Tuesday, June 14, 2005

We'll always have Tashkent...

Remember Uzbekistan? Think hard. It was in the news not too long ago. You know, U.S.-friendly dictatorship, crackdown on dissidents, shooting of innocents? Yeah, I know, it's easy to forget. It was big for a couple of days, but then... gone. From the news, anyway. But see here and here. I was outraged. And I'm sure many of you were, too.

Well, it's back in the news again, and the news is not good. Here's the Post report, via Laura Rozen's excellent blog War and Piece (see here). Britain and the rest of Europe (in NATO) wanted to look more seriously into the killing of hundreds of protestors last month, but their efforts were blocked by Russia and the U.S. With anger and frustration welling up inside me once again, let me just quote directly from the Post:

Defense officials from Russia and the United States last week helped block a new demand for an international probe into the Uzbekistan government's shooting of hundreds of protesters last month, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.

British and other European officials had pushed to include language calling for an independent investigation in a communique issued by defense ministers of NATO countries and Russia after a daylong meeting in Brussels on Thursday. But the joint communique merely stated that "issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan," had been discussed.

The outcome obscured an internal U.S. dispute over whether NATO ministers should raise the May 13 shootings in Andijan at the risk of provoking Uzbekistan to cut off U.S. access to a military air base on its territory.

The communique's wording was worked out after what several knowledgeable sources called a vigorous debate in Brussels between U.S. defense officials, who emphasized the importance of the base, and others, including State Department representatives at NATO headquarters, who favored language calling for a transparent, independent and international probe into the killings of Uzbekistan civilians by police and soldiers.

State and Defense department spokesmen, asked to comment about the debate, said that Washington has one policy and that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- at the ministerial meeting -- verbally endorsed previous statements about the incident by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush.

Other officials said the disagreements between Defense and State officials reflect a continuing rift in the administration over how to handle a breach of human rights that has come under sharp criticism by the State Department, the European Union and some U.S. lawmakers.

Rice has said publicly that international involvement in an inquiry into the killings in Andijan is essential, and she has declined an Uzbek invitation for Washington to send observers to a commission of inquiry controlled by the parliament. Three U.S. officials said Uzbek President Islam Karimov has retaliated against her criticism by recently curtailing certain U.S. military flights into the air base at Karshi-Khanabad, in the country's southeast. The U.S. military considers the base a vital logistics hub in its anti-terrorism efforts.

Four sources familiar with a private discussion among the ministers on Thursday said that the Defense Department's stance on the Brussels communique's language placed it in roughly the same camp as the Russians -- but for different reasons. The Russian position, as spelled out by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in statements before and after the ministerial meeting, is that the incident, although alarming, was "inspired" by Afghanistan.

Ivanov said it is NATO's responsibility to control terrorism there more aggressively, but added: "We do not want to... put any extraordinary pressure on anybody" about the shootings.

No, of course not. We wouldn't want to do that, would we? But there's more:

There are stirrings of dissent on Capitol Hill about placing access to the air base at the center of U.S. policy, however. Six senators warned Rumsfeld and Rice in a letter last week that "in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre, America's relationship with Uzbekistan cannot remain unchanged."

The senators -- Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), John McCain (R-Ariz.), John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) -- added that "we believe that the United States must be careful about being too closely associated with a government that has killed hundreds of demonstrators and refused international calls for a transparent investigation." They suggested that the administration explore alternative basing arrangements "in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and elsewhere in the region" to give Washington more flexibility.

The European parliament, in a statement Thursday, went further, calling on Washington to halt negotiations with Uzbekistan over long-term access to the base and urging Uzbek authorities "to bring those responsible for the massacre in Andijan to trial."

Last week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We are calling for a credible, transparent and independent investigation into the Andijan tragedy." Different language has been used by Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "The United States has repeatedly urged Uzbekistan to undertake a full and transparent inquiry into the Andijan incident," he said, but did not specifically mention an international role.

To be fair, at least there's "an internal U.S. dispute," and at least a number of senators from both parties (and the secretary of state herself) are pressing not only for an international investigation but for a re-evaluation of American policy towards Uzbekistan. If only Bush would listen...

Maybe, just maybe, he will. With a "friend" like Uzbekistan, after all, the U.S. just looks like a giant hypocrite.

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