The Washington Diplomat / April 2008
By Larry Luxner
They're among the least-known countries in the world — and among the most repressive.
With the possible exception of tiny Kyrgyzstan, population 5.3 million, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia all rank near the bottom in just about every index that measures freedom of speech, political liberties, democratic values and anti-corrupton efforts.
Washington-based Freedom House, in its 2007 survey of 193 countries, gave both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan its lowest possible score of 7.0 on the so-called "freedom index, with 1.0 being the most free and 7.0 being the least free. (Six other nations scored 7.0: Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Somalia and Sudan).
Kazakhstan and Tajikistan were only slightly better off, scoring 5.5. Only Kyrgyzstan won a designation of "partly free" with its score of 4.5.
Likewise, Transparency International — well-known for its annual Corruption Perceptions Index — assigned a dismal score of 2.1 to Kazakhstan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan in its 2007 rankings — meaning those countries were perceived to be near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to honesty in government.
Turkmenistan fared even worse with a score of 2.0 (ranking it 162nd in the world) and Uzbekistan came in with a score of 1.7, ranking it 175th. Only four nations — Haiti, Iraq, Burma and Somalia — are perceived to be more corrupt than Uzbekistan.
Given that country's well-documented record of human-rights abuses, forced detentions and repression of opposition political parties, it's no wonder Uzbekistan's ambassador, Abdulaziz Kamilov, declined our request for a telephone interview or failed to respond to a list of questions submitted to him at the insistence of his press officer. No one else from the Uzbek Embassy would speak to us for publication either.
Yet S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, says pronouncements and index rankings by groups like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch should not always be accepted as the gospel truth.
"The NGOs themselves are not above criticism," Starr told the Diplomat. "They have demanded instant answers to challenges that were created over decades and even centuries. I don't disagree with their goals at all, but one has to exercise patience and not simply scold people for failing to meet your timetable."
Despite its remoteness, Uzbekistan — one of only two "doubly landlocked" countries in the world (the other is Liechtenstein) — is important because of its strategic location along key transit routes for oil and natural gas. With 27.8 million people, it's also by far the most populous of the five "stans" that comprise the former Soviet Union. In fact, Uzbekistan has more people than Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan combined.
But relations between Uzbekistan and the United States have been badly strained ever since President Islam Karimov, ordered U.S. troops to leave an air base known as K-2 that had provided crucial support for U.S. military operations in nearby Afghanistan.
Karimov has also blocked all Western proposals for an independent foreign commission to investigate a 2005 massacre by government troops in the city of Andijan, though the government did allow Chinese and Indian officials to look into the matter.
There is a dispute over how many people actually died; reports range from 200 to over 800. Another dispute centers on whether the demonstrators had weapons or were unarmed; the whole truth may never be known, mainly because the country is so closed.
"In Karimov's Uzbekistan, no dissent is allowed. Media are state-controlled, and opposition parties are banned from elections," wrote Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, in a September 2006 opinion piece for the Washington Post. "Millions of people including children toil on vast state-owned cotton farms, receiving $2 a month for working 70-hour weeks. Their labor has made Uzbekistan the world's second-largest cotton exporter. More than 10,000 dissidents are held in Soviet-style gulags."
Yet after the 9/11 attacks, Uzbekistan was the first former Soviet republic to allow American troops to be stationed on its soil. In his article, Murray cited a press release distributed by the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, saying that the Karimov regime received over $500 million of aid from the Bush administration in 2002 alone. That included $120 million for the Uzbek armed forces and more than $80 million for the re-branded Uzbek security services, successor to the KGB.
In late January, Adm. William J. Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command, paid a low-key visit to the Uzbek capital — the first such visit since the 2005 massacre — with the U.S. Embassy there telling journalists only that Fallon "came to renew dialogue with an important regional player."
On Mar. 19, State Department spokesman Tom Casey issued cautious words of praise following an announcement by the International Committee of the Red Cross that visits to jailed dissidents in Uzbekistan have resumed.
