Thawing Out Tashkent?

by Joshua Foust on 11/13/2007 · 17 comments

Via Beyond the River, I see Richard Norland, the new American ambassador to Uzbekistan, is subtley reaching out to the Karimov regime:

On November 1, the US envoy met with Uzbekistan’s parliament-appointed human rights ombudsman, Saiora Rashidova. A report on the meeting posted on the website portrayed Norland as voicing a desire to foster a new bilateral relationship, and to find “common language” on humanitarian issues, including human rights. In the aftermath of Andijan, the United States was outspoken in its criticism of the Karimov administration’s human rights violations, especially the crackdown on freedom of expression. During his meeting with the ombudsman, however, Norland reportedly acknowledged US rights abuses associated with the Abu Grahib prison in Iraq and the Guantanamo military base in Cuba. “He recognized the fact that no country has a monopoly” on good human rights behavior, according to the UzReport account.

The report goes on to note that neither Ambassador Norland nor one of his political officers—Richard Fitzmaurice—met with any NGOs or human rights activists during their few official trips beyond Tashkent. They didn’t mention either group, or the problem of Uzkekistan’s atrocious human rights record in any recent statements.

What could this mean? Did Germany break the dam, so to speak, so now everyone is scrambling to repair their relations with Karimov? I am normally all about engagement (looking to China and Vietnam as my example of how a horrible situation can be made much less so by active engagement), but that also normally comes with some kind of caveat, even if it is a token wish for conditions to improve.

Indeed, I fail to see how this rapprochement is anything other than needless and embarrassing for the U.S.—further evidence of the government’s tin ear for American and international interests in the region.

Update: Laurence passed along a VOA-Uzbek story about Ambassador Norland. If any kind soul would care to provide a transcript, I’m all ears.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Matt November 14, 2007 at 5:46 pm

What a great new foreign policy:
“Human rights abuses… hey, it happens”

Laurence November 14, 2007 at 6:16 pm

Josh, This might be due to the trouble in Pakistan. Uzbekistan provides the other major supply route to Afghanistan. The US needs Uzbekistan now, in case the situation in Pakistan gets ugly–or Afghanistan may descend into chaos, as well. It’s about geopolitics, not electoral politics, IMHO.

Laurence November 14, 2007 at 6:20 pm

Just checked out Amb. Norland’s bio on the US State Department website, and there’s an obvious Afghanistan connection:

Richard Norland, the United States Ambassador to the Republic of Uzbekistan, is a career Foreign Service Officer. Prior to his nomination, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan (2005-2007). He has also served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Riga, Latvia (2003-2005), and as Political Officer in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan (October 2002-January 2003) where he worked with U.S. Army Civil Affairs teams to promote political and economic reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Ambassador Norland provided advice on the Northern Ireland peace process as Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council (1999-2001) and as Political Counselor at the American Embassy in Dublin, Ireland (1995-98). He served as a peacekeeping monitor in the Republic of Georgia with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1993) and visited Chechnya in a similar capacity in 1995.

Ambassador Norland has also served as Political Officer at the American Embassy in Moscow, USSR (1988-1990), as Chief of the U.S. Information Office in Tromso, Norway (1986-88) and as Senior Arctic Official coordinating the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council (1998-99). His first tour was at the American Embassy in Manama, Bahrain (1981-82).

Ambassador Norland joined the Foreign Service in 1980. He graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1977. He has a Masters of International Public Policy degree from the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (1992) and a Masters of National Security Strategy degree from the National War College (2002). He speaks French, Russian, Norwegian and Latvian.

Laurence November 14, 2007 at 6:24 pm
‌Ian November 14, 2007 at 9:12 pm


Uzbekistan isn’t the only supply route for northern Afghanistan–the US just finished funding and building a tank-grade bridge at Panj. The downside of kissing up to Karimov seems much greater than any of the possible benefits.

Ataman Rakin November 15, 2007 at 5:41 am

“The downside of kissing up to Karimov seems much greater than any of the possible benefits.”

Yes. Pragmatism is what it is. OK. But then, be ready for the backlash. When you butter up an ever-more loathed regime, don’t expect its successor and, especially, the population to still like you.

