What Role Will Uzbekistan Play?

America Ferrera and Ashley Jensen in a scene from ABC's "Ugly Betty." Jensen stars as Christina McKinney, the seamstress for the fictional Mode magazine and Betty's one true ally in the office.
Uzbekistan, the former Soviet state that has a southern border with Afghanistan, has suddenly found itself at the center of an enormous world crisis. What role will this small Central Asian country play?
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Uzbekistan has adopted a twin-track policy on possible U.S. retaliation against Afghanistan. In the international arena, Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s government has pronounced its support for possible U.S. military action against the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement that controls about 90 percent of Afghan territory. Meanwhile, the government is keeping a tight lid on the domestic media as part of an overall clampdown on civil liberties.

The United States has begun deploying warplanes to a variety of Central Asian locations, including Uzbekistan, according to recent reports. Other sources in Washington tell EurasiaNet that American warplanes are destined not only for Uzbekistan, but also for Tajikistan.

But Karimov has not explicitly acknowledged that Uzbekistan is making it facilities available to the US military. Indeed, at a September 19 news conference, Karimov stressed he was open to discussing concrete forms of cooperation, while denying that any military cooperation arrangement had been reached. Authorities in Tashkent on September 20 denied that U.S. planes were located on Uzbek territory, the Interfax News Agency reported.

Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous country with over 25 million inhabitants. Many observers view the country, which was an important staging area during the Soviet army’s occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-89, as having the region’s most developed military infrastructure. As such, Uzbekistan could play a prominent role in supporting US strikes against Afghanistan.

Uzbek statements designed for the domestic audience, circulated by state-run television and newspapers, have used the September 11 tragedy to vindicate government policies imposing strict limits on freedom of speech. In addition, thousands of Uzbeks have been jailed in connection with a campaign against forms of Islamic expression not explicitly sanctioned by the state.

The crackdown followed bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in February 1999. The blasts, blamed on Islamic radicals, were portrayed as an assassination attempt against Karimov.

Since 1999, Uzbek authorities have responded to a guerrilla campaign waged by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) by stepping up repression. Karimov has cast the insurgents as Islamic terrorists. The IMU reportedly has training and logistics bases in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, and the insurents’ military leader, Juma Namangani, has ties to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

The Uzbek media has trumpeted statements made by Karimov in recent years, including one made at the 2000 United Nations Millennium summit, warning about the dangers of terrorism, and calling for a multinational effort to reduce the security threat posed by terrorists. Local media claim Uzbekistan has been leading a fight against terrorism for years that has gone unheeded, implying that had the West been more responsive to Uzbekistan’s warnings and security needs, the September 11 attacks might possibly not have occurred.

Uzbek authorities remain concerned about domestic stability. Despite the fact that the Uzbek government lauds the US move against Afghanistan, local media has provided spotty coverage, encouraging the spread of rumors among the population. While the world watched the September 11 attacks in disbelief, Uzbekistan’s state television did not interrupt coverage of the President’s Cup Tennis tournament. To residents of Tashkent, the lack of news from local sources is no surprise, even considering that Uzbekistan may be one of the strategic sites from which the US may launch retaliatory military actions and there is much interest in how this may affect their lives.

"If we didn't have access to Internet or Russian TV, we would be the some of last ones in the world to know," said one Tashkent resident. In the capital, Tashkent, Russian TV channels are accessible to most households. In the regions outside the capital, only those able to afford satellite receivers can receive Russian television. The internet is accessible, however to the average citizen it is unaffordable. According to some estimates, one percent of Uzbekistan’s population of 25 million utilizes the world wide web.

Many Uzbeks have received news about the government view on the terrorist crisis only via second-hand sources. For example, the Washington Post on September 16 published Uzbek Foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov’s comments that Uzbekistan was open to cooperation with US military activity, particularly allowing the US to use Uzbekistan's airspace in an attack on Afghanistan. On the following day, the foreign minister’s comments were quoted on a news brief on a local pop music radio station in Tashkent, Ozbegim Taronasi, and from then on spread throughout the city.

Local journalists have attempted to seek comment from Uzbek authorities. One journalist from a private broadcasting outlet said he was told by a Foreign Ministry official that a statement would not be made available to local media. When asked why comments were given to the Washington Post, the official sid that since the September 11 terrorist actions happened in the United States, it was necessary to explain Uzbekistan’s position to international media outlets.

In general, journalists with private media outlets have difficulty getting information from government offices; they are usually required to have accreditation, which the government restricts, effectively barring independent journalists or broadcasters from information from government sources.

The slow and uncoordinated pace of information dissemination sometimes results in confusion. At a press conference on September 19 following negotiations with Vladimir Rushailo, secretary of the Russian Security Council, Karimov was forced to clarify the comments published by the Washington Post. The President explained that Uzbekistan had never "given any obligations or held talks with the US on using its air space and military bases to attack Afghanistan." Yet, he stressed that Uzbekistan was open for consultation and discussion about anti-terrorism measures.

The press conference with President Karimov was aired on the Uzbek state television late in the evening of September 19, even though by the end of that day, Karimov reportedly had spoken via phone with US President George Bush and had agreed to specific U.S. requests to aid the widely expected blitz on Afghanistan.

EurasiaNet is a Web site affiliated with the Open Society Institute, which is funded by George Soros. It provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Afghanistan, Russia and Turkey. The site presents a variety of perspectives on contemporary developments, using a network of correspondents based both in the West and in the region.

Material Courtesy Of Eurasianet