Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

America's Shady Ally Against Terror

When the Soviet Union fell apart, most of its provincial Communist dictators did not. Instead, they jumped to join those who had been, moments before, their "nationalist enemies" -- and adopted nationalist slogans as their own. These former first secretaries of regional Communist parties became presidents and set about denigrating their once dear party. I watched this happen in Uzbekistan with Islam Karimov, who is still, remarkably, the Uzbek president, and is visiting Washington on Tuesday. He just secured an extra two years on his term, which has now been extended to 2007.

Initially, Western powers must have been a bit astonished by the transformation of first secretaries into presidents. But they supported these "newly independent states," as they were called, and the dictators who ruled them. More than a decade has passed, but the undemocratic, human-rights-abusing, one-party states have not changed much at all, and neither has Western support for them. There has always been something -- be it worries over the security of nuclear materials, a desire to avoid antagonizing Russia, China or another power -- that has somehow justified this situation.

Western politicians have always found convenient excuses for supporting these governments, while the dictators of these states have been blessed with good luck.

Their last piece of luck came on Sept. 11. After that day, something happened that the Uzbek Foreign Ministry had not been able to accomplish in more than a decade.

Just 15 days before the Sept. 11 tragedy, Karimov had promised he would grant an amnesty that would have released thousands of citizens convicted of various crimes. Among those eligible were at least 1,000 political prisoners, promised amnesty in exchange for repentance. This was an effort by Karimov to win the good will of the United States, which had got into the habit of issuing reports condemning the repressive actions of his government. The United States did not appear to take much notice of this gesture of mercy.

However, by late September, such gestures became unnecessary. The superpower had arrived in Tashkent with good will and much else. This last stroke of luck was so great that Karimov, singled out by the United States as an ally in the war against terrorism, began to feel that he was the leader not only of Uzbekistan but of all Central Asia.

Russia's political elite has been watching the Uzbek leader with alarm and warning President Vladimir Putin that Karimov -- always somewhat querulous in his dealings with Moscow -- is drifting toward a pro-U.S. stance. Perhaps even the United States thinks this is true.

However, in fact, the opposite is occurring. Uzbekistan is drifting toward an anti-American stance, if one understands "American" as including democracy, human rights and the struggle against state-sponsored terror.

After Sept. 11, Karimov reversed his amnesty for some political prisoners who had originally been scheduled for release, having understood that the political impetus for amnesty had diminished considerably. (About 800 members of a Muslim organization, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, were freed, only to be put under constant surveillance, while secular dissidents remain in prison.)

The United States' warm relations with Karimov have, in a way, increased repression in Uzbekistan, as now there is no need to adhere to international human rights standards.

The Uzbek authorities have essentially untied the hands of the police. If policemen kill citizens, they can simply fill out documents claiming the victim was a terrorist or even a follower of Osama bin Laden.

As for Uzbekistan's efforts on the democratic front, Karimov held a referendum in 1995 in order to avoid an election. According to official results, 99.8 percent of voters endorsed Karimov wholeheartedly. He then won re-election in 2000 with 92 percent of the vote. (Even his leading opponent voted for him and said so publicly.) And now he has, by referendum, secured an extra two years after his term ends in 2005; 91.8 percent of votes were in his favor. The State Department wisely decided not to monitor this last referendum, because the mere act of monitoring might have conferred on it some legitimacy.

More than once, the United States has had to tear down what it helped to create. This was recently the case, to a degree, in Afghanistan: The United States helped to sustain a Muslim insurgency, the Taliban, which it has now crushed. It may also prove to be the case in Uzbekistan, which has been raised by its alliance with the United States against terrorism into the pre-eminent Central Asian power.

Uzbekistan is in the very center of a highly explosive and densely populated region where almost 60 million people live (more than a third of them in Uzbekistan itself). The Karimov government's repressive example is likely to be infectious in a neighborhood of states that have little tradition of democracy or human rights.

Karimov is showing that it is possible to gain prestige and money and extend your rule on a whim -- and still enjoy U.S. support in the world after Sept. 11.

Muhammad Salih, leader of the Erk (Freedom) Party of Uzbekistan, lives in exile. He contributed this comment to The New York Times.