Absolutism in Uzbekistan Germany's Favorite Despot

While many Westerners have been forced out of Uzbekistan, the German army continues to operate a base in the border city of Termez. Oppenents of President Karimov's despotic regime are now accusing the Germans of looking the other way.

By


President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan.
AP

President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan.

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.

The base in Uzbekistan provides the Germans with a strategic base on the Afghanistan border.
DER SPIEGEL

The base in Uzbekistan provides the Germans with a strategic base on the Afghanistan border.

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.

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