"We are strongly encouraged by this step, as well as by the recent release of political prisoners," said Casey, "and we strongly urge the government of Uzbekistan to take additional measures to address human-rights concerns."
Yet nobody expects any democratic miracles in Uzbekistan anytime soon.
"Local human-rights activists are being rounded up and imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and international media and watchdog organizations have been expelled from the country," says Central Asia expert Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution. "The country's foreign policy has shifted dramatically toward Russia, China and South Asia. The cycle of protest and repression in Uzbekistan has raised questions about the future stability of this erstwhile U.S. ally in the heartland of Central Asia."
Things aren't much better in Turkmenistan, and in some ways they're worse. Despite our repeated efforts, neither the ambassador of Turkmenistan, Meret Bairamovich Orazov, nor the ambassador of Tajikistan, Abdujabbor Shirinov, made themselves available for interviews with the Diplomat.
Both of those countries have unimpressive track records when it comes to human rights and democratic reform, and Turkmenistan — the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics — was often cited as having the world's most repressive dictatorship until the December 2006 death of the country's president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov.
Known to his countrymen as Turkmenbashi or "leader of the Turkmen people," Niyazov encouraged a slavish personality cult, naming airports, cities and even months after himself and family members. Bans enacted towards the end of his 21-year-rule included smoking in public, listening to car radios and the wearing of beards by young men.
Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, was elected in February 2007 with 89% of the vote; no serious opposition has ever existed in the country since its 1991 independence. The French group Reporters Without Borders, in its 2007 World Press Freedom Index, ranked Turkmenistan third to last in its comparison of press freedoms in 169 nations (only North Korea and Eritrea were worse, according to the index).
Economically a backwater, Turkmenistan nevertheless has become the world's fourth-largest natural gas exporter. The country plans to boost gas exports to Russia by 20% thanks to construction of a new Caspian littoral pipeline being constructed with the help of Russia and Kazakhstan, and this year expects GDP growth of 8.5%.
If there's a bright spot anywhere in Central Asia, it's probably Kyrgyzstan.
Zamira Sydykova, the Kyrgyz envoy in Washington, says her country is easily the most democratic in the region.
"Even in the early 1990s, we were called an island of democracy in Central Asia," Sydykova told the Diplomat. "We have freedom of the press, we have free assemblies, freedom of meetings, freedom of all kinds of expression, and a parliament which is elected by parties. In this last election, maybe 20% of all seats were won by the opposition."
It wasn't always that way in this weirdly shaped, Minnesota-sized country of 5 million.
Askar Akayev, who had ruled Kyrgyzstan since independence in 1990, was first elected in 1991, then returned to office in 1995 and again in 2000 in balloting that observers widely said were tainted by fraud. In March 2005, the Kyrgyz people finally got tired of Akayev's dictatorial rule and forced him out of office in a single day of street protests in Bishkek, the capital, in what came to be known as the Tulip Revolution.
"After our independence, all of our countries [in Central Asia] declared democratic principles that we would follow. We established independent parliaments and said in our constitutions that we would have political parties and free elections," said Sydykova, a former newspaper journalist who served time in prison for speaking out against the Akayev regime. "In practice, we are different, of course. Some countries are more focused on social issues, and some like Kazakhstan are more open to foreign investors."
Sydykova declined to say publicly which of her neighboring republics she considers dictatorships, though she did tell the Diplomat that "some of these presidents have been elected two or three times, and many of the complaints from groups like the OSCE which monitors these complaints are justified."
Unlike Uzbekistan, she said, Kyrgyzstan is happy to host American troops on its soil. Since 2001, a U.S. air base has existed at Manas; it's currently staffed with around 2,000 troops. Relations between Bishkek and Washington have never been better, she said.
"We are moving forward," said the ambassador. "We would like to be more open, and I'm absolutely sure that in the near future, all the countries in our region will be more democratic. But this takes time."