The recent violence in Uzbekistan has cast a spotlight on the cozy relationship between the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov and Israel and its American supporters.
Earlier this month, Karimov unleashed his security forces to quell an opposition demonstration in the east of the Central Asian republic, causing hundreds of civilian deaths. Even before the latest violence, in recent years the State Department, the United Nations and major human rights organizations all have criticized the Uzbek regime for alleged abuses, including the systematic use of rape and torture against opponents.
Observers said that Karimov, the local communist party’s former head who clung to power following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has used the American Jewish community as a beachhead to cement relations with both Washington and Jerusalem. Israeli and American Jewish communal leaders said that their efforts to cultivate ties with Uzbekistan have been motivated primarily by the regime’s positive attitude toward the local Jewish community and Israel as well as its hawkish stand against radical Islam.
Some Israelis and Jewish community leaders have gone even further, defending Uzbekistan’s democratic record. Leon Levy, then chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization comprising 52 national Jewish groups, once hailed Karimov’s regime as a “democracy for all the Islamic countries.” Last summer, former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky, a prominent advocate of spreading democracy around the world, defended the regime against critics who would defame “the courageous struggle that Uzbekistan is waging against terrorism.”
The failure to press Uzbekistan for democratic reforms and to speak out against the regime’s human rights abuses is being criticized by some outside observers and communal insiders.
“Uzbekistan has a genuine security problem,” said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights at the American Jewish Committee. Gaer was a member of a U.N. committee against torture that issued a scathing report about Uzbekistan in 2002. “But there are very serious human rights violations, and not to recognize them is unconscionable. Jewish groups should be more sensitive to the systematic abuses in Uzbekistan.”
Both Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, and Mark Levin, executive director of the National Council on Soviet Jewry, countered that the topic of human rights violations was indeed brought up during meetings with Central Asian leaders, including Karimov.
“We never hesitate to raise the issues with them,” Hoenlein said, adding that the good relationship with the regime was a result of Karimov’s friendly attitude toward the 25,000-strong local Jewish community and Uzbekistan’s position in the “frontline” of the war on terror.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Uzbekistan has leased a strategically located base to the American military and, according to The New York Times, has been involved in a dozen cases of “renditions,” the practice through which Washington sends terrorist suspects to countries known for practicing torture. Karimov met President Bush at the White House in March 2002. Last year, the administration cut $18 million in aid to Uzbekistan for failing to improve its human rights record.
Democratic revolutions in the former Soviet Union, in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, have ratcheted up pressure on the regime by highlighting its more repressive nature. Opponents have long claimed that Karimov is exaggerating the threat of radical Islam in order to tighten his grip on the country. Regime advocates counter by pointing to several violent incidents over the past years as evidence of the threat’s reality.
Several weeks ago, Karimov dispatched his security forces to the eastern town of Andijan to crack down on a popular demonstration, which was prompted by the jailbreak of several businessmen accused of having links to radical Islamist groups. The government has prevented international observers from reaching the area, but accounts from witnesses indicate that at least several hundred people were killed.
Just as the violence was unfolding in Andijan, an alleged suicide bomber was shot and killed by the police May 13 outside the Israeli embassy in the capital city of Tashkent. As it turned out, he was carrying fake explosives.
In July 2004, three Uzbek bodyguards were killed in suicide bombings outside the Israeli and American embassies and the Uzbek chief prosecutor’s office. American and Israeli officials praised the Uzbek government for its swift reaction.
Israel and Uzbekistan established diplomatic relations in 1992 and have since signed several cooperation agreements. Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Karimov in Tashkent in May 1998, and the Uzbek president visited Israel four months later. In September 2000, Karimov appealed to Israel for aid in combating the rise of Islamic violence in the region.
Eager to forge ties with a Muslim country perceived as friendly to Israel, American Jewish communal leaders have maintained good relations with Karimov’s regime. Another factor in the relationship has been Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, the Uzbek-born head of the Islamic Supreme Council of America whose moderate views have endeared him to Jewish communal leaders. Kabbani, a Sufi, has condemned radical Islam and terrorism repeatedly and has praised the Karimov regime regularly.
In February 2003, a delegation from the Presidents Conference toured Central Asia and met with six regional leaders. They adopted a declaration stressing the need to denounce terrorism and develop peaceful inter-religious dialogue.
In Israel, one key supporter of Uzbekistan has been Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who until recently was minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Novosti Nedeli last August, Sharansky said that terrorism threats were a reminder that Karimov’s uncompromising stance against extremists was justified, according to the BBC monitoring service.
“The Uzbek government adopted such an uncompromising position because it is understood in Tashkent, in the same way as Jerusalem, that the battle against terrorism is not some sort of tribal conflict; it is a world war of the forces of democracy against international terrorism,” Sharansky was quoted as saying. He added, “It goes without saying that the strengthening, development and defense of democracy in Uzbekistan are an important part of the struggle for human rights all over the world. However, it would be a mistake to believe that the democratization process could be speeded up by way of slander and defaming the courageous struggle that Uzbekistan is waging against terrorism.”
Sharansky could not be reached for further comment.
The Weekly Standard, the main neoconservative journal in Washington, published a May 30 editorial arguing that “toleration of Karimov’s brutality threatens to undercut this administration’s impressive and successful foreign policy.” The magazine argued that “it is hardly in our interest to let brutality become a winning strategy, or to let massacres pass without consequences for a regime’s relations with the United States.”