REVIEW: Article

US-Uzbek Relations

Uzbekistan has been a firm partner with the United States (US) in the struggle against terrorism. President Karimov responded quickly and unhesitatingly after the September 11, 2001, tragedy to grant the US military access to the airfield at Karshi-Khanabad. The base played an important supporting role in Coalition efforts against the Taliban. US officials from both the executive and legislative branches made frequent trips to the region to express gratitude to the Uzbek government and offer substantial assistance. Uzbekistan received about $100 million of FY 2002 Freedom Support Act supplemental funding approved by Congress in the wake of September 11. These funds went to a variety of worthwhile projects, including improved control of scarce water resources, public health programs, the fight against infectious diseases and improved education opportunities.  

The base at Karshi-Khanabad (known among Americans simply as K2) was not the only pillar of the bilateral relationship. As early as 1994, the US and Uzbekistan had signed a Bilateral Assistance Agreement that provided (and still provides) the legal basis for the work of American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) here. President Karimov visited Washington in March 2002. During the course of that visit, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov signed a Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework Agreement. Under the terms of that document, both sides committed themselves to cooperate in a broad range of areas, including democratization, development of civil society, support for independent media, economic reform, trade and investment, public health, science and technology, legal reform, and, of course, military and security fields.

Both sides recognized that the Strategic Framework Agreement set forth an ambitious set of goals. Uzbekistan was still in the grip of the economic and political legacy of the Soviet Union, struggling with the challenge of market reform and democratic development. It also faced a domestic terrorist challenge from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had successfully carried out a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999.  Uzbekistan’s image in the US was badly tarnished by reports of systematic torture in its prisons and jails. How much progress one could realistically expect to make was always an open question, but key to US policy is the premise that political and economic reforms are essential to long-term stability in Central Asia.  The Strategic Framework was signed with that long-term view in mind.

Working together under this broad bilateral agenda, Uzbekistan and the US made progress. Some 42 American NGOs established themselves here as US Agency for International Development (USAID) implementing partners under the Bilateral Assistance Agreement. An additional 11 American NGOs are active here independently of the US government. Local civil society began to grow and real progress was evident in primary health care, education and the fight against human trafficking. Our education exchanges brought approximately 300 Uzbek students to the US each year, and the US actively supported bringing computers into Uzbek schools across the country. Joint exercises and professional education opportunities helped establish strong working relations between our two militaries.         

Many problems persisted, however. Independent opposition groups were not allowed to register as political parties, self-censorship stifled the media, economic reform was painfully slow, and foreign investors faced constant bureaucratic obstacles.  Reports of human rights abuses, including torture and deaths in detention, continued to garner headlines abroad. To their credit, Uzbek authorities took the bold step in 2002 of inviting the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to inspect the prison system. His report, which found torture to be “systemic,” and the ensuing reluctance or inability of the authorities to take firm action against the practice, became the basis for further inter-national criticism. Section 568(a) of the FY 2004 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act stipulated that assistance could only be made available to the central government of Uzbekistan if the Secretary of State determined that Uzbekistan had made substantial and continuing progress in meeting commitments under the Strategic Framework Agreement. The Secretary was not able to make that determination.   

Despite these difficulties, both countries remained officially committed to pursuing the broad-based bilateral agenda. While it was often argued in the US and European press that the US had sacrificed the democracy and human rights elements of the agenda in favor of military cooperation, our agenda with most Ministries was dominated by our concerns in these areas and economic reform.

The atmosphere, however, had begun to change perceptibly after the November 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. In December, a decree was issued imposing onerous reporting requirements on foreign NGOs that ran directly counter to the spirit and letter of our 1994 Bilateral Assistance Agreement. In January 2004, Uzbek authorities announced that all foreign NGOs must reregister and henceforth come under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice rather than the Foreign Ministry. All American NGOs successfully reregistered save one:  the Open Society Institute, which was forced to close its doors. 

In February 2004, another decree appeared, ostensibly aimed at preventing money laundering. It required that all local NGOs use only certain specified banks to receive foreign grants or assistance. In point of fact, the banks became a tool for controlling financial transfers and allowing authorities to choose which Uzbek entities would receive funding and which would not. Local NGOs active in civil society development were a prime target, but even projects aimed at improving health care, education and farming were significantly delayed. While these measures made working in Uzbekistan much more difficult, the majority of our programs continued.

