Cozying up to Central Asia’s Most Brutal Regimes
An Afghan guard stands watch at the Friendship Bridge, the only border crossing between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The bridge is a key link in the northern supply route to U.S. troops in Central Asia. / Mark O’Donald, U.S. Navy
The Turkish Airlines flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan was scheduled to leave at 9:25 on an October night, and dozens of people, nearly all of whom were holding Uzbek passports, stood at the gate. Gripping the handles of bulging plastic bags filled with candy and gifts, they stared at an electronic board announcing a Moscow-bound flight that had been unexpectedly assigned the same gate.
“LAST CALL” for Moscow, the board flashed in Turkish and English at 30-second intervals. As time passed, the announcement began to seem less urgent. Finally, the last passenger got on the Moscow airplane, and officials began ushering the Uzbek travelers through.
For weeks leading up to the trip, I’d had restless nights full of frightening dreams. For Uzbeks, however, real life can be as haunting as any nightmare.
President Islam Karimov runs the country, a sprawling parcel of the former Soviet empire, like a fiefdom. In 2002, two religious dissidents were boiled to death, according to a State Department report. In May 2005, Uzbek troops shot and killed hundreds of protestors in the eastern city of Andijan. A witness named Juravoi Abdulaev showed a Radio Free Europe reporter, Gafurjan Yuldashev, one of the resulting mass graves. After Yuldashev filed a story about the mass graves, Abdulaev was stabbed to death. A human rights investigator told me that sources he interviewed following the Andijan massacre were later tracked down by authorities, imprisoned, and tortured.
Some Uzbeks, such as Abdulaev and those interviewed by the human rights investigator, have been brave enough to speak openly about their experiences, and they paid a price. Others prefer to speak with journalists discretely. As I stood at the gate, I held my passport and a notebook filled with the names of both kinds: dissidents who had been outspoken about human rights abuses, along with others who were willing to talk as long as they could remain anonymous. The list included activists, economists, a former government official who had resigned in protest after the Andijan massacre, one woman whose relative, a political leader, had been assassinated, and four journalists.
The Turkish official at the gate held up my passport. He had dirty blond hair and glasses, and a yellow cord dangling around his neck. He put the passport down and looked at me. “I hope you have another visa,” he said. “This one isn’t any good.” He pointed to a smudged date in my passport and asked me to stand to the side. Businessmen and mothers clutching small children filed past me, showing him their passports as I waited.
What would happen if officials in Uzbekistan knew I was a journalist—what would happen to my sources?
Abruptly he turned toward me. “Do you have a letter of invitation?” he asked.
I thought about what would happen if he and his colleagues in Uzbekistan knew I was a journalist entering their country on a tourist visa, about what would happen to the people on my list. “No,” I lied.
He stepped over to me. “If you get on that plane and go to Tashkent,” he said, waving his hand toward the jet, “they will deport you. They will send you back on this plane.”
I might have argued, but I lost my nerve that night. I would have been fine, but what about the names in my notebook?
Things were supposed to be getting better in Central Asia, and Americans, in part, were supposed to be responsible.
Since late 2008 the United States has been developing the Northern Distribution Network, a transportation grid running through Uzbekistan, neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and other nations. The military uses the route to transport food and supplies to troops in Afghanistan. In the process the U.S. military has been buying bottled water, plastic forks, and other items made in factories along the way, spending more than $62 million in fiscal year 2010.
The northern supply route is vital to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan because the southern one, which runs through Pakistan, is frequently bombed and closed down. Central Asia offers a more stable alternative. Roughly 60 percent of goods transported to the troops in Afghanistan come via the northern route, and military officials say that share will increase over the next two years.
U.S. officials have argued that investments in the transportation grid will improve the lives of people in Central Asia. Officials have even suggested that the new partnerships with Central Asian leaders could help improve their records on human rights. “Closer cooperation” might force “progress on human rights” and allow “the regime to loosen its vise on civil society,” Richard B. Norland, the ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote in a January 2010 diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks.
But Americans have long struggled with competing impulses when dealing with autocratic leaders in strategically important regions, trying to balance the desire to promote democracy and human rights with the need to maintain security and access to bases.
In Central Asia, at least, the military imperatives seem to have won out. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an International Women of Courage award to an Uzbek human rights activist in 2009, the Uzbek foreign minister made what Norland called an “implicit threat” to suspend deliveries along the supply route if Americans continued to raise the issue of human rights. Afterward Norland told his colleagues in Washington to curb their complaints.
