|Uzbek strongman under Russian
By Sergei Blagov
MOSCOW - Uzbek President Islam Karimov have been
targeted by an orchestrated campaign by Russian-language
media outlets, including allegations of terminal
illness. Despite Moscow’s attempts to distance itself
from this smear campaign, claims of alleged division
among Uzbek politicians might indicate that the
viability of Karimov's regime may soon face a test.
Notably, on March 6, the Russian daily
Nyezavisimaya Gazeta, or NG, published a longish article
claiming that Karimov was probably terminally ill. It
also alleged that the president might have been dead and
replaced by a double amid fierce infighting between
feuding Uzbek clans.
Moreover, NG claimed that
the Uzbek elite was split between the Samarkand clan,
headed by Karimov’s adviser Ismail Dzhurabekov and
Interior Minister Zakir Almatov, and the
Tashkent-Ferghana clan, headed by Karimov’s aide, Timur
Alimov and Defense Minister Kadyr Gulyamov. The daily
also speculated that the split could become so violent
that it would warrant deployment of international
peacekeepers in Uzbekistan.
As NG presumably
went too far in speculation over would-be international
military operation in Uzbekistan, the Kremlin opted to
distance itself from such allegations. The publication
of unchecked information about Karimov’s death caused
our "indignation and denouncing" the Russian Foreign
Ministry said in a statement.
came as the latest in a series of semi-anonymous attacks
on the Internet on the Uzbek leader. For instance,
Russian-language articles posted on the Internet alleged
Karimov's complicity in drug trafficking out of
Afghanistan via Uzbekistan to Europe. One article
claimed that during the 1991 Soviet collapse, Karimov in
fact opposed Uzbek independence, despite his subsequent
claims to the contrary. These stories also urged Uzbeks
to oust Karimov’s regime.
It has been reported
that all web sites that published anti-Karimov articles
have been shut down for Uzbek Internet users. However,
adding to the government’s concerns, photocopies of
inflammatory stories have been circulating in Uzbek
Not surprisingly, the Uzbek official
media launched fierce propaganda counterattacks in
response to the Russian-language articles. For instance,
state-run television run a number of documentaries
praising Karimov’s leadership. One was reportedly
designed to dismiss allegations that Karimov had opposed
Uzbek independence in 1991.
reaction arguably indicated that Uzbek authorities
viewed the accusations as a serious threat. The media
attacks come at a sensitive time for Uzbekistan as the
country’s importance for the United States has seemingly
started to fade.
Since the September 11, 2001
terrorist attacks, Uzbekistan has emerged as the
strongest backer of US policies. Karimov allowed
Khanabad military base in Kaskkadariyn region, which was
once the largest former Soviet military facility in
Central Asia, to be used for international operations in
In response, Western governments,
especially the US, have expressed support for Tashkent
in public statements, although keeping some pressure for
liberalization in closed-door discussions. However, in
recent months, there have been more critical voices in
the West over Uzbekistan’s future.
a report released in February by the Brussels-based
International Crisis Group said that a "window of
opportunity" for substantive political and economic
reform is closing on Uzbekistan, raising the odds that
social upheaval will engulf the Central Asian country.
"Uzbekistan’s future looks bleak unless serious economic
and political reforms are implemented," said the report.
The report stressed that in 2002 Uzbekistan
enjoyed "a favorable international environment",
fostered mainly by Tashkent’s close strategic
cooperation with the US, that created optimal conditions
for reform, but Karimov failed to take advantage of the
opening. The report says that a policy of "positive
engagement" is "unlikely to work in Uzbekistan" because
Tashkent does not have a genuine desire to change, but
rather only want "a new flow of external funds". The
report urges the international community to adopt a
harder line on reforms in Uzbekistan.
Washington’s attention shifts from Afghanistan to Iraq,
Tashkent realizes that the strategic importance of the
US military base at Khanabad fades. Subsequently, Uzbek
authorities definitely want their voice to be heard in
On March 6, Karimov voiced strong
support the US position on Iraq. "We support the
position of the United States to resolve the Iraqi
problem," he said at a news conference with visiting
Slovak President Rudolf Schuster. "We are concerned that
some European countries do not follow a straightforward
position relative to anti-terrorist operations," Karimov
was quoted as saying by RIA.
Karimov’s show at the news conference was supposed to
refute media allegations about his illness. Karimov's
mention of "some European countries" may also be
interpreted as implicit criticism of Russian reluctance
to agree with the war on Iraq. Incidentally, the Russian
NG daily has speculated that Uzbek authorities might
want to offer the Pentagon the use of the Khanabad base
in the war against Saddam Hussein.
meantime, Uzbekistan faces economic problems, following
its punitive tariffs on imports introduced last summer.
As a result, much of the cross-border trade ended up in
smugglers’ hands and the Uzbek government ultimately
repealed punitive tariffs.
actions led to disruption of cross-border trade, and
have fueled popular discontent and pushed trade out of
the country into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. As a result,
Uzbekistan now suffers from a cross-border outflow of
hard currency estimated at some $100 million per month.
The hard currency drain prompted Tashkent to
virtually seal its borders, heightening tension with all
of its Central Asian neighbors. In December 2002, Uzbek
officials began closing border crossings along the
frontiers with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and
Turkmenistan in an effort to eliminate smuggling.
Uzbek-Turkmen tension has been high since a failed
assassination attempt against Turkmen leader Saparmurat
Niyazov last November, who has accused Tashkent of
aiding alleged plotters.
Moscow took notice of
Uzbekistan’s feuding with its neighbors. Presumably, the
Kremlin might be tempted to capitalize on Uzbek
isolation in the region. Last January, the head of
President Vladimir Putin’s administration, Alexander
Voloshin, traveled to Uzbekistan to meet Karimov.
"Uzbekistan is interested in further development of
cooperation with Russia," Karimov reportedly told
Russia has been interested in
enlisting Uzbekistan into its hydrocarbon game in
Central Asia. Earlier this month Russian natural gas
giant Gazprom indicated interest in acquiring a 44
percent stake in the Uzbek pipeline monopoly
Uzbektransgas. The deal was supposed to facilitate
supplies of Turkmen gas to Russia via Uzbek pipelines.
However, Gazprom’s acquisition of the Uzbektransgas
stake is yet to materialize.
(©2003 Asia Times
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