In the Surchon discotheque, a dark basement club on the main street of Termez, the dance floor glitters in the disco lights, but it's almost empty. Business isn't good. A few bronze-skinned Uzbek women sit at two of the tables. Seven young men, their pale skin an obvious indication that they aren't locals, sit at a third table. The boys are German soldiers from faraway Europe. They're waiting for their next round of beers and hoping for more attention from the local beauties.
It's almost 9 p.m. on a Sunday night in Termez, but the city still seems encased in the day's heat, even down by the Amu Darya River, which forms the border with Afghanistan and its endless yellow steppes. The sun has been baking this city since Buddhists settled here more than 2,000 years ago. They were followed by the Arabs, the Mongols and their limping leader, Tamerlane, and then the colonizing forces of the Russian czar. The Soviets sent 100,000 troops to the city during their war in Afghanistan, and now it's the German army's turn.
The Germans have had a squadron stationed in Termez since February 2002. The base, which has 300 military staff, six transport aircraft and seven helicopters, serves as a hub for supplying Germany's contingent to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Each soldier who takes off from the Cologne/Bonn military airport for a tour in Afghanistan has to change planes in Termez -- from an olive-green Airbus to a C-160 Transall cargo aircraft. The German military has already shuttled 125,000 troops and more than 10,000 tones of freight through its base in this Uzbek oasis.
The city's 140,000 inhabitants may have grown accustomed to the Germans, but the rest of the country is officially unaware of their presence and the Uzbek media are barred from reporting on the Germans. Indeed, judging by the current policies of the regime in Tashkent, they shouldn't even be there anymore.
President Islam Abduganievich Karimov, the 68-year-old absolute ruler over 27 million Uzbeks, is in the process of sweeping out his country with an iron broom. The former Communist Party leader wants to remove "foreign rabble-rousers" from this country between the Caspian Sea and the Tien Shan Mountains, a country in which one third of the population is unemployed and many of the employed earn less than a dollar a day. When he says that he plans to rid Uzbekistan of "destructive forces who are attempting to overthrow our constitutional order," Karimov is also referring to the West.
The Americans were asked to pack up and leave last fall. For four years, they leased a large air base at Khanabad, 270 kilometers (168 miles) northwest of Termez. Now Washington, like most NATO states, is even prohibited from using Uzbek air space.
Karimov's purge also affected other unpopular representatives of the West, including the Soros Foundation in Tashkent, the American Bar Association, Radio Liberty and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, journalist organization Internews and Freedom House, a human rights group. Internet cafes in Samarkand, Tashkent and Nukus, where the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had provided free Internet access to Uzbek journalists, were forced to close their doors and journalists were barred from leaving the country.
Andijan, an Uzbek city, is the unspoken reason behind the purges. In May 2005, disgruntled businesspeople, impoverished peasants and Islamic activists in Andijan rioted against the government. While crushing the protests, Karimov's troops killed several hundred civilians.
The world was outraged. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador in Tashkent, openly called it the "worst massacre since demonstrators were mowed down on Beijing's Tiananmen Square." The US State Department froze its $21 million in annual aid and the European Union imposed a weapons embargo and denied entry to leading Uzbek politicians.
Karimov claimed that the protestors were planning to establish a "caliphate" in the country's Fergana Valley, and that the West was funding the outrageous plan. Until recently America's closest friend among the former Soviet Central Asian states, he abruptly shifted Uzbekistan's foreign policy rudder and contritely steered the country back under Russia's wing.
The German government was alone among Western powers in keeping its opinions in check. Indeed, just six months after the incident the Germans even issued a visa to Sakir Almatov, the interior minister responsible for the Andijan massacre, so that he could undergo cancer treatment in Hannover. Unlike other European Union states, Germany accepted only a few refugees from Andijan. In April former Ambassador Murray told a investigatory commission of the European Parliament that Germany's intelligence agencies also cooperated with Tashkent and benefited from the information extracted from prisoners through torture.
The Uzbeks appreciate the Germans' leniency and, of course, their money. By the end of this year, Berlin will have spent more than €17 million in Termez. But public discussion of the air base on the country's southern border is taboo, because it would force Tashkent to justify its presence.
Termez may well be an important hub for Germany's Afghanistan mission. But the longer the base remains there, the more questions it raises. Can one fight despotism in a country -- Afghanistan -- while turning a blind eye to despotism in neighboring Uzbekistan, even to the persecution of Uzbek military officials who until recently served as liaisons to NATO and the German military?
