Uzbekistan and the United States: Authoritarianism, Islamism and Washington's Security Agenda

Uzbekistan and the United States: Authoritarianism, Islamism and Washington's Security Agenda

by Shahram Akbarzadeh, Yaacov Ro'i

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Uzbekistan, the most strategically situated Central Asian country, has exhibited the most appalling record on human rights and democratic reforms. Yet, post-September 11, a transformation in US policy has suddenly taken place: US troops are now stationed there; Washington has put the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on its list of terrorist organizations; and the Bush administration has promised to triple aid to President Karimov‘s highly authoritarian regime. This unique study explores the central question from a longer-term Uzbek point of view: to what extent are closer ties between Washington and Tashkent contributing to political reforms inside Uzbekistan? Dr Akbarzadeh describes political events since independence, including the emergence of a radical Islamic opposition. He analyses how September 11 has catalysed a transformation in Washington‘s attitude as it perceived a common Islamic enemy, and he examines the possible beginnings of a retreat from Soviet-style politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848137998
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 07/04/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 180
File size: 570 KB

About the Author

Shahram Akbarzadeh is a senior lecturer in global politics at the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, Australia. He has researched and published on Central Asia affairs for a decade. Akbarzadeh co-authored the Historical Dictionary of Tajikistan (2002) and co-edited Muslim Communities in Australia (2001) and Islam and Political Legitimacy (2003).
Dr Shahram Akbarzadeh is a Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, Victoria, Australia. He has researched, and published on Central Asia affairs for a decade. Dr Akbarzadeh co-authored the Historical Dictionary of Tajikistan (Scarecrow Press, 2002) and co-edited Muslim Communities in Australia (Uni of New South Wales Press, 2001) and Islam and Political Legitimacy (Routledge/Curzon, 2003).

Read an Excerpt

Uzbekistan and the United States

Authoritarianism, Islamism and Washington's Security Agenda

By Shahram Akbarzadeh

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2005 Shahram Akbarzadeh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-113-2


From Soviet to Post-Soviet Authoritarianism

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave birth to new sovereign entities in Central Asia. Uzbekistan at the heart of that region tried to position itself quickly to take advantage of its new-found freedom. Tashkent took measures to establish relations with countries outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and reformulate its relations with Russia on equal terms. But Tashkent's efforts to gain international recognition and attract diplomatic favour and financial investment were hampered by its poor record on political and economic reform and accountability The United States and the European Union grew increasingly impatient with Tashkent for its failure to implement reforms. Despite the hype regarding transition to democracy, Uzbekistan appeared to be reverting to familiar patterns of authoritarianism within two years of the Soviet collapse. This reversal took place in the face of growing international concern and criticism, but proceeded nonetheless. The Uzbek leadership was determined not to be influenced by what it regarded as an impractical and utopian fascination with democracy and political openness. It rejected rapid transition or 'shock therapy' as risky and dangerous – a course to be avoided. Instead the Uzbek leadership prided itself on 'its own path', a jingoistic cover for no reforms.

Calls for political reforms by local opposition groups and the international community have focused on four main areas: freedom of association and the emergence and consolidation of a multiparty system; free and fair elections; freedom of information; and rule of law. Despite the engrained antipathy of the Uzbek leadership to the emergence of a competitive political system, these goals were nominally endorsed to placate international concerns. The record of political developments in the first decade of independence, however, provided little evidence to suggest that Uzbekistan was making progress on any of the above objectives. This should not come as a surprise since the leaders of independent Uzbekistan were former Soviet officials, trained and cultivated in an authoritarian system which sought to control every aspect of public life, and suspicious, even paranoid, about autonomous public activity. Contested elections in a multiparty system where the elected representatives are accountable to their electorate were anathema to the Soviet nomenklatura and its system of patronage. Democracy entailed potential risks of unpredictability and discontinuity for the leadership. Not surprisingly, Uzbek leaders chose to adopt 'democracy' in name only, building a façade of public accountability and choice while allowing as little as possible of these risky practices to infiltrate the post-Soviet state of Uzbekistan. In this, the Uzbek experience was far from unique. Perhaps with the notable exception of Turkmenistan, democracy has become the declaratory policy of all Central Asian states.


