The U.S. plans to expand security cooperation with Central Asia, U.S. diplomats say, according to The Bug Pit blog last week. That means they will increase the capacity of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the system to deliver non-lethal military cargo for U.S. and NATO forces through Central Asia to Afghanistan. The U.S. now ships 1,000 containers per week to Afghanistan via the NDN, according to David Sedney, who spoke at a November 17 hearing at the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. has signed a program of cooperation between USCENTCOM and Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Defense, and has been working with Russian and Kazakhstan on three other agreements to assist the NDN.
The U.S. has sought not only military cooperation, but has promised Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries that they will benefit from the business associated with the NDN and open up trade linkages to India, Pakistan and other formerly closed markets. As Sedney testified, the U.S. supports infrastructure projects in the region such as the recently completed railroad from Hairaton to Mazar-e-Sharif, a $170 million joint Uzbek-Asian Development Bank (ADB) project—connecting Afghanistan to Central Asia’s rail systems.
Uzbekistan has long been benefiting from the NDN’s economic boom. Even before the formal security agreement with the U.S., Uzbekistan boasted more than 80 percent increase in all air cargo in 2009, compared to the previous year, the state news site gazeta.uz reported, citing an Uzbek state airline report. Most of this freight went through Navoi International Airport — triple the cargo for 2008. The Uzbek airline did not say where the cargo was bound, but last year President Islam Karimov announced that Navoi was being used to deliver supplies to NATO troops on Airbus 300-600s leased from South Korea. South Korea’s provision of the planes enabled a face-saving strategy for the resumption of U.S.-Uzbek strategic cooperation last year, EurasiaNet reported. U.S. diplomats meanwhile worked to repair relations broken after the U.S. was forced to withdraw its base in Khanabad following protests about the 2005 Andijan massacre.
The U.S. devised the NDN through Central Asian countries to compensate for increasing attacks on the supply route through Pakistan. As a result, the U.S. has been compelled to establish friendly relations with the dictatorships of the region. The warmer relationships have definitely impacted the messaging Washington is willing to do on the subjects of human rights and democracy; the U.S. has stopped calling for an independent investigation of Andijan, for example.
When the State Department released its annual report on international religious freedom, it reported accurately on the severe restrictions on citizens’ rights in Uzbekistan, and acknowledged the situation has worsened; “the government raided Christian and Baha’i services and many members of minority religious groups faced fines or other restrictions,” said Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at a press conference November 17. Posner also referenced the designation last year of Uzbekistan’s status as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) due to its poor record. This year, however, the announcement of the designation of the CPC countries has been separated from the annual report publication, and is expected to be made “in the next couple of months,” Posner explained.
The question as always with such U.S. reports is whether they will be used to actively apply benchmarks for the CPC designation next year, and whether this will impact the current process of restoring relations with Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, more and more people are caught up in security police sweeps targeting believers who are claimed by the government to be involved in extremism. They are tried behind closed doors with no information available about the charges and little defense, and often tortured in confinement. Some 30 inmates of Uzbekistan’s notorious Zhaslyq prison have been on a hunger strike since the end of October to protest such mistreatment, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service reports. Wives and mothers of the prisoners say they are only devout Muslims.
Looking from the perspective of prisoners, President Karimov’s dictatorship never seems to show any sign of receding. Yet in a recent speech to a joint session of the Oliy Majlis, Uzbekistan’s parliament, the Central Asian leader who has maintained brutal rule for decades indicated he is now contemplating the transition following his death or retirement. As Choihona blog reports, he also surprised observers by seeming to talk about a more democratic succession process, although upon closer examination, this was largely a rhetorical flourish distracting from the essential authoritarian nature of the regime. Under the current Uzbek constitution, if the president becomes incapacitated or dies, within 10 days, the Oliy Majlis must elect an interim president from among its own ranks to serve for three months until presidential elections. Given Uzbekistan’s rubber-stamp parliament, the presidential administration essentially anoints the successor.
Now President Karimov proposes having the Senate chair temporarily take over power and then have elections in three months. This change has suddenly thrown into the spotlight the current Senate chair, Ilgizar Sobirov, who has held this position in 2006. Little is known about this senator from Khorezm, a province traditionally weakly represented in government by contrast with Tashkent, Ferghana and Samarkand, who was elected in 1999. The scarcity of background information has prompted some speculation that he could have previously worked in the National Security Service; this is indirectly indicated by the fact that from 1999-2004, he was the deputy chair of the Oliy Majlis Committee on Defense and Security and from 2005 held the analogous post in the Senate until his election in chair. His re-election to the post of chair in January 2010 indicates he has the support of the president, and possibly he could be tapped as Karimov’s heir.
Karimov is also proposing a new procedure that would have the prime minister nominated via political parties that gain the majority of seats in the Legislative Chamber of parliament; this would change the existing Constitution that grants the president the exclusive right to nominate a prime minister. But with no freedom of the media or free and fair elections, the parties are under control of the executive branch. The president can engineer the nomination and also simultaneously prevent the current prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyaev from using his existing perch to seek the president’s replacement. While making the parliament “less decorative,” with more checks and balances, it’s likely that Karimov is mainly interested in a safe retirement with protection of his family.
USAID is launching a $2.3 million “Health Outreach Program” in Uzbekistan to provide technical assistance and outreach services to help prevent and treat HIV and tuberculosis among at-risk populations. Concerns have been raised about how safe it will be for local Uzbeks to take up such work; last year, Maksim Popov, a youth educator and HIV campaigner, was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment for “corruption of youth” for distributing pamphlets on safe sex and allegedly embezzling foreign donors’ funds — claims the donors themselves had not made. Not a single foreign agency publicly came to his defense, evidently concerned about keeping a presence in Uzbekistan.