As rights abuses swell, seeds of terrorism grow

Allies: Getting mixed signals from Washington, the repressive regimes of Central Asia have been alienating their people.

April 04, 2004|By Galima Bukharbaeva | Galima Bukharbaeva,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - Last week's attack in Uzbekistan points to how America's relationship with the Central Asian states - considered key allies in the "war on terrorism" - may actually be fueling instability in the region as local leaders misrepresent and exploit their relationship with their newfound ally.

Authoritarian leaders, especially in Uzbekistan, continue to ignore pleas for change in their human-rights practices. They are misreading - sometimes willfully - the signals sent from Washington that political reform is important and continue in the belief that as valued partners of the United States, they can do pretty much as they like.

The United States continues to be a major donor to programs promoting democracy and civil rights in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and to a limited extent Turkmenistan. U.S. officials argue they are doing a lot to encourage change in places like Uzbekistan.

But many local analysts argue that these positive initiatives have now been so overshadowed by the military agenda, where a readiness to provide air bases and other facilities is key to improving relations, that regional governments feel empowered to ignore them and continue their policies that threaten to alienate their populations.

"The most important thing [for the West] is to maintain stability in Central Asia. And this stability is linked to the authoritarian regimes," said Alexei Malashenko, a regional expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The West has exerted pressure [for reform], but the interests of stability and economics will always prevail."

The confusion in local people's minds about just how important human rights are to Washington is understandable.

During a visit to Uzbekistan in February, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was full of praise for the support the country had given the United States in the war on terrorism. "Our relationship is strong and has been growing stronger," he said at a news conference after talks with Uzbek leaders.

What mattered most to Rumsfeld was that his hosts continued to allow the United States access to air bases to restore order in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the State Department was issuing a report highly critical of the Uzbek government and its Central Asia neighbors for their continued abuses of political and civil rights.

Specifically, the report found that the observance of human rights in Uzbekistan remained "very poor" and that the government continued to commit "numerous serious abuses."

More specifically, the report said, "Security force mistreatment likely resulted in the deaths of at least four citizens in custody. Police and [National Security Service] forces tortured, beat and harassed persons. ... Serious abuses occurred in pretrial detention. Those responsible for documented abuses were rarely punished."

Failing to convince Central Asian leaders of the need to change their repressive ways could eventually sow the seeds for future unrest and conflicts in this majority Muslim region.

Lorne Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said that the United States is well aware of the causal relationship between poverty, repression and militancy.

"We know that while there is no justification for terrorism, repressive societies without economic development and where there is social exclusion have been breeding grounds for terrorists," he said. "That is a simple fact. We don't want to see that continue. We want to see things advanced for both of those reasons."

The vulnerability of Central Asian states was underscored last week when a series of attacks in the Uzbek capital Tashkent left at least 19 people dead. Ten people were also reported dead in an explosion in Bukhara in the west of the country.

Chief prosecutor Rashid Qadirov blamed Islamic militants, and Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev said the attacks bore "the hallmark of the terrorist acts we have already witnessed abroad."

Meanwhile, the attacks continue.

While many experts on the region think there is no immediate threat of a wide-scale violent uprising by existing Islamic radical organizations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, these groups - or new ones - could become a greater threat in the future.

And with young people drifting toward these radical groups for lack of an alternative channel to express their dissatisfaction, many worry that the West's backing corrupt and unrepresentative leaderships will reinforce the belief of some Muslims that democracy - as practiced by Central Asian leaders - isn't working and cannot work.

Such beliefs play right into the hands of extremist groups in the region - the very ones whose activities the United States is hoping to reduce rather than encourage.

Malik Qadirov, a spokesman for Uzbekistan's prime minister, rejected claims that Islamic radicals gained support from a worsening economic situation coupled with the lack of opportunities to make one's voice heard.

"Yes, our critics hold that opinion," he said. "But we don't agree."

Galima Bukharbaeva is Uzbekistan director for British-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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