Since then Americans have had much less to say about human rights in Central Asia, while investing even more heavily in the region. U.S. investment in Central Asian business, as part of the commitment to the supply route, jumped from $2.7 million in fiscal year 2009 to $90.6 million in fiscal year 2011, according to Navy Rear Admiral Ron MacLaren, who directs the Defense Logistics Agency’s Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office, which helps to secure supplies for troops in Afghanistan.
Despite the promise of “heretofore unimagined economic advances” for the people of Central Asia, as scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it in a December 2009 report, little of the investment has gone to local business people.
“Who benefits? Of course, it’s corrupted elites,” says Baktybek Beshimov, a former member of parliament in Kyrgyzstan. He acknowledges that some of the capital has gone to local businesses but argues that “a huge amount of this money goes to corrupt leaders” and that the funding “leads to the escalation of corruption in Central Asian countries.”
These countries’ leaders have been cracking down harder on human rights and democracy advocates, while Americans have done little to stop them. “In a time of crisis, the American administration can be blind to human rights abuses,” Beshimov says, “and instead they are thinking more about the military or security priorities.”
When it comes to official abuses, Beshimov speaks from experience. As a parliamentarian in the late 2000s, he investigated human rights violations, including the torture of dissidents. Eventually he was placed under state surveillance, and then, he says, “They decided just to kill me.” On March 3, 2009, Beshimov was driving in a chauffeured official vehicle on his way to the capital city of Bishkek. Traffic police stopped the car, claimed the chauffeur was speeding, and asked him to sign papers acknowledging that he had. The police then stopped the car two more times on the same road. Beshimov was annoyed—and suspicious.
Since building a supply route through Central Asia, Americans have had much less to say about human rights there.
As they approached a tunnel on a mountain road, Beshimov saw one of his assistants flagging them down from the side of the road. They pulled over, and the assistant told him that two trucks were idling on the other side of the tunnel. One of the drivers planned to block off the road, his assistant explained, while the other would force Beshimov’s car into a ravine. The chauffeur’s admission that he had been speeding would ensure that blame for the incident fell to him—just another out-of-control driver. Beshimov took another route.
The setup was familiar. “Staged car accidents,” Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller called them in a March 2009 diplomatic cable. In the cable, she described speculation about the “political assassination” of Presidential Chief of Staff Medet Sadyrkulov, an opposition leader who had been killed in a car crash under mysterious circumstances less than two weeks after the police stopped Beshimov.
Now a visiting scholar at Harvard and MIT, Beshimov wishes Americans showed more caution in their partnerships with Central Asian leaders. The problem isn’t only that U.S. officials are enabling violent strongmen. As Beshimov explains, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is consolidating power over Central Asia, and the supply route is playing into his hands. “Economically, it’s very beneficial for Russia,” Beshimov says. “It also offers them the chance to use the Network as blackmail against the U.S. during times of crisis in the relationship.”
Indeed, American officials sometimes seem naïve, or willfully blind, in their dealings with Central Asian leaders. Military officers say they hope that corrupt leaders are not siphoning off funds from U.S. contracts, but they also admit that they cannot be sure. “There’s no guarantee that there isn’t something happening behind closed doors,” Admiral MacLaren told me, “until something breaks, and then we take appropriate action.”
MacLaren and other officials rely on the media to uncover graft and corruption in the contracting process. Yet journalists have faced obstacles in reporting on the government, and there are few independent media outlets in Uzbekistan. Researchers from organizations such as Human Rights Watch have been forced to leave the country.
The Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in Moscow in 2006, had a finely tuned sense of the role that Westerners played in human rights debates in her country. Russian authorities, she argued, paid attention when Westerners spoke openly about human rights abuses and were more likely to release imprisoned human rights activists. But when Westerners said little, the authorities treated activists more harshly.
A similar situation seems to be unfolding in Uzbekistan. From 2006 to 2008, the pressure was on: the European Union sanctioned Uzbekistan for refusing to allow an international inquiry into the Andijan massacre, and American officials were systematically raising the subject of human rights. At least 24 prisoners were released in those years, according to Human Rights Watch’s Steve Swerdlow. Since work on the supply route began, just six have been freed. In 2009, after diplomats softened their statements about human rights, Uzbekistan’s independent bar associations were abolished and replaced by the state-controlled Chamber of Lawyers. Human rights lawyers had their licenses taken away, Swerdlow explains. He was kicked out of the country on Christmas Eve, 2010. An official letter said his organization was violating Uzbek law, though which law was not specified.
The economic consequences of the new U.S. policy in Central Asia are significant, though it is difficult, if not impossible, to get a proper accounting of the supply route contracts, the profit that is being generated, or the impact that these investments are having on the people of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. It is clear, however, that the human rights situation has not improved as American officials intended. By now it seems to have taken a turn for the worse.