Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Where the hell is Uzbekistan?

Exactly. That's the problem. It's sort of like when Bart Simpson asked, near the beginning of the great Australia episode, "What the hell is the southern hemisphere?" It just doesn't seem to register.

But things have gotten serious among the Uzbeks. Last week, the government of President Karimov cracked down on anti-government demonstrators. The official death toll is 169. An opposition party puts the real number at 745 and has claimed that many of the victims were executed. According to the Times (click here for the latest report), survivors and witnesses say that the death toll is in the hundreds, well above the ridiculously low government estimate. Thus far, 490 refugees have sought asylum in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, according to the U.N. Needless to say, Karimov has denied responsibility.

Admittedly, the demonstration was quite messy. It began last "Thursday night when armed men and demonstrators protesting what they regarded as the rigged trial of 23 businessmen stormed a prison in the Fergana Valley, releasing roughly 2,000 prisoners and taking government soldiers hostage". Clearly not a peaceful beginning. Karimov has predictably blamed the violence on Islamic extremists, thereby raising the red flag of terrorism -- likely to try to win the support of the United States, now a common strategy of dictatorships looking to spin oppressive rule as a necessary component of the so-called war on terror. But is that truly the case? Was the demonstration a terrorist event organized from without, as Karimov claims? Or was it not rather an inkling of democratic revolt against a notoriously oppressive regime? Here's how the Times puts it: "The rally, said by witnesses to include thousands of demonstrators, was a rare open challenge to the government, which has been widely criticized for years for the persecution of political opponents, the suppression of freedom of expression and worship and the use of torture." Although terrorist elements -- whether home-grown or otherwise -- may have been involved, the evidence would seem to suggest that

So far, the Bush Administration has said the right things, and it would do well to put pressure on Tashkent. But rhetoric won't be enough. (Bush also said some of the right things at his second inauguration in January, but not much happened.) The question is whether Bush will move to condemn Karimov's dictatorship or continue to support a regime that in no way advances the cause of freedom -- one that in fact brutally oppresses its people. As I mentioned yesterday, I am not one to jerk my knee against everything Bush does and says, and I do find much to admire in his commitment to liberty and democracy (however simplistically he asserts his Manichaeanism). But the war on terror, such as it is, does not excuse either illiberalism at home (e.g., the Patriot Act) or tyranny abroad (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan).

Condoleeza Rice claims that the U.S. has called for reform in Uzbekistan, but look more clearly at what she's said: "The issue... is that it is a society that needs openness, it needs to reform, and again, I think if you look at the record, we have raised that with the government of Karimov for quite some time." Is it enough just to raise openness and reform with a dictator? Was it enough with, say, Saddam? No, not least when the U.S. continues to operate a military base in Uzbekistan, share intelligence with Uzbek security forces, and train and equip the Uzbek military -- (yes, the very weapons Karimov uses to oppress (and slaughter) the Uzbek people).

There's a word for that. It's called hypocrisy. Uzbekistan may not be on everyone's mind at the moment, and I don't mean to suggest that it should occupy the bulk of American foreign policy, but it's time for Bush to put his high-falutin' rhetoric into action, preferably (in this case) through international diplomacy and engagement.

There's long been a divide between Bush's rhetoric and the conduct of his presidency. The Uzbek case is yet another example.

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