Uzbekistan and the United States: Authoritarianism, Islamism & Washington’s Security Agenda
Shahram Akbarzadeh. Zed Books. 2005
In this book, Shahram Akbarzadeh provides a comprehensive historical narrative of the rise to power of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. In it, he provides a detailed explanation of the extent to which the Uzbek President has been able to preserve his executive authority in a post-Soviet space. The author includes a thorough analysis of the manifestations of political Islam and their fate in Uzbekistan, as well as a thoughtful insight into Tashkent’s foreign policy objectives with Russia, China, and the United States. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more of President Karimov’s authoritarian rise to and preservation of power in a domestic and international context.
Akbarzadeh devotes the first chapter of the book to provide a historical background of the contemporary political structure of Uzbekistan. Emerging from the aegis of the Soviet Union, Uzbek President Islam Karimov sought to immediately consolidate his executive position and legitimize it through elections. Akbarzadeh provides a detailed description of this transition, effectively reporting on this evolution toward a presidential system of government. The chapter includes the enumerated powers given to the President by the 1992 Constitution, followed by an analysis of how President Karimov was able to use these powers to make and regulate regional and local political appointments. The abolition of the office of the vice-president, in addition to the extensive control of local and regional appointments, are highlighted by Akbarzadeh to show the extent to which President Karimov has pursued a distinct style of authoritarian power consolidation under a constitutional framework. The challenge which arose, however, was the emergence of a strong political mobilization of Uzbek Muslims. Akbarzadeh describes how President Karimov was able to simultaneously co-opt, assimilate, and suppress the emerging activity of political Islam by justifying these measures are critical to the security and stability of the state.
In chapter two, however, Akbarzadeh shows that the initial reaction made by President Karimov was not enough to neutralize Islamic political organization. In response to the development of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) of Uzbekistan, President Karimov extended his executive authority to the realm of political party organization by adopting a law against the formation of religiously inspired political parties. Akbarzadeh describes the ensuing conflict between President Karimov’s secular state approach and the emergence of determined, defiant organizations such as Adolat (Justice) in the Fergana Valley. Akbarzadeh provides a historical narrative of President Karimov’s response to the de facto sovereignty of Adolat in Fergana and to the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which followed it. Akbarzadeh effectively illustrates the severity of the contention for power which existed in the 1990’s between President Karimov and political Islam in Uzbekistan.
Akbarzadeh proceeds to map Tashkent’s foreign policy decisions in chapter three. He describes Tashkent’s role in the Tajik civil war as one which was absolutely opposed to the National Reconciliation Government, out of fear of the potential mobility of political Islam in Tajikistan under such a tolerant democratic alliance. A description of Tashkent’s early indifference of the emergence of Taliban control in Afghanistan is followed by an insistent appeal to the West for intervention against Taliban forces. Akbarzadeh illustrates Tashkent’s mercurial relationship with Russia in pursuing a security agenda within the region, emphasizing Tashkent’s fear of growing Russian influence running parallel to a frustration of Moscow’s inability to guarantee safety from militant Islam. Akbarzadeh suggests that, while Uzbekistan sought closer ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in response to this frustration with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Uzbekistan appears to be viewing the SCO with the same accusations of inability.
Akbarzadeh elaborates on Uzbek-U.S. relations prior to 11 September 2001 in chapter four. Akbarzadeh identifies an overlap between Uzbekistan and the U.S. concerning Middle East foreign policy. This overlap refers to the refusal to recognize statehood of Palestine, the support of punitive economic sanctions against Iran and Iraq, and membership of the “Coalition of the Willing” in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The author suggests that Uzbekistan’s move for association with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Russia’s subsequent disapproval, provided grounds for Uzbekistan’s departure from CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) membership. Akbarzadeh also touches upon a shift in U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan away from solely what is referred to as “dollar diplomacy” toward a more “realist” strategic partnership which emphasized Uzbekistan’s importance for Central Asian regional security as a whole. Summarizing this policy, Akbarzadeh includes the key points of the U.S. Silk Road Strategy Act of 1998, which stressed intra-regional economic cooperation, economic assistance, security and military assistance, and pressuring for democratic and free-market institutions. Akbarzadeh’s claim is that, at that time, U.S. policy placed less of an emphasis on human rights measures in Uzbekistan, as the U.S. became more focused on strategic development with the country. All of this coincided, as Akbarzadeh suggests, with President Karimov’s self-preserving, security-oriented preferences.
Akbarzadeh focuses on the evolution of U.S.-Uzbek relations following the 11 September 2001 attacks in chapter five. The author emphasizes that President Karimov’s deepening ties with the U.S. prompted Tashkent to mindfully articulate foreign policy objectives to three audiences: the domestic, the U.S., and the Russian. While Uzbekistan enjoyed closer diplomatic ties with the United States, the U.S. government still expressed a concern for human rights abuses in the country. These concerns, however, are claimed to be marginal. Abkarzadeh also thoroughly illustrates Russia’s frustration and concern of Tashkent’s bilateral partnership with the United States, as well as the Russian anxiety of a U.S. military presence in the region. Abkarzadeh adds that Washington has been cautious in this approach, insisting that it does not seek to replace Russia, and that both Russia and the U.S. enjoy mutual benefit in fighting militant Islam in the region. Abkarzadeh concludes the chapter by suggesting that President Karimov has enjoyed both regional strengths and domestic self-preserving power advantages in its diplomatic partnerships with the U.S.
Akbarzadeh dedicates chapter six to assess the conditions of human rights and democracy within Uzbekistan vis-à-vis its relationship with the U.S. The author suggests that while Tashkent makes and agrees to promises of political reform and human rights guarantees, these promises do not seem to produce much in the way of results. Akbarzadeh asserts that there is simply an illusion of a multiparty democratic system, which isolates and excludes Islamic political organizations, claiming that they are tied with Wahhabism and Islamic extremism. The author notes that President Karimov is able to pursue this repression without limit, under the guise of the “war on terror”. Akbarzadeh illustrates the inhibited agency of Human Rights Non-governmental Organization(NGO)s, which is limited to advocating any issue or problem which does not openly accuse the regime. Those who do not comply with these conditions, according to Akbarzadeh, are threatened, jailed, or tortured. Akbarzadeh suggests that Tashkent is able to carry out these policies without reprisal from the U.S., as the U.S. ultimately views Uzbekistan as a vital strategic partner in the “war on terror” and security within the region.
In the final chapter, Akbarzadeh defines the Uzbek authoritarianism as “adaptive and self-generating” in its approaches following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. President Karimov insists on a “slow transition” of gradualism in state policies. Akbarzadeh suggests that the indigenized leadership of aqsaqals (white beards, the community authorities) and mahallas (Uzbek communities) are not likely to possess a capacity to challenge authoritarianism, as their leadership has been carefully co-opted and controlled by the executive state apparatus. Akbarzadeh claims that Tashkent is more likely to adopt minor economic policies of liberalization before it will adopt any sort of meaningful political reform. Akbarzadeh concludes with the claim that an imminent crisis of legitimacy looms on the horizon as Tashkent pursues repression under the tacit approval of the United States.