The same happens in Afghanistan. People’s main frustration with NATO-ISAF is not that it is a Western military force occupying their country, but that ISAF protects/backs (or is at least perceived to do so) hated local potenates, esp. former warlords who are now governors.

Laurence November 15, 2007 at 9:30 am

More background details on Amb. Norland on Eurasianet today

Brian November 15, 2007 at 3:07 pm

I agree with Ataman, although I think not all local commanders or ‘warlords’ are as corrupt and evil as the perception.

As far as supply routes to Afghanistan I can’t really see any way that the US is going to re-open its base in Uzbekistan again. So what else could they be seeking? Overflight rights? Intelligence cooperation (which is in Uzbekistan’s interests as well)? Yes it does seem like we might be getting a bad deal if we switch to the “hey, stuff happens” policy, to quote Matt.

noah tucker November 15, 2007 at 10:10 pm

To add a little more perspective to the discussion, while I have serious issues with making many concessions to Karimov, when I was in Tashkent this summer I talked to Fitzmaurice and others at the embassy, and the brunt reality of the situation is that the US embassy is basically under siege. When they try to make appointments or any kind of contact with the government officials they supposed to be engaging in diplomacy with, sometimes the other end doesn’t even bother to pick of the phone, much less schedule a meaning or offer any meaningful dialogs People across the country are harassed by the SNB for having any contact with the embassy, and when someone agrees to schedule a venue for cultural events, they’re pressured into canceling.

There comes a point where you have to consider that if they’re absolutely going to refuse to engage us on the terms we came into the dialog with, maybe it’s worth choosing our words carefully. Frankly, it seems to me that admitting that we commit human rights abuses is not a huge concession, particularly since it’s true… neither side ought to be sweeping things under the rug. Now, the next question is whether or not State can come to the table with any authority to talk about human rights abuses when Executive continues to stubbornly defend its “right” to commit them. This is a serious Achilles heel in our diplomacy, and frankly on the public level Uzbeks that I talked to this summer who harbored any anti-American sentiments explained them in the terms of Uzbek government propaganda, but in reaction to real things that the US was doing around the world that upset and disappointed them. I don’t know enough of the real details about what was said at the meetings talked about above to make any comment about what really was said, but honestly I don’t think we can come to the table and criticize someone else’s human rights violations while justifying our own.
This is a problem not just for Norland, but for just about every US ambassador in the world who’s dispathed to a country that doesn’t sycophantically approve of everything we do.

Lastly, I really not feel comfortable saying in this forum everything I found out this summer about what the embassy does, but we should also remember that you can’t assume that just because it’s written in an article that the US doesn’t hold meetings with NGOs and human rights groups doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And there are other reasons besides attempts to “cozy up” to Karimov that embassy staff don’t hold meetings with human rights activists in public and then announce it in press releases. I’ve decided to be a bit more careful about what I say on here after I shocked a few people with my little outburst last month–that I ended up asking Nathan to delete–but I think you can get my drift here.

noah tucker November 15, 2007 at 10:52 pm

sorry for all the typos above. i had to run and put my son to bed and sent it a bit hastily. also, as if this would be a mystery to anyone who knows me or ever reads my comments or posts, nothing i said above should be taken to either justify the karimov regime’s abuses or equate our abuses with theirs. i’m not a communist or an anti-American–admitting our own mistakes should not and cannot be a good ol’ boys pat on the back that leads to looking the other way at any other country’s violations.

also, i didn’t get around to mentioning in the above post–and perhaps this will make more people angry than anything else i said–but the idea that a little shift in the rhetoric could possibly lead to a thaw in the relationship with uzbekistan to the point that they would approve even over flights both dramatically underestimates the level of hostility the regime has for us and the fact that Russia has taken advantage of the schism pretty fully, and they would never on a cold day in hell let us base troops in Uzbekistan if they had anything at all to say about it–and my suspicion is that at this point they have a good deal more influence than is visible on the surface.

i also get the feeling that karimov would demand a great deal more in return than we would ever find palatable. he’s decided at this point that he just doesn’t need us for anything, and i think it would take a good deal more than we are willing to give to change his mind.

Ataman Rakin November 16, 2007 at 3:25 am

“I think not all local commanders or ‘warlords’ are as corrupt and evil as the perception.”

No that’s true. Ismail Khan (, for example, is no angel for sure but by far not as rapacious like certain others. Also, when the country was in turmoil in teh ’90s he did his best to keep certain things running in Herat, like girls’ education.

The nuisance are the petty warlords like Commander Shamal in Faryab:

As for Dostum and Hekmatyar, they are a war criminals and directly responsible for the chaos after the Mujahedeen victory over the Red Army.

‌Ian November 16, 2007 at 7:46 am

Noah, you make good points but my question about the possible benefits of a friendlier relationship to Karimov still stands. If we can’t ever have the supply routes, and there’s no big energy deposits, and Karimov absolutely refuses to “engage us on the terms we came into the dialog with,” why then bother with him at all? Wouldn’t it be better simply to wait out his death and stay on the side of those in Uzbekistan who nurse some little hope of a fair election in the future? It seems to me that by saying, “Hey, we all do a little human-rights violating once in a while,” that is sweeping it under the rug. Of course, the US does have its share of violations, but we also have an independent judiciary and regular elections to throw the bums out if these violations really offend us.

Laurence November 16, 2007 at 9:40 am

Noah, Thank you for the interesting post–if the US embassy has been “under siege” by Uzbek security services, why haven’t there been press reports about this? Your statement

just because it’s written in an article that the US doesn’t hold meetings with NGOs and human rights groups doesn’t mean it’s not happening…

is also interesting. You seem to know what is going on in Tashskent.

Perhaps you could post a fuller report on the current state of US-Uzbek relations on Registan? I have not seen this information anywhere else.

Thank you.

noah tucker November 17, 2007 at 3:34 pm

Ian–As far as my own personal beliefs go, and certainly my feelings about Karimov and his regime go, I completely agree with you. But on another level, a lot of organizations that were providing vital aid to communities in Uzbekistan have now been forced out, and the effect that it’s had on those communities is sad and incredibly discouraging. The groups that I used to work with in particular have been almost completely left alone and are only reached at all now by caring volunteers from the local population–who are incredibly more qualified to do the work than the international groups that were supervising it before, but the problem is that it’s very, very hard for them to find sponsors in Uzbekistan willing to pay them to work full time, which means they have to either radically cut down the hours they put in or quit altogether at the expense of the very long work weeks or multiple jobs it takes to make the income they have to have to support their families. This, and seeing how much pressure gets put on locals who even attempt to interact with the international community is my primary reason for seeking some kind of at least cold working relationship with the regime. But as you point out, it’s a clear compromise of our values, though having a relationship with Karimov has actually always been that… so I don’t know… you make a very good point, and I appreciate it, and I’m also glad I’m not the one who has to make these decisions.

Laurence–You’re right, there is almost no information published about US Uzbek relations these days, at least not any that gives information about what they actually do besides visa interviews and English chat clubs. But I think the reasons for that are not just that no one wants to report on it. I really don’t feel like there’s much more that I can say about it without asking the people who discussed it with me for permission, and I would be uncomfortable sharing any details because anything other than very vague statements (like the one above) could draw unwanted attention, to put it mildly, to individuals or groups who are probably already on watch lists…

The research that I did this summer is meant to be for a larger paper about the thaw in US/European-Uzbek relations and its effects on Uzbekistanis in general. When I finish it in the spring I could send you a copy if you like.

Laurence November 17, 2007 at 4:59 pm

Noah, I would be very interested in reading your paper–maybe you would be able to publish it on Registan as well? If there is a “thaw” taking place, it would be interesting to learn the details… Personally, I think there has been far too much secrecy about US activities vis-a-vis Uzbekistan, which contributes to an atmosphere of distrust on all sides–especially when the US officially advocates “transparency.”

‌Ian November 17, 2007 at 6:24 pm

I second Laurence–please have the Registanis publish the paper or a summary of it. You and I don’t get to make the decisions about these diplomatic relationships, but I guarantee you that some of those who do read this blog.

Laurence November 17, 2007 at 8:58 pm

“Registanis”–Juda yaxshi!

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