New York

Morning Report 6/9/05New York’s Love Affair With Uzbek Dictator

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Bloomberg gave Karimov (he of the Andijan massacre) the royal treatment

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Government (for now) of Uzbekistan
Welcome, torturer!: Uzbekistan tyrant Islam Karimov and NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg in March 2002. You probably didn’t see this photo in American papers.

About the same time that Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov‘s regime was boiling to death and torturing its prisoners, Mayor Mike Bloomberg was rolling out the red carpet for the guy right here in New York City.

Funny, isn’t it? If you’re a New Yorker who wants to protest the Republican National Convention, you’re unfairly labeled an “extremist,” and the mayor orders you herded like cattle and prevents you from gathering en masse in public parks. But if you’re a foreign dictator whose troops—U.S. trained, by the way—slaughter protesters who are unfairly labeled as “extremists,” the mayor not only gives you free run in the city but poses for pictures with you.

Karimov is getting a new roasting from a just-released investigation into last month’s Andijan massacre of protesters. But he’s been a bad boy for quite a long time.

This heavily photographed visit by Karimov took place in March 2002. George W. Bush, Don Rumsfeld, and others kissed his butt at the White House—the U.S. built a base in Uzbekistan for the “war on terror” and ships prisoners there for interrogation in what’s called “rendition”—and then Karimov headed to New York City, where he’s strongly supported by the Jewish emigres from Bukhara.

You won’t find words or pictures about Karimov’s visit (at least I couldn’t) on the city’s official web site, nyc.gov. Leave it to Karimov himself, however, to gloat about it on his own official pages. He bragged about talking with U.S. newspaper editors, World Bank chief Jim Wolfensohn, and Condi Rice, and he noted that he himself laid a wreath at ground zero.

U.S. officials’ and corporations’ disgraceful ties to this despot are longstanding. Unlike former U.K. ambassador to Tashkent Craig Murray, who spoke out against the Karimov regime’s torture and suppression, our diplomats have done little but kiss Karimov’s butt. They have a lot of explaining to do in light of new confirmation that last month’s bloodbath in Andijan, in the restive Fergana Valley of Central Asia, was indeed a massacre of protesters—men, women, and children—by Karimov’s government.

An investigation by Human Rights Watch, released this week, has found that, contrary to what Karimov has said, the May 13 protest, which began when prisoners’ relatives and friends stormed a prison and freed hundreds, was not a rebellion by Islamic “extremists” but by businessmen and entrepreneurs and that government troops slaughtered at least hundreds of Uzbek protesters among a crowd of thousands. From HRW’s full report, “Bullets Were Falling Like Rain”:

    Islam was barely mentioned in the speeches in Bobur Square, other than in the form of complaints against the imprisonment of people on charges of “Islamic extremism.” Interviews with numerous people present at the demonstrations consistently revealed that the protesters spoke about economic conditions in Andijan, government repression, and unfair trials—and not the creation of an Islamic state. People were shouting “Ozodliq!” (“Freedom!”), not “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is Great!”).

The Andijan massacre has been likened to Tiananmen Square in ’89. Naturally, we’re not on the side of the protesters in Uzbekistan. Karimov’s regime has had close ties to Enron, Halliburton, ABB (Rumsfeld’s old company), and a host of other corporations, including Newmont Mining, a huge gold producer. The resources-rich country, packed with 25 million Muslims, is still ruled Soviet-style by former Commie leader Karimov. That won’t last long.

And once again we’re on the wrong side. It’s not only lefties who say that. Just today, the Council on Foreign Relations released a bi-partisan report, In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How. Yes, it focuses on Arabs, not Uzbeks, but Islam is of course a prime topic, and the report bluntly says of the Middle East’s view of the U.S.:

    Many in the region simply cannot understand why a country whose democratic institutions they so much admire provides political, economic and military aid to absolute monarchs and military dictators.

This holds true in Central Asia, as well, which not only is overwhelmingly Muslim but also is, practically without exception, ruled by tinpot despots like Karimov and Dick Cheney‘s pal in Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Also on the side of despots, apparently, are the leaders of New York’s 40,000 Bukharan Jews, many of whom live in central Queens. As Walter Ruby wrote late last month in the Daily News:

    This community, which left Uzbekistan for New York en masse during the early 1990s, has maintained strong commercial and personal ties with the old country.

    For the most part, its members appear to be standing by Karimov for now, despite widespread media reports that his army responded to a uprising and prison break in the Uzbek city of Andijan by firing on protesters and killing 500 or more people, including innocent civilians.

In a sense, their support of Karimov is understandable. He’s a secular leader and hasn’t cracked down on Jews because they pose no threat to his control, as the huge numbers of Muslims do. That’s the analysis of Forum 18, an Oslo-based Christian human-rights group whose reports appear to be thorough and even-handed. Here’s how Forum 18’s Igor Rotar, surveying religious freedom in Uzbekistan back in July 2003, described the situation:

    Uzbekistan’s constitution upholds freedom of religion and the separation of religion and state, yet in practice the government exerts harsh control over the life of virtually all religious communities, with Muslims under the tightest control. At the same time the government also tries to restrict the spread of Protestant, Jehovah’s Witness, Hare Krishna, and other religions regarded as non-traditional in the country. The Russian Orthodox and Jews experience the least pressure.

No doubt that’s why New York’s Bukharan Jews like Karimov—or at least fear him less. As Ruby wrote in a May 27 story for The Jewish Week:

    The United States, several prominent Bukharan leaders said, should stand by Karimov in this crisis for fear that Islamists might take over the country and persecute the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Jews remaining there. But these leaders contend that Karimov must change course and allow more democracy and economic liberalization.

However, the recent statements of support emanating from Queens are far removed from reality. As Ruby wrote:

    Boris Pincus, founder and president of the American Association of Central Asian and Caucasian Countries, who days before the eruption of the deadly riot in Andijan met with a State Department official to urge continued strong U.S. support for Karimov, stands by that position. …

    Asked if he thought it was unconscionable to support a leader whose troops apparently massacred hundreds of civilians, Pincus replied, “I have serious doubts about the accuracy of the Western media reports. When I spoke by phone last week to the leader of the small Jewish community in Andijan, he told me that most of those killed were shot by the Islamic extremists who started the uprising, not the army.’

The new report by Human Rights Watch, which was pieced together by heavy reporting, puts the lie to that.

In any case, we won’t be serenading Karimov through New York City again any time soon. He’ll be pretty busy for awhile, probably until his regime falls.