President Islam Abduganivich Karimov is the most powerful man in Uzbekistan. His political career is typical of the current leadership. Islam Karimov was born in 1938 in Samarkand. A few years after obtaining his degree in economics and mechanical engineering, he started work with the republican Gosplan (state planning committee) in 1966. Karimov's political ascent started in 1983, when he enjoyed a sudden promotion to become the minister of finance. By late 1986 he was deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers and chairman of Gosplan. He was also selected first secretary of the Communist Party of the Kashkadar'ya regional committee in December 1986. In June 1989 Islam Karimov became first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. And after the institutionalisation of the presidential system throughout the Soviet Union in March 1990, he was elected president by the republican parliament.

The August putsch of 1991 was a test of President Karimov's conviction in Uzbekistan's future as a sovereign state outside the Soviet fold. He failed that test by his apparent indecision during the critical hours of the coup d'état which sought to turn back the clock and revive the disintegrating Soviet Union. On 20 August 1991, the state-controlled daily in Uzbekistan, Pravda Vostoka, published orders and public appeals issued by the coup plotters. On the same day, at a joint meeting of the cabinet of ministers and the presidium of the Uzbek Supreme Soviet, the Uzbek leadership issued a mild criticism of the coup by deploring the use of force to settle 'political differences', but said nothing about the objectives of the coup. Instead Uzbek leaders appealed for calm, 'discipline and order'. This episode did nothing for the nationalist credentials of Uzbek leaders, and they found it imperative to make corrective measures to avert a looming crisis of legitimacy.

Following the collapse of the attempted coup, which made independence for Uzbekistan inevitable, the Uzbek leadership sought to address the obvious shortcoming in its mandate to govern and its nationalist credentials. On 31 August 1991 the Supreme Soviet declared Uzbekistan an independent republic. The Communist Party of Uzbekistan was suspended for its alleged links with coup plotters and on 17 September 1991 President Karimov issued a decree banning Communist Party activities in government organs. This decree made no correlative impact on the composition of the personnel, who had originally gone through the nomenklatura vetting and selection process. The same leaders remained fully in control under the new banner of Uzbek nationalism. The renaming of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan to the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (PDPU), on 1 November 1991, helped this transition and allowed former Communist Party chiefs to stay in their government posts.

President Islam Karimov sought to keep a firm grip on the reigns of power and favoured the presidential system of government for the opportunities it offered. The new Constitution, adopted in December 1992, contained extensive presidential powers. They included the power to:

• Appoint and dismiss the prime minister, his first deputy, deputy prime ministers, members of the cabinet of ministers, the procurator-general and his deputies, with subsequent confirmation by the parliament (Oliy Majlis).

• Nominate the chairman and members of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the Higher Economic Court; and the chairman of the board of the Central Bank.

• Appoint and dismiss judges of regional, district, city and arbitration courts.

• Appoint and dismiss regional administrators (hakims) and for the city of Tashkent with subsequent confirmation by relevant regional and city councils (the president shall have the right to dismiss any hakim, should the latter violate the Constitution or the laws, or perform an act discrediting the honour and dignity of a hakim.

• Dissolve the Oliy Majlis (to be endorsed by the Constitutional Court) in case of insurmountable differences between the parliamentary deputies and the president.

Of the above-mentioned presidential powers, the right to appoint regional hakims has proven to be an effective and reliable way to extend President Karimov's control and authority to local levels. The benefits of this mechanism are threefold. First, local hakims are answerable to the president and President Karimov has used this factor to consolidate his authority at the expense of competing interest groups within the political elite (see discussion on Shukrulla Mirsaidov below). Hakims' loyalty and allegiance to President Karimov offer him a power base beyond the reach of parliamentary jurisdiction. The informal nature of personal relations and the emphasis on the president and the wisdom of his decisions reinforce the entrenched image of President Karimov as indispensable to Uzbekistan's future. It tends to blur the line between formal institutions of the state and the person of the president. The consequent cult of personality is a modern re-enactment of oriental despotism.

