Thursday, September 01, 2005

Independence Day

On 31st August 1991, Uzbekistan, a former Soviet Republic, became an independent nation. Since then, it has been ruled by President Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan isn't a country I can claim to know a great deal about. It's only because of the tireless efforts of Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to the country, that I started to take an interest in what was happening in the country. Today, to mark independence day, the Disillusioned Kid has arranged for a number of bloggers to post on Uzbekistan. There are two issues. One is to raise awareness of the situation in Uzbekistan. The other is to discuss Craig Murray's call to boycott Uzbek cotton. I've been reading the posts the Disillusioned Kid has collected, so I thought I'd try to provide a short summary of what has been written.

President Karimov
Karimov first came to power in 1989 when he was installed as First Secretary of the then Soviet Republic. After the collapse of the USSR, Karimov declared himself president of the newly independent Uzbekistan. Since that time there have been a number of elections in the country, all of which Karimov has won, and all of which have been condemned as neither free nor fair. The economy of Uzbekistan has steadily declined throughout his period in office.

Karimov allows no dissent in the country. It is estimated that over 7,000 political prisoners are held by the Uzbek authorities. They are often brutally tortured. One notorious case in 2002 involved the boiling to death of Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov while they were in the custody of the Uzbek government. The UN has said that torture is “institutionalized, systematic, and rampant" in Uzbekistan's justice system.

Uzbekistan was in the news recently when the security forces opened fire on a crowd of protestor in Andijan. The protestors were calling for the release of 23 men accused of belonging to an extremist Islamic organization. Estimates vary but most put the death toll upwards of 500. The Uzbek government claims that only a handful of extremists were killed. Journalists were not allowed free access to the scene and most concluded that a Soviet style massacre and cover up had taken place.

Our Ally
Since the events of September 11th, 2001, Karimov has become an ally in the “war” on terror, although this situation seems to be changing. He allowed the US to establish an airbase in the country from which air attacks were launched against the Taliban. The US places great significance on the region, partly due the abundance of oil and natural gas the area possesses, and has been at pains to keep Karimov onside in order to maintain their military presence there. As such, they have played down any talk of Karimov’s brutal techniques. The US has even provided training and funding to the Uzbek security services. There is also growing evidence that the US has sent suspects to Uzbekistan to be “interrogated” by the authorities there. The UK, as is so often the case, has been quite happy to be the wagging tail behind the US dog, and has also been incredibly reluctant to criticize the Karimov regime. Former ambassador Craig Murray’s attempts to draw attention to the human rights abuses occurring in Uzbekistan caused the government launch a smear campaign against him before forcing him to leave his post.

New Hope
The situation is changing. Karimov has asked the US to vacate their base in the country and seems to be turning towards Russia, and to a lesser extent China, for support. It is a sad indictment on the UK and US government’s that this cozy relationship is being cooled not by them, but by the murderous dictator who has been their bedfellow these last four years. Nevertheless, it presents an opportunity. The protection given to Karimov by the US and UK government’s may start to waver now that he’s not playing their game.

A Suggested Course of Action
Craig Murray has proposed sanctions against Uzbek cotton. Uzbekistan’s economy is hugely reliant on cotton, a legacy of the Soviet specialization strategy. It is the second largest cotton exporter in the world. The income from these exports is distributed almost exclusively to Karimov and his family and supporters. Conditions for workers are appalling on the cotton farms. Forced labour, including child labour, is used. Disease is commonplace. The cotton industry is also having a severe effect on the environment. Intensive irrigation is causing the Aral Sea to dry up, and the land is being heavily overused.

Cotton sanctions, would, therefore, have the greatest effect on Karimov and his supporters, who are the sole beneficiaries of the trade. The dramatic fall in the demand from cotton would free the Uzbek people from their enforced employment in the industry. Mr Murray also argues that these sanctions might have the effect of allowing Uzbek farmers to grow subsistence crops on the land instead of cotton, which might improve their standard of living. Karimov has demonstrated that he will not reform his country voluntarily. Perhaps these sanctions can apply the pressure needed for real change in Uzbekistan. For practical courses of action, timx has some useful suggestions.

Devil's Advocate
I'm not an expert and I'm inclined to support the call for sanctions but there is one thing I'm not sure about. I'm not clear how Karimov would react to these sanctions. Will Karimov seek to compensate for his loss of income by spending less on food and medicines? I've no idea. As such. I struggle to construct a plausible series of events which would lead us from the sanctions to an improvement in the situation for the people of Uzbekistan. I really don't know enough about Karimov or the country to be able to make a judgement on what would happen.

Anyway, even if you don't think sanctions are a good idea, it's still worthwhile trying to raise awareness of what is happening in Uzbekistan. The more people who know about this the more likely we are to arrive at useful solutions.

Apologies for the late arrival of this post. The first version was eaten by blogger just as I was about to start the second last paragraph (ironically, I was trying to save a draft at the time). Grr. I'm going to write my posts on a WP from now on.

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