The link between events in Georgia and Uzbekistan seems clear enough. It was widely reported in the American and European press, including Russian, that international NGOs had played a key role in preparing Georgian society for democratic change and, by extension, for the popular protests that led to President Shevardnadze’s resignation.  Participants in the events themselves were frequently cited as acknowledging that American NGOs played a role. The Uzbek decision to review and reregister foreign NGOs no doubt flowed directly from what they read and heard about Georgia.

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in November 2004 came just one month before Uzbekistan’s own parliamentary elections. These elections were particularly important for Uzbekistan, as they were the first under a recent constitutional amendment introducing a bicameral legislature. Great care was taken to establish political parties and organize multiple candidate contests, but no independent opposition candidates or groups were allowed to register and participate. 

Although the elections proceeded quietly, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that they “fell significantly short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.” Meanwhile, international media were full of reports that foreign NGOs had been key to events in Ukraine. Some commentators even went so far as to suggest that the US was on a campaign of regime change among Soviet successor states and that Central Asia was a priority.

Just three months after the Uzbek elections, flawed parliamentary elections in neighboring Kyrgyzstan resulted in street demonstrations that ultimately brought down the government of President Askar Akayev. While most news accounts recognized that what happened in Kyrgyzstan was far different from what happened in Georgia or Ukraine, events there could easily be misconstrued to suggest that all three were part of a pattern.

In short, throughout 2004 and the start of 2005, it was clear that Uzbekistan was increasingly concerned about the social impact of close bilateral relations with the US.  Democratic and civil society development, market reform, and even many of our simplest programs in the health and agricultural sectors were all aimed at empowering private citizens and giving them the tools to help shape their own futures.  As long as political events in the broader region remained relatively calm, much of this activity proceeded undisturbed. When politicians, reporters and commentators around the world began to speak openly about a link between foreign NGOs and actual political change in the region, attitudes began to change. For ruling circles in Uzbekistan, still clinging in many ways to a Soviet view of social control, anything not controlled directly by government was potentially threatening.

Other factors reinforced Uzbek concerns. Some in government were disappointed that closer relations with the US had not brought greater private investment.  They did not appreciate that only real market reforms, a reliable banking system, the integrity of contracts and fair treatment under the law would attract the kind of large-scale investment they hoped for. In fact, over the past five years, the number of US firms active in Uzbekistan has dwindled to a handful.   

As for the American presence at K2, the Uzbeks have actively been trying to renegotiate our basing agreement over the past two years with an eye toward introducing a regular schedule of fees for its use. They have also maintained (without providing any supporting material) that the base has caused significant environmental damage. The US, busy with events in Iraq and Afghanistan, responded slowly, although it did provide the Uzbeks some $15.8 million in Coalition Support Funds in 2003. The US also made detailed plans and received funding authorization from Congress for building a new runway at the base to replace the 50-year-old Soviet runway that was visibly cracking.  Like any US military facility, the contingent at K2 hired many locals to help with construction and basic services, and purchased many goods and services on the local economy. Nonetheless, official frustration grew and the Defense Ministry imposed restric­tions on the number of heavy aircraft that could fly into the base, maintaining that these flights were significantly damaging the runway. 

This, in very general terms, was the state of relations in May 2005 when a major civil disturbance erupted in Andijon, a city of some 300,000 located in the Fergana Valley on Uzbekistan’s eastern border with Kyrgyzstan. There is precious little precise informa­tion as to what actually happened. Official sources maintain that a total of 187 people were killed in a confrontation between Islamic extremists and government forces the night of May 12 and throughout the next day. This number is impossible to verify, however, as Uzbek authorities immediately imposed a news blackout and subsequently detained many independent journalists and activists who talked to foreign correspondents or diplomats about the events. Some unofficial estimates, based on a variety of eyewitness accounts, place the number of dead at between 700 and 800.

The United States, the European Union and many others have publicly called for an independent international investigation to help determine what happened. Many unofficial sources claim that the armed protesters were motivated less by religious fervor and more by anger over general economic conditions and mistreatment of their business colleagues by local authorities and the courts. Official and unofficial sources vary widely over elements such as the total number of people involved and the scale of the official response. Only an independent investigation can sort through the conflicting claims.

