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Backlash in Uzbekistan

March 30, 2004

Islam Karimov was a rock-ribbed Communist ruler of Uzbekistan when it was a Soviet republic. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the 66-year-old onetime engineer and economist shed his communism but not his autocratic ways. Since his nation won its independence in 1991, he has kept an iron grip on power, using it to muzzle the press, ban opposition political parties and drive his country further toward economic ruin. The U.S. and Europe need to keep pressuring Karimov to stop torturing Uzbeks and open up the country.

As testimony at the hearings of the 9/11 commission made clear last week, after the attacks on Washington and New York, the U.S. decided to increase aid to Uzbekistan. When the U.S. invaded neighboring Afghanistan to hunt the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Karimov let Americans use the Karshi Khanabad military base for their regional operations. Unfortunately, he also wrapped himself in the anti-terror banner, proclaimed his foes terrorists and tried to immunize himself from criticism.

Karimov kept to that gambit again Monday after a suicide bombing and explosion in the capital, Tashkent, and an explosion Sunday in the Bukhara region, were blamed on alleged terrorists. Uzbekistan's foreign minister portrayed the deaths of at least 18 people in explosions and shootouts with police as the work of "international terror."

Islamic extremists have operated in Uzbekistan. But most regime opponents are not terrorists. Karimov's heavy hand is more likely providing a recruiting tool for extremists. A ban on political opposition pushes dissent underground and increases the likelihood that some of his foes will be radicalized; tight controls on mosques -- no loudspeakers to broadcast to the faithful, for instance -- and on Islamic preachers also are more likely to fuel fury than quench it.

Two years ago, Karimov promised to allow more freedom for political groups and nongovernmental organizations. However, he has harassed many of these, such as the Open Society, and has refused to register opposition parties. Human rights groups regularly report the torture of prisoners, sometimes to death. Last year, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development demanded political and economic reform in Uzbekistan in return for continuing its loans to the primarily agricultural nation. The bank should consider cutting off future loans; the U.S. should reduce its aid unless Karimov reforms. Being seen as an ally to a torturer will harm Washington if Karimov's repression creates chaos that turns Uzbekistan into a failed state and terrorist haven.

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