Farewell K2: Uzbekistan’s American fallout

Nathan Hamm
7 August 2005

After 9/11, the United States and Uzbekistan found many reasons to pursue a strategic partnership. The United States needed airbases in central Asia for military operations in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan found the presence of United States troops on its soil, symbolised by the Karshi-Khanabad (“K2”) airbase near the border with Afghanistan, a powerful way to raise its international profile and further its goal of becoming the region's dominant political power.

Moreover, close ties with a distant power allowed the Uzbek government more freedom from the influence and power of its giant neighbours to north and east, Russia and China.

Also in openDemocracy on central Asia’s geopolitics and internal crises:

Malika Kenjaboeva, “Stalinism without state benefits” (November 2001)

Sabine Freizer, “Midnight in Tashkent” (April 2004)

Mary Dejevsky, “Kyrgyzstan questions” (March 2005)

Deniz Kandiyoti, “Andijan: prelude to a massacre” (May 2005)

Matt Black, “Uzbekistan’s gift to radical Islam” (May 2005)

David Coombes, “A different kind of revolution in Kyrgyzstan” (June 2005)

Anora Mahmudova, “Uzbekistan’s window of opportunity” (July 2005)

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To cement the partnership, the US and Uzbekistan signed an expansive agreement in March 2002, the "Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework Between the United States of America and the Republic of Uzbekistan". Under the terms of the declaration, Islam Karimov's government agreed to liberalise its economic policy, commit itself to improving Uzbekistan's human-rights record, and develop democratic institutions with US assistance. (The text of the declaration can be found on the US state department's website).

A friendship withers

For a time, Karimov appeared willing to implement a handful of long-requested reforms, but this mild promise chilled under the impact of regional and domestic events. The US-Uzbek relationship received its first blow in November-December 2003 when mass protests by Georgians against their post-Soviet president, Eduard Shevardnadze, developed into the fully-fledged “rose revolution” that catapulted reformer Mikhail Saakashvili to power. The media-savvy youth movement rallying under the banner of Kmara! (“Enough!”) played a key role in the Tbilisi transformation.

The reverberations were felt beyond the southern Caucasus. Autocrats across the former Soviet Union, and particularly Islam Karimov, were both fearful and uncomprehending of this new threat to their rule. Shevardnadze himself is reported to have met Karimov and warned him against the potential influence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), especially those advocating human-rights reforms and democratisation. Karimov and his central-Asian partners responded in the only way they knew: with more repression.

Thus, in spring 2004, Karimov's government began to display naked hostility to western NGOs and a growing suspicion of their sponsors in the west. These attitudes were shared by Russia and China, which used them as a foundation to develop a renewed relationship with Islam Karimov – one that is still evolving.

In June 2004, Karimov hosted a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), where the SCO’s members – China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – signed the “Tashkent Declaration”. This established an anti-terrorism centre in the Uzbek capital and declared a common commitment to a shared strategic vision that included ensuring political and social stability in member-states.

Three other significant differences of opinion between Uzbekistan and the United States were revealed during 2004 and early 2005. First, in summer 2004 the US state department decided not to release allocated aid to the Uzbek government because of its failure to implement significant political, economic, and human-rights reforms. Even though the Pentagon replaced the aid with equivalent military gifts of its own, this decision was politically embarrassing for Karimov and his regime.

Second, the United States welcomed the wave of pro-democracy protests following Ukraine’s fraudulent election in November 2004, which culminated in the “orange revolution” that – greatly aided by the Pora (“It’s time!”) youth movement – brought Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency.

Third, the United States moved quickly to support the uprising in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 that toppled Askar Akayev and unleashed the process that installed Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power in Bishkek. This convulsion in a neighbouring state caused Karimov even greater worry than had the Georgia and Ukraine events.

By this stage, Islam Karimov was both convinced of US plots to foment revolution across Eurasia and reinforced by lucrative partnerships with uncritical Chinese and Russian allies. The breach between Tashkent and Washington was widening, and the Uzbek military's brutal crackdown on the uprising in the Fergana valley city of Andijan in May proved the trigger for an even greater deterioration of their relationship.

Andijan and after

After the massacre of 13 May, the details of which are still disputed, President Karimov quickly issued an official version of events, declaring all those involved in the uprising as “terrorists” with ties to international Islamist and terrorist groups. He accused unnamed "great powers" of orchestrating the Andijan rising as part of a campaign to seize control of Uzbekistan and then conquer the entire region.

The fact that Karimov visited Beijing and Moscow in the wake of Andijan makes it safe to assume that the "great powers" under discussion included the United States. In a joint press conference with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Karimov accused Nato, the US congress and the European parliament of having devised resolutions calling for an independent investigation into the Andijan violence before it had even taken place.

Such rhetoric, widely echoed in the conformist Uzbek media, emphasised that the US-Uzbek relationship was approaching crisis. Yet at this stage, the Uzbek government seemed content to maintain its military relationship with the US and Nato while making conditions unbearable for western NGOs; some of its statements indicated that Tashkent might be content merely to renegotiate the terms of the Karshi-Khanabad base deal and the details of partnership with the west.

Also by Nathan Hamm in openDemocracy:

“Andijan and after: what future for Uzbekistan?” (May 2005)

But a more radical view was signalled at the SCO summit in July 2005, when a declaration was adopted, calling on the United States to provide a withdrawal date for its forces based in central Asia. Despite this, and after an emergency visit to the region by Donald Rumsfeld, the US was able to secure continued military cooperation from Kyrgyzstan (which hosts US troops) and Tajikistan. Then the US helped organise resettlement of Andijan refugees from Kyrgyzstan, where they had fled after the massacre, to Romania. Uzbekistan responded on 29 July by ordering the US to evacuate the Karshi-Khanabad base within 180 days, according to the terms of the October 2001 agreement.

Where now?

The fallout of Andijan has made Uzbekistan a pressing concern for western policymakers. Islam Karimov might reasonably have hoped that, as long as Uzbekistan played host to US troops, responses to the massacre would remain at the level of rhetoric. But as Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, commented on Radio Free Europe, Karimov probably fails to grasp what a dangerous position he has put his government in.

At the same time, the US and its European partners have severely limited options left to isolate or even influence Uzbekistan through government, military, and civil-society mechanisms. Their best strategy, though it may yield little chance of short-term benefit, would be fourfold: strengthen democratic gains in Kyrgyzstan, encourage and reward democratic reforms in Kazakhstan, make Uzbek citizens aware of their sympathy with their plight, and make Karimov a liability for Russia. The first three could be quite easily accomplished, and the fourth could be realised with significant benefit.

Although China has emerged as a stout defender of Karimov, Russia still undoubtedly enjoys enormous influence in Uzbekistan through a shared modern history and cultural and economic contacts. Russia, not China, has proven itself an important player during the political turmoil in the ex-Soviet empire. And during the popular protests that brought down Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan, Russia showed itself willing to withdraw support from its ally's losing cause. Indeed, in anticipation of political turmoil in Belarus, Russia is also noticeably distancing itself from “Europe’s last dictator”, Alexander Lukashenko.

Islam Karimov may regard his ordering of Karshi-Khanabad’s closure as a cunning strategic move. But the dismal economy he rules makes it an almost foregone conclusion that there will be future uprisings in Uzbekistan. In anticipation, the United States should do all it can to make the political cost of backing Karimov against his own people too high for Russia and if possible, China. At the same time, the US and its partners in the west need to prepare themselves to play an important role in building a liberal and stable post-Karimov Uzbekistan.

Further Links:


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