Second, President Karimov's rule is projected onto the local level through the hierarchical nature of regional and city administration. Hakims, as representatives of the president, have the authority to confirm or reject leaders at the level of neighbourhoods (mahalla). As a consequence, aqsaqals (literally 'whitebeards'), who are the respected elders of each locality, are incorporated into the political system. The aqsaqal, although elected by mahalla residents, depends on the endorsement of the city or regional hakim to assume the paid position of neighbourhood chief. This arrangement allows hakims to interfere in, and direct, mahalla affairs. The incorporation of the traditional, and hitherto informal, system of respect for the elders in the state structure is significant for President Karimov's claim to a popular mandate. This is an important pillar of power. The aqsaqal plays an important role in the social life of his mahalla and performs various aspects of social security. The direct link to hakims and indirect connection to the president work in two important ways. They allow political management at micro-level and evoke an air of benevolence for President Karimov for his ultimate responsibility in upholding traditional Uzbek practices and the welfare of ordinary citizens.

Third, in a cyclic system of mutual reinforcement, hakims and their councils are allowed to nominate parliamentary candidates to the legislature (Oliy Majlis). In the 1999 parliamentary elections, 110 seats were won by local council candidates, including 75 provincial and city hakims. Occupying nearly 45 per cent of the 240 seats in the Oliy Majlis, members of the executive branch at the local level, who are not required to forfeit their administrative office, constitute the single most powerful force in the legislative assembly. The consequent blurring of the line between the executive and the legislature gives President Karimov a significant degree of influence over the Oliy Majlis.

This brief account of the institutions of the state makes it clear that Uzbekistan's institutional hierarchy has been carefully crafted to privilege President Karimov. A revealing example of institutional fiddling to ensure total compliance with Karimov's wishes and to eliminate potential challenges was provided in 1992 when the office of vice-president was abolished. Until its abolition, this office was held by Shukrulla Mirsaidov, an able political leader in his own right who did not always agree with Karimov's policies. Mirsaidov was closely associated with Tashkent-based political leaders who regarded Karimov a political novice and his performance lacking in finesse. Mirsaidov was among 200 parliamentary deputies who signed an open letter in September 1991 criticising President Karimov's authoritarian tendencies. William Fierman, a long-time researcher on Uzbekistan, has argued that this episode suggested that Mirsaidov was preparing for a leadership challenge. That is precisely how Islam Karimov interpreted the open letter initiative. It must have been clear to President Karimov that he would have to confront Mirsaidov and his allies if he wished to become the unopposed ruler of Uzbekistan. Disbanding the office of vice-president consolidated the president's position and gave him unrestrained control over the executive. President Karimov has been personally involved in the selection of the Cabinet of Ministers and moved to appoint loyal officials, often tied to Samarkand, to ministerial posts. This arrangement rendered the office of the prime minister symbolic, devoid of real power, as openly admitted by former prime minister Abdulhashim Mutalov, who was removed from office in December 1995.

President Karimov's power rests on a network of informal relations and loyalties, as well as formal institutions which allow the centralisation of power and merging of the executive and the legislative branches of the state. These two pillars of Karimov's authority are important for the continued functioning of his regime and the projected image of legitimacy, even popularity. For that reason, parliamentary and presidential elections are very important to the regime – not because they provide an opportunity for lawful transition, but because of their symbolism. They, invariably, reaffirm the image of popularity that the Uzbek leadership depends on to justify its rule. Constructing and maintaining the façade of a popular mandate is an ongoing project that is intended to address domestic and external critics. Tashkent insists that Uzbekistan has moved away from Soviet practices of sham elections where the ruling Communist Party nominated one candidate for each parliamentary seat. Both 1994 and 1999 parliamentary elections were contested by a number of political parties and multiple candidates. In the last elections, the PDPU won 48 seats, followed by Fidokorlar (34 seats) and Vatan Taraqiyoti (20 seats). Table 1.1 presents the election results in full.