Whatever the actual facts may be, the Andijon events played directly into the hands of those who would see a link among events in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and, now, Uzbekistan. For them, the Andijon unrest was much more than a local disturbance with roots in domestic problems and policies.  It was a direct threat to the government itself and proof of a wider conspiracy against Uzbekistan.  In the weeks since May, the government has mounted a heavy-handed Soviet-style media campaign suggesting that the US was directly responsible for what happened in Andijon.  It has forced Peace Corps to withdraw its volunteers and is forcing Uzbek NGOs throughout the country either to close their doors or become adjuncts of a new government body that would have full control over their funding and programming. American NGOs are being subjected to a series of “audits” by the Ministry of Justice, and many are being told that they may have to reregister yet again, this time as local rather than foreign entities. This new anti-American campaign not only lowers the American profile, it provides a convenient distraction from the real underlying social and economic causes of discontent in Andijon and elsewhere.

Andijon also created an opportunity for those who wanted to move against the US presence at K2. While events were still unfolding late in the afternoon of May 13, the Uzbeks imposed a ban on all night flights in and out of the base. They maintained this restriction even after Andijon was quiet. A June summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization* called for all foreign forces to set a timetable for leaving Central Asia, and two days later the Uzbek Foreign Ministry issued its own similar call. They followed in July with a formal request, under terms of the bilateral basing agreement, to vacate the base within 180 days.** Responding to cue, Uzbek media ran a campaign of unfounded complaints against the base, emphasizing unspecified environmental damage and claiming that the situation in Afghanistan no longer warranted the US presence at K2.

This, generally speaking, is the situation we find ourselves in as of September 2005. The agreements that formed the basis of the bilateral relationship are either no longer in place or seriously weakened.  The Uzbeks have officially withdrawn from the K2 basing agreement and have walked away from the agreement establishing the Peace Corps’ presence. The US has publicly questioned Uzbekistan’s progress under the Strategic Framework Agreement, and the Uzbeks are doing all in their power to undermine the Bilateral Assistance Agreement. 

The outlook, at the moment, is not auspicious. But as the US has often said in its public statements, it is committed to this region for the long term. And it is to the long term that we must look as we try to rebuild relations. Key to the effort, and the biggest challenge, is restoration of confidence. Uzbek authorities must ultimately come to understand that support for civil society, democratic reform and a real market economy are not threats to stability, but essential for stability. Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan went through difficult political change precisely because the powers that be tried to quash a legitimate electoral process, not because democracy somehow inherently engenders instability. 

Right now, the authorities are not in a mood to listen, but moods can change. Senior Uzbek officials know full well that media claims of US involvement with what happened in Andijon, either directly or indirectly through NGOs, are the product of their own fears, not of facts. Official efforts to pump currency (a scarce item here) and easy term loans into the city since May are tacit acknowledgement that economic discontent was a root cause of what happened. US assistance programs are expressly geared to address the very problems that most directly affect average Uzbeks: health care, education, small business development, agriculture, infectious diseases, etc. How long the authorities will want to hobble these programs in the face of obvious need is an open and important question. In the meantime, we must continue to work wherever the political climate permits to keep lines of communication open, both with the government and the Uzbek people.                 

* Editor’s Note: According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is an intergovernmental international organization founded in Shanghai on June 15, 2001, by six countries—China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The main purposes of the SCO are: strengthening mutual trust and good-neighborliness and friendship among member states; developing their effective cooperation in political affairs, the economy and trade, science and technology, culture, education, energy, transportation, environmental protection and other fields; working together to maintain regional peace, security and stability; and, promoting the creation of a new international political and economic order featuring democracy, justice and rationality.

** Editor’s Note: The October 12, 2005, edition of The New York Times reported that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reached an agreement with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan on long-term rights to maintaining an air base in that country for servicing military aircraft on missions to Afghanistan. The agreement “is particularly important because neighboring Uzbekistan has asked the United States to leave its air base there, and the Defense Department says it will have withdrawn from that base by year’s end.”

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United States Ambassador to Uzbekistan