U.S. must tread softly with new Uzbekistan

People line up as a coffin with the body of Uzbek President Islam Karimov is carried on during his funeral ceremony in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (Kyrgyz Government Press Service Pool Photo/AP)

The nation of Uzbekistan – an often overlooked ally of the United States – came to international attention this week when the country’s state television announced the death of President Islam Karimov on Sept. 2, according to a Washington Post report. This marked the end of Karimov’s 25-year rule as the first and only president of Uzbekistan – a rule populated by everything from anti-terrorism efforts to abhorrent human rights violations. Since Karimov failed to name a successor before his death, he has left the country ripe for change with an unprecedented power vacuum. For this reason, it is imperative that the U.S. maintain its alliance with Uzbekistan and support a peaceful transition of power.

This is not to say that Uzbek-American relations over the next few weeks will be a simple matter. With Karimov’s most likely successor, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, already on the international radar, compromises will have to be made. While changes to the Uzbek constitution in 2010 declare that the chairman of the Senate will assume the role of president until elections could be held, the country’s history does not include an abundance of free elections, and many suppose that Mirziyoyev’s presidency could become more than a temporary occurrence.

Mirziyoyev already has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended Karimov’s funeral representing Uzbekistan’s “most reliable friends,” according to Reuters. Thus, it would be dangerous for the U.S. to step back and forfeit influence in this region to Russia.

Since 2001, Uzbekistan has been a valuable ally against terror groups in Central Asia – far too valuable for the U.S. to lose. Karimov’s regime, despite enforcing a state-dominated religion, took strong action against terrorism and extremist groups in the region. In Uzbekistan, such a strong opposition to terrorism is necessary; the country has experienced more terrorist attacks than any other Central Asian nation, save Tajikistan, and has supplied more jihadists to foreign conflicts, according to the Washington Post. If the transition of power is allowed to devolve into chaos, there is a danger that extremist groups, such as the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, will seize control.

Unfortunately, to support Shavkat Mirziyoyev is almost equivalent to condemning Uzbekistan to a continuation of the Karimov regime, which will not rest easy with Americans. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan has amassed an atrocious human rights record that includes systematic torture, forced labor and the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which hundreds of peaceful protestors were killed, according to Human Rights Watch. Mirziyoyev has been known to be just as brutal, and he has been criticized for his use of child and forced labor. However, addressing Uzbekistan’s human rights violations must wait until after Karimov’s successor has assumed the presidency.

The fact is, the U.S. cannot negotiate Uzbekistan’s disdain for human rights until stability in the region is certain. Any action taken too early by the U.S. government will ostracize us and cause Uzbekistan to turn to influences outside of our control. At best, an American withdrawal from the region will increase Russia’s presence in the country. At worst, it will lead to a violent conflict in which the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan is left on top. To negotiate human rights with either of these groups would perhaps be even more of a struggle than compromising with the present regime.

I do not advocate for the endorsement of Uzbekistan’s crimes. But, as is often the unfortunate case in regions of instability, a solid foundation of government must be the first step on the road toward human rights. The United States’ primary focus should be toward securing allies to combat terrorist movements in Central Asia and the Middle East, and in time, the human rights concerns will follow, albeit slowly. As a result, the U.S. government must assume the inevitable burden of finding some medium between supporting Uzbekistan and openly criticizing the country. Here, at the end of Karimov’s regime, there is potential for positive change in Uzbekistan’s future, but for now, it must wait. Only with an alliance – not a trusting one, but a wary one – will the U.S. be allowed to be a part of it.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.