How Uzbekistan Used Western Fears of Islamism and Terrorism to its Advantage

With thousands of political prisoners, endemic torture in the prison system, and extremely restricted freedom of speech, Uzbekistan is hardly a model for human rights. Yet, President Karimov, who ruled the country from 1989 until his death in 2016, successfully played on Western fears of Islamism and terrorism and used them to his advantage. He employed the threat of Islamism to not only justify the lack of democratisation and liberalisation, but also to legitimise repression against any potential opposition to domestic and international audiences.

However, this tactic has not always been successful. The international community did not take the threat of Islamism to the region seriously before the attacks of 9/11. Despite the Karimov regime’s efforts, Western countries often suspected that the President was exaggerating the danger that was emanating from Islamist groups in Central Asia and it was questioned whether Tashkent was using the threat of Islamic extremism as a pretext for the absence of political reform. In fact, Karimov greatly overemphasised the Islamist threat in order to make drastic measures, such as keeping thousands of political prisoners and reportedly making use of torture appear necessary and to present himself and the regime as the guarantor of order and security. He would tend to put all dissenters in the same group, often disparaging any opposition as ‘radical’ or ‘Islamist’. The definition of terrorism in the anti-terror legislation was very vague, seeing terrorism even in ideological goals, without the exertion of violence, which makes it all the easier for the regime to legally arrest any opposition or dissenters. Not surprisingly, all this was often heavily criticised by the West.

President Islam Karimov meets with President George W. Bush at the White House on March 12, 2002. Source: Washington Post – Kenneth Lambert/AP.

Yet, that changed with the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001. Suddenly, the West closed its eyes to the authoritarian practices of President Islam Karimov. Western objections over Uzbekistan’s failure to democratise and its frequent human rights abuses were effectively muted. While the US had for some time been pursuing a dual objective of encouraging democracy and liberalisation as well as security and stability in post-colonial countries, American priorities had clearly shifted. Ensuring security and stability of the region in the fight against terror suddenly became much more important than democratisation and human rights.

Karimov’s claims about the threat that Islamism posed to the security of the region thus appeared vindicated. Uzbekistan was positioned to benefit greatly from the resulting partnership, both financially and diplomatically. For the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan was an important point of access and the US required overflight and basing rights from the Uzbek government in addition to intelligence and law enforcement cooperation. In return, Uzbekistan was rewarded for its loyalty. The West supported Uzbekistan’s domestic fight against terrorism and wanted to preserve the country as a stable neighbour of Afghanistan. The US-Uzbek Declaration of Strategic Partnership was signed in March 2002. Western assistance to the Karimov regime was at its highest in 2002, at which time the police and intelligence services alone were given USD 79 million in aid from the Americans. From 2001 to 2002, US assistance to Uzbekistan had increased from USD 85 million to USD 300 million. As a result of the perks the US-Uzbek relationship brought to the country, the Karimov regime was also strengthened domestically.

Moreover, the regime greatly profited from the newly intensified relationship with the US because it enabled them to put off liberalisation and democratisation in the country and even increase repression of opponents. As Central Asia was now integral to the American security agenda, there was an almost inevitable shift away from ideological concerns with human rights and political openness. Democratic reforms in Uzbekistan were no longer a priority to the United States and so, while there was some hope in the beginning that the close relationship between the two countries would force Tashkent to work towards increased democratisation, it became clear that, in fact, the opposite was the case. With its accession to US demands, the Uzbek leadership effectively bought American silence and acquiescence on its human rights abuses. However, the US administration was aware that it was seen as hypocritical for sacrificing its concerns about Uzbek state repression for cooperation in the fight against terror and did not want to be seen as completely having given up the promotion of democracy.

America’s dual agenda becomes clear in this context as the US State Department retained Uzbekistan on their list of countries of concern on their violations of basic freedoms while the Pentagon was more concerned with the immediate goal of securing a military ally in the fight against radical Islam and terrorism. Nevertheless, the Karimov regime was emboldened by the downplaying of US concerns and now had a convenient justification for state violence and repression, which was valid in an international environment. Tellingly, Uzbekistan’s score on the Political Terror Scale increased from 2, the score which it had had almost since independence, to 4, a score which it kept for about 3 years (The Political Terror Scale), which indicates that the decrease in international pressure to democratise after 9/11 could have had a direct impact on the extent of repression of the regime.

It has become clear that while there was some cooperation with the West on security issues before 9/11, the American War on Terror brought many advantages for the Uzbek leadership including financial and military support, acceptance of the authoritarian practices and lack of democratisation of the Karimov regime, and increased regional power by strengthening Uzbekistan’s position against Russia.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the US tended to prioritise security over concerns about human rights after 9/11, the West was not going to turn a blind eye towards all extents of state violence. Western acquiescence was only going to last up until a certain point and this point was reached when the brutal May 2005 government crackdown on protesters in Fergana Valley happened. An unfair trial against probably innocent people led to local protests and eventually, the storming of the prison where they were held. As a result security forces killed hundreds, perhaps even thousands of protesters. The US-Uzbek partnership came under severe strain after this incident, there was heavy US criticism and the EU imposed sanctions. President Karimov responded with ordering the closure of US military bases in the country. This shows that the benefits the regime was enjoying due to the US War on Terror were not permanent due to Uzbekistan being unwilling to take human rights concerns seriously.


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