The appearance of multiparty elections, however, cannot mask the fact that these were a highly elaborate exercise in delusion. None of the contesting parties had a platform that seemed even remotely different from the government's agenda. In 1995 Adolat (Justice) and Miliy Tiklanish (National Renaissance) were formed in response to criticism that Uzbekistan was not making progress towards a multiparty system. This situation seems to confirm reports that President Karimov regarded the emergence of public organisations and political parties as a sign of anarchy – that is, the failure of state authority. But political expediency forced the leadership to retract these explicitly anti-democratic propositions and allow a semblance of a multiparty system. In January 1999 a new party was registered, just in time for the coming parliamentary polls. Fidokorlar (Self-sacrificers) declared its loyalty to President Karimov and his policies at its inaugural meeting and, in the following year, nominated him for re-election at the 2000 presidential elections. The proliferation of political parties in the mid- to late 1990s helped move the political system away from the dichotomous model of ruling party versus loyal opposition. President Karimov helped accelerate this process by resigning as head of the PDPU in 1996, which allowed him to preside above and beyond party politics. The sharp drop in the PDPU's parliamentary seats at the last elections indicated the extent of this shift. The spread of the popular vote for registered parties, all of which have publicly declared allegiance to President Karimov, suggest that political parties are, in effect, irrelevant to Uzbekistan. Despite this, these parties have an important public-relations role to play and will continue to be visible on the political scene. In April 2000 Fidokorlar incorporated Vatan Taraqiyoti, leading to its emergence as the largest party bloc in the Oliy Majlis. The next parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2004, are likely to continue this trend and witness further erosion in the number of seats held by the PDPU.

A constant feature of politics in Uzbekistan is the primary role of President Karimov. Even though the post-Soviet Constitution does not allow a person to serve more than two consecutive terms, President Karimov looks set to remain in presidential office for well over fifteen years. Following his election by the parliament in March 1990, Islam Karimov sought a popular mandate and won the first direct presidential elections in the history of Uzbekistan in December 1991. He defeated Muhammad Solih, leader of Erk, the opposition party, by a convincing margin: 86 to 14 per cent. Karimov's five-year term was to expire in 1996, but a referendum in March of that year extended his presidency until 2000. This extension allowed him to stand for elections for a second consecutive term. In January 2000 President Karimov was re-elected with over 90 per cent of the votes. His opponent, Abdulhafez Jalalov, first secretary of the PDPU, received less than 4 per cent of the votes, and was quoted as admitting that he voted for Islam Karimov. Following the launch of the 'war on terror' and Uzbekistan's new-found importance in the US security operations in the region, President Karimov sought to consolidate his position even further and orchestrated another referendum to extend his term to seven years. The results of the January 2002 referendum were not surprising; Karimov's term was extended to 2007. This performance confirmed critical assessments that Islam Karimov has no intention of leaving office. Incidentally, the speaker of the Oliy Majlis, Erkin Khalilov, had indeed suggested that Islam Karimov should be made president for life before the 2002 referendum. It is interesting to note that the close relationship between Tashkent and Washington that emerged in the post-September 11 era appeared to have no visible impact on the behaviour of the leadership in Uzbekistan.


Excerpted from Uzbekistan and the United States by Shahram Akbarzadeh. Copyright © 2005 Shahram Akbarzadeh. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

  • Foreword by Yaacov Ro'i
  • 1. From Soviet to post-Soviet authoritarianism
  • 2. Islamic challenge
  • 3. Tashkent's foreign policy decisions
  • 4. Uzbekistan and the United States: A difficult relationship
  • 5. September 11 and the 'war on terror'
  • 6. Human rights and democracy
  • 7. Prospects for authoritarian withdrawal
  • Appendixes

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