Central Asia

Uzbek strongman under Russian attack
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.

NG's allegations 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 cities.

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.

The official 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 Afghanistan.

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.

For instance, 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.

As 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 the US.

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.

Presumably, 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.

In the 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.

However, these 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 Voloshin.

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 Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Mar 13, 2003

Russia pushes its agenda in Central Asia
(Feb 22, '03)


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