Uzbekistan’s leaders justify their crackdown on domestic opposition pointing to the threat of islamist movements. These organisations, however, do not present a serious danger to the regime, writes Central Asia expert Artemy Kalinovsky. The successor of the late president Karimov should confront other problems if he wants to stabilize his country.
As Islom Karimov lay incapacitated by a stroke at the end of August, analysts speculated who might succeed him and what may or may not change under a new leader. A month and a half later, the answer to the first question, at least, is clear. Shovkat Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s Prime Minister, quickly became acting president and looks set to be confirmed in this role this coming December when elections will be held.
The problems Mirziyoyev confronts are the same ones faced by Karimov, and are in many cases the latter’s creation. They include a stagnant economy, reliance on remittances from migrant labor, dependence on cotton as an export crop, and tense relations with neighbors. For European and North American policymakers, however, it is the threat of instability caused by terrorism and the war in Afghanistan that is most often on the agenda. And for critics of Western policy in the region, it is the willingness to overlook human rights abuses carried out in the name of security and the war on terror.
Over the years, groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as many independent commentators and scholars criticized Karimov’s regime, rightly, for its abysmal treatment of prisoners and unwillingness to tolerate any dissent. Often, they also laid blame on Western governments for enabling Karimov’s abuses. They have called on Western governments to change their stance toward the new government. The idea that Western governments have much influence in the capitals of Central Asia is dubious, however.
Risks to Uzbekistan’s stability are both greater and smaller than Uzbekistan’s leaders usually claim. Like other states in the region, Uzbekistan points to the threat of domestic terrorism, transnational actors, and the conflict in Afghanistan to justify its domestic crackdown. These risks are not made up. Tajikistan was engulfed in a civil war soon after independence in 1992 that threatened to spill over into Uzbekistan. Although this conflict ended almost twenty years ago, it undoubtedly left its mark on the region and its elites. More recently, Uzbekistan has, like other states in the region and beyond, been confronted with the reality of its citizens going to fight on the side of the Islamic State in Syria. The fear in Tashkent and elsewhere is that they will try to return and carry out attacks in their homecountry.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Afghanistan has inched closer to Uzbekistan’s borders. The last three fighting seasons have seen the Taliban gaining ground, and even infiltrating, Turkmenistan. Last year the Taliban overran Kunduz, near Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan. Although they were ultimately driven out, they now appear to be trying again. A militant group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has been fighting at the side of the Taliban since the 1990s. Its stated ultimate goal is the overthrow of the secular regimes in Central Asia and the creation of an Islamic state in the region. In 2014 it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, leading to a confrontation with the Taliban. Earlier this year, a new faction emerged that reaffirmed its allegiance to the Taliban.
Yet the actual danger of the IMU overrunning Uzbekistan is virtually nil. The Taliban are fighting for control of Afghanistan, and never had ambitions to extend their fight further north. The incursion into Turkmenistan was most likely an act of desperation by stranded fighters. The IMU has limited power as an independent fighting force, and is certainly no match for Uzbekistan’s military and security services. Estimations of the number of Uzbekistani fighters in Syria and Iraq vary, they are probably totalling af few hundred. Although it is conceivable that some of them could slip back in to Uzbekistan and carry out attacks, the chance of them causing any real instability is almost nonexistent.
It is difficult to estimate support for militant movements within Uzbekistan or other Central Asian states. Regimes in the region use the threat of militant movements to shore up support and justify repressive measures. They also have an interest in playing down support for the Islamic State and other militant movements so as not to cause alarm or create the impression of widespread dissent. The regime does not control all religious practice, although it forbids any organization (such as the transnational Hizb-ut-Tahrir) that it does not control. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that religious organizations, either formal or informal, present a serious danger to the regime, and it is similarly a mistake to think that any potential resistance will be grounded in religious organizations or religious feelings.
Young couple marry in Tashkent
The bigger long-term danger for Uzbekistan, as for other regimes in the region, is alienating its own population through cronyism, mismanagement, and repression. Over 45% of the population is under 24. Few young people can hope to find well-paying jobs in Uzbekistan, whether in the private or the public sector. Opportunities to earn money through migrant labor are limited, especially since the downturn in the Russian economy since 2014.
Illusion of Western influence
The new president seems to understand some of these dangers. He has been busy touring the country announcing new initiatives in housing and infrastructure development, and has turned to the World Bank to help with a job creation program. This does not mean, however, that Western countries or institutions have an opportunity to meaningfully influence the regime’s politics. And the illusion that they can is damaging in the long term.
Like other regimes in the region, Karimov’s Uzbekistan engaged with foreign powers on its own terms – trying to get support in security and economic matters without sacrificing any freedom in decision making. When the United States decided to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Karimov offered NATO forces to use bases in return for military aid and training. Yet when US officials criticized the Karimov regime for its bloody 2005 crackdown in Andijan, however, Karimov reduced cooperation with the U.S. and made overtures to Russia. The political scientist Alexander Cooley has aptly called this kind of maneuvering by Central Asian states ‘Great Games, Local Rules’.
It is useful to remember how limited Western involvement in the region actually is. EU investment is important in Kazakhstan, but minimal in the rest of the region. The US is not an important trade partner. The most important economic player, by far, is China, which has developed infrastructure as part of its one belt, one road (OBOR) initiative, built industrial parks and pipelines, and invested in mining and other extractive industries. The US does provide security assistance and training, but it is a relatively minor player compared to Russia, which has much closer ties with the region’s security services and elite military units. Moreover, the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan has convinced regional elites that the U.S. is not a trustworthy partner in the longer term.
Indeed, Western credibility is at an all-time low in the region, and not just among elites. In Tajikistan, where the media is somewhat freer than in Uzbekistan, one can come across articles that speak about the Islamic State as a creation of the U.S. Similarly, when the Taliban were on the verge of overrunning Kunduz in 2015, I heard local analysts claim that NATO helicopters were ferrying Taliban fighters to the area. The Russian media, which has much greater penetration than any other foreign source, regularly talks about human rights issues as a Western plot to undermine local governments as well as ‘traditional’ values, and the charge resonates. And China and Russia will never criticize any of the local regimes for violating human rights.
In other words, there is little incentive for Mirziyoyev or anyone else in the region to take Western criticism of domestic human rights issues seriously. This leaves Western politicians with few policy options. Because these are considered front-line states in the fight for stability in Afghanistan as well as the campaign against international terror networks, it is taken as given that cooperation with them is indispensable. Their domestic policies make such cooperation unpalatable, but it is unlikely that Western politicians will risk a rupture, even with the more repressive regimes.