not giving up their love to their countrymen.

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