Moreover, how many million Euros should Germany invest in a corrupt country, knowing full well that the population hardly ever benefits from the money? And is it acceptable that the commander of the German air force squadron is even barring German journalists from entering the base -- in response to "discreet pressure from the Uzbeks," as military officials in Potsdam in charge of the Uzbekistan mission coyly explain? Is it acceptable that in banning the journalists, the German military is exempting a mission from public scrutiny that is subject to parliamentary supervision at home?
Berlin's dialogue with the regime in Tashkent is "as immoral as its dialogue once was with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Serbian butcher Slobodan Milosevic or Iraqi criminal Saddam Hussein," says Uzbek journalist Galima Bukharbayeva, who fled to the West after barely escaping Andijan with her life.
With equal condemnation, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung writes that Germany "bought itself a special status in Uzbekistan." The Free Democratic Party, one of the opposition parties in the Germany parliament, warns against trading "human rights for transport benefits." And the parliamentary Left Party submitted 29 requests for information over whether the expansion of the Termez airport doesn't send the "wrong signal" to the Karimov government.
The German government sent its human rights official Günter Nooke to Tashkent in June. After Nooke's visit, the parliament ruled that human rights principals were "not impaired," and that the "human rights organizations operating in Uzbekistan" had even "expressly welcomed" the Germans' presence.
Part II: Human Rights Farce
Nadira Khidoyatova can only laugh bitterly when she hears this. "There are no human rights organizations here anymore. Since Andijan and the pullout of the Americans, we've now been left alone with the regime." Khidoyatova is a striking, 39-year-old historian and businesswoman. Perfectly made-up, her long black hair pulled back, she listens to a thunderstorm raging outside over downtown Tashkent. It's almost 10 p.m. and she is not permitted to leave her apartment until the next morning. Since being released from prison in May, Khidoyatova must now observe rigorous police restrictions.
In a brief farce of a trial at the beginning of this year, the regime sentenced Khidoyatova to ten years in prison, which was later converted to seven years' probation. The change of heart may have something to do with the fact that she has a four-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter and famous grandparents. Khidoyatova comes from one of the most respected Uzbek acting families, which has included the country's first ambassador to the United States.
The Khidoyatovs operate cotton and natural gas businesses and have been accused of "tax evasion." But the main allegation against Khidoyatova was of "organizing a criminal group." Nadira Khidoyatova is the coordinator of the Uzbeki "Sunshine Coalition," a group of intellectuals and businesspeople that formed in the spring of 2005 in the hope of being able to convince Karimov to endorse economic reforms. Uzbekistan is a country that also lacks economic freedoms. Farmers are still required to adhere to a medieval system in which they must deliver their cotton harvests to the government, the minimum wage is only €7 per month and the national budget is a state secret. When the president closed the borders to neighboring countries, he also plunged countless small merchants into poverty.
After Khidoyatova's group publicly condemned the Andijan massacre, the government retaliated by raiding the companies owned by Sunshine Coalition members. The group's leader, Sandjar Umarov, who had also supplied the Americans with aviation fuel on their base at Khanabad, was sentenced to almost 11 years in a prison camp.
Khidoyatova says that what she saw in the overcrowded prison where she was held "was terrible," and adds that depression blankets the country and that Karimov wouldn't remain in office for a minute if there were truly free elections. She also has trouble understanding how Germany can continue its good relations with the regime under such circumstances. "The West must be principled when it comes to Karimov," she says.
Atanasar Arifov also wants Berlin to "finally define its position toward this dictator." Arifov, a 68-year-old former physics lecturer, is both the General Secretary and all that remains of "Erk," once the country's most influential opposition party. He has spent his share of time in basement interrogation rooms at the interior ministry and in the Karimov regime's prison camps. Party leader Salikh, declared a "terrorist" and sentenced to more than 15 years in prison, made it into exile in Turkey. Arifov seems tired and resigned. Until recently, Erk maintained an office at Freedom House in Tashkent. But since the Americans left, the party's scope of activity has been reduced to Arifov's grapevine-covered house in the old quarter of Tashkent.
Khidoyatova, Arifov, Salikh -- former journalist Surat Ikramov has dealt with all three. Ikramov, now a human rights activist -- one of the few left in the country -- follows the court cases Uzbekistan's ruler has staged against his real and imagined adversaries.
Thick, green binders fill the shelves in Ikramov's office in a nondescript building on the city's outskirts. They contain the names of all prisoners sentenced in Uzbekistan. Twelve thousand cases are documented for the period between 1997 and 2003 alone, and 7,000 people are currently in prison on charges of being Islamists.
