On February 17-18, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake led a delegation to Uzbekistan consisting of the officials of the Department of State and the Department of Defense and representatives from leading U.S. companies. The visit represented the second round of the U.S.–Uzbekistan Annual Bilateral Consultations (ABCs), a structured bilateral dialogue launched in Washington, D.C., two years ago. Important topics discussed during the visit covered a range of issues, including security cooperation, human rights, economic issues and regional challenges. Blake said the U.S. delegation also “had a very wide-ranging, detailed discussion on human rights matters.”
Promoting freedom and democracy and protecting human rights around the world have always been central to U.S. Foreign Policy. In bilateral relations with nations like Uzbekistan, the U.S. often makes the protection of human rights a precondition for approving financial aid programs. However, the U.S. national interests, particularly, those that involve national security, military and issues of strategic importance do not often go along with the ideals of human rights and democracy. Because Egypt was a close ally of the U.S. in the Middle East, Washington tolerated the dictatorship and political corruption in this country for 30 years until Egyptians themselves decided to remove Hosni Mubarak through revolution. Inconsistencies in U.S. Foreign Policy usually reflect differing interests of the White House and Pentagon. In my opinion, this is visible in a policy towards Uzbekistan too.
Presence of Defense officials in the U.S. delegation to Tashkent implies that the issues related to security in Afghanistan constitute a significant portion of discussions.
For the U.S. and NATO, Uzbekistan is an important strategic partner in the fight against Taliban in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan offered her help to the allies by allowing the U.S. to establish a military airbase on its land for lifting combat and humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan. However, after bloody events took place in Andijan in 2005, the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Uzbekistan went into deadlock because the U.S., even though careful about wording, joined the international community that harshly criticized the bloody suppression of Andijan demonstration. As a result, Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. from Khanabad military base.
Andijan events have served as a test for the fundamental principles of the U.S. Foreign Policy that guide the U.S. relationship with authoritarian countries like Uzbekistan. In policy cases that involve clash of interests between security issues and principles of human rights protection and democracy promotion, it is difficult for the White House to find a proper balance.
In his new book released this month, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remembers these old days. The youngest and oldest Defense Secretary of the U.S., in his memoir “Known and Unknown”, argues that the U.S. made a mistake in letting concerns about human rights violations in Andijan get in the way of strategic needs. For him, the U.S. decision to remain committed for the protection of human rights was “one of the most unfortunate, if unnoticed, foreign policy mistakes of our administration.”
“We were effectively taking ourselves out of the region, and in the process reversing their progress toward freer systems as well as damaging our national security interests,” he writes.
Rumsfeld’s remarks on the U.S. policy towards Uzbekistan are not new. Back in 2005, he expressed the same concerns about the U.S. stance towards Andijan violence. While the U.S. Senators warned Bush Administration to be careful about being too closely associated with a government that has killed its own people, Rumsfeld opposed an international investigation into the incident.
Ahead of Pentagon, there is only one task to be accomplished: Successfully finishing the mission in Afghanistan. Pentagon does not worry much about the issues of human rights and democracy. That is why military officials raised their concern when the U.S. criticized the handling of the Andijan events because they feared to lose their presence in Uzbekistan, which was serving as an important hub for the mission in Afghanistan. At the same time, the White House cannot sacrifice her foreign policy principles of human rights protection and democracy promotion solely for the sake of preserving strategic interests.
In 2005, Lawrence Di Rita, a Pentagon spokesman and Rumsfeld special assistant, said Rumsfeld’s disagreement with the U.S. position towards Uzbekistan should not be seen as an opposition to the U.S. Foreign Policy. If there was tension, he said, it was between supporting “democracy in Uzbekistan” and “democracy in Afghanistan.”
Many years passed since bad days of Andijan. Situation in human rights and democracy did not get any better in Uzbekistan, if not deteriorated. However, we are witnessing a positive change in the U.S.’s position towards Uzbekistan. Since a warm relationship took a fresh start in 2009, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake made his fourth visit to Tashkent. It is probably Obama’s New Afghanistan Strategy that necessitated forming a new partnership with Tashkent. As mentioned in his remarks for this strategy, Obama wanted to see Central Asian states in a new Contact Group to be forged for Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan welcomed the White House’s new strategy. Vladimir Norov, former minister of Foreign affairs of Uzbekistan, said Afghan problem cannot be solved without the participation of neighboring countries.
These recent strategic developments and changes with regard to Afghanistan strategy are again bringing the U.S. and Uzbekistan to the table of discussions for a new partnership. As the target date for completing the mission in Afghanistan is set to 2014, which is approaching fast, the U.S. will need Uzbekistan’s support.
Meanwhile, human rights activists are demanding the U.S. to be more attentive to the human rights violations in Uzbekistan. In this scenario, can we expect the U.S. to be faithful to the ideals of her foreign policy, which promote human rights protection and democracy, or, being busy with “supporting democracy” in Afghanistan, will she close her eyes to human rights issues interpreting them as internal problems of Uzbekistan?
As a principle, the U.S. cannot close her eyes to the human rights abuses committed by the Uzbek government. Also, as the mission in Afghanistan is in a critical stage, the U.S. does not want to break its ties with a country that is providing the transportation of important supplies to Afghanistan. With the same concerns, even the E.U., which was the harshest in criticizing the Uzbek government for the killings in Andijan, recently invited Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, to Brussels for discussions with NATO.
In their new strategy of partnership with Uzbekistan, the U.S. and the EU are likely to continue to raise the problems of human rights and democracy. However, this time the communication will be conducted through constructive talks. In Andijan tragedy, condemning the government and severing all ties did not work for Uzbekistan because Uzbekistan, instead of conceding to the demands of international community, moved closer to Russia and China, which is probably the worst scenario for the U.S.
However, we do not know yet whether this strategy will work or not. We will look forward to expecting new developments capable of testing this new relationship.