Last May, Ikramov photographed the women and children shot by the police in Andijan. He is currently defending a popular Uzbek poet who called Karimov a "bloodsucker" in one of his poems. "Those who don't want to see Uzbekistan turn into another North Korea," says Ikramov, "should act now. I'm also referring to the Germans."
Of course, neither the German government nor the country's military are as naïve as they seem. German military officials are fully aware of what has happened to their former Uzbeki contacts who were too liberal-minded for Karimov's taste.
- Kadyr Gulyamov, the former defense minister and a man Western partners valued as intelligent and a person of integrity was replaced last November, placed under house arrest and sentenced to five years' probation in mid-July for "revealing classified information to a foreign state." A letter of appreciation from US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld apparently led to Gulyamov's downfall. He had also been on good terms with his German counterpart, Peter Struck.
- Erkin Mussayev, Tashkent's NATO liaison officer in Brussels for two years and later the government's liaison to Western military attachés in Tashkent, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of revealing classified information on the Uzbek and Russian armies to the Pentagon and undermining the "defense capabilities of the Commonwealth of Independent States."
- Tolkin Jumayev, the highly respected, multilingual liaison to the Germany military in Termez -- and holder of the German order of merit -- and later the Uzbeki military's chief of staff, was suddenly ousted by Karimov and disappeared. He was recently seen driving a taxi in Tashkent.
- Anwar Kanyeyev, a former liaison officer in Paris and later Mussayev's deputy at the defense ministry, has fled Uzbekistan and is now living in Russia.
It doesn't take a trip to Tashkent to get a sense of the mood of intimidation and persecution that has taken hold in Uzbekistan. In fact, it's even more palpable in smaller cities than in the capital and has settled on Termez, home of the German military's air base, like a fine layer of dust.
Uzbeks recommended as potential interviewees by opponents to the Tashkent regime quickly ask never to be contacted again, saying that their situations are already precarious enough as it is.
The people in Termez, the site of the country's only bridge to Afghanistan, make their living farming melons, working in the cotton fields and raising small numbers of livestock. A few make a living working for the Germans. The 25 Uzbekis who work on the base receive princely salaries by local standards. An interpreter earns more than €300 a month, and even a cleaning person brings home a third of that. The bread and water merchants in the bazaar and the "Flamingo" and "Surchon" discotheques frequented by the soldiers benefit from the German presence, as does the occasional Uzbeki girl lucky enough to be taken home to Europe by one of the German soldiers.
But in a city that lacks an elected mayor and certainly has no critical newspaper, the real money flows into different pockets altogether. The German military has already invested almost €10 million in the airport, with Karimov's associates often receiving their share of the cut. A company owned by former Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Junussov holds the contracts for construction projects at the base. Its invoices have allegedly been consistently inflated by about 15 percent.
The Germans have occupied virtually every hotel in the city, where the going rate for a room used to be €10. Now the city's frugal accommodations are making €150,000 a month from the German military, and some have even managed to convince the Germans to pay the money into Western accounts.
The German military is certainly involved in a few social projects -- to "strengthen ties with the local population," as a high-ranking officer puts it. They include an orphanage in Boisun, a trauma center in Termez and a center for the blind and the visually impaired. $1 million have been earmarked for a civilian healthcare project.
"The Germans help out with surgery, drugs and expensive equipment," says anesthesiologist Dr. Koromiddin Melikulov, who is clearly grateful for the assistance. But, he adds, that doesn't change the fact that there are "neither surgical tools nor sheets, and that doctors who are able to leave go to Russia or Saudi Arabia" -- because even doctors are paid no more than $60 a month by the state.
The government has already completely withdrawn its support for the center for the blind, which serves more than 1,000 people in Termez. "Tashkent isn't sending us a single kopek anymore," says branch manager Irgash Narpulatov. A large portrait of President Karimov hangs over empty shelves, from which books in Braille disappeared long ago when the printing press in Tashkent ran out of paper. The audio department hasn't received materials in more than 20 years ago, so that its current inventory includes records by a Soviet company called "Melodiya," which contain "songs from the war for the fatherland."
The Germans occasionally order a few mattresses from the workshop for the blind, which they then pass on to the children's hospital in Termez, which is also desperately in need. It's certainly a good deed. But it comes across as a search for an alibi.
This article has been corrected. Due to a translation error, the minimum wage first appeared as €7 per day in Uzbekistan. It is actually €7 per month. We apologize for the mistake.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan