Human Rights in Central Asia

Originally published at World Politics Review, December 22, 2008.

To discuss human rights in Central Asia without resorting to stereotype is a difficult prospect. The area’s strategic value is unquestioned. Energy rich, at the nexus of Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan, quite literally the heartland of the continent, Central Asia remains vitally important to every great power on the planet. That very importance has led some to turn the region, and more specifically its human rights record, into vehicles for self-promotion – distorting the picture of what things are really like in the process. While it would be impossible for any Western country to approach Central Asia without taking heed of its many human rights issues, the topic is not a monolithic one across the region.

Most discussions of human rights in the region begin with Uzbekistan, for good reason. It is truly one of the worst human rights offenders on the planet. Torture is systemic, there is widespread harassment and persecution of minority groups, and corruption is rampant. Freedom House ranks the country near to Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe – better than North Korea, for example, or Somalia, but not by that much.

Tom Bissell vividly described pre-War on Terror Uzbekistan in his 2003 memoir, “Chasing the Sea.” Over six weeks, he explored a country whose oppressive police force is driven by bribery, and whose petty and venal dictator uses Islamic terrorism to justify torture, even while actual Islamic terrorists gather just outside the border. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Uzbeki people barely manage to scrape by, sinking further and further into abject poverty as forced labor gangs bleed fertile cotton fields into desert. A friend of mine recently finished a weeks-long research trip to Tashkent and described it in much the same way: corrupt regular police and an oppressive secret police force trained in the finest traditions of the KGB, kept sometimes but not always on a leash.

So if Uzbekistan is no North Korea, it doesn’t miss by much. The police and security services are so aggressive they have crossed national borders to assassinate prominent dissident figures, much like the KGB once killed Soviet dissidents abroad. In October 2007, for example, assailants shot and killed Alisher Saipov, an ethnic Uzbek journalist who covered torture in Uzbekistan for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, outside his office in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

The KGB comparison, however, can be misleading, because the Uzbek police do not operate within a system, but rather in an institutional vacuum. There is no accountability and no real structure or policy guiding their activity, save their fealty to a few strong personalities and general greed. Politics in all of Central Asia is heavily personality driven, but in Uzbekistan it is expressed in a particularly oppressive way – more so even than the personality cult-driven Turkmenistan, because there is no one monolithic personality on which to cling. (Islam Karimov, the county’s dictator, wields enormous power, but no one is really sure how that gets expressed in terms of policy.)

Instead, Uzbek politics seems to resemble a violently competing oligarchy, with each strongman exerting influence in his own region of the country, in part through control of the regular police. It much more resembles a Russian-style mafia state than a coherent dictatorship, as the West likes to imagine. The SNB – the secret police that strikes fear into the hearts of everyone, citizen or expat – operate outside even this framework, and often behaves more like a shadow government than a law enforcement body.

In this environment, torture is systemic – that is, widespread and fairly common. Torture’s prevalence is partly driven by the government’s extreme opacity. High-level officials change positions with no outside warning or context on a regular basis, which, combined with a lack of institutionalized policies, creates a series of interlocking and competing interests that are often expressed in the form of oppression. The courts, for example, face a tug-of-war between expediting cases and achieving justice – and justice almost always loses. (The police, to put it gently, are very good at “extracting” confessions.) It is, however, unclear whether this sort of torture is systematic, in the sense of being ordered from the top down and imposed nation-wide. It is an important distinction. While there is certainly torture of those accused of Islamist violence (especially in Tashkent, the capital), there is little evidence that torture is a mandated state policy.

That raises a very uncomfortable question for those in the West, namely whether Europe’s and America’s constant scolding over human rights make the situation better, or worse. In this, the West can be said to have failed. The normal diplomatic approach of lecturing a high-level bureaucrat or functionary in Tashkent on the “problem” of justice fails to address the institutional and local reasons behind the use of torture.

Meanwhile, the Uzbek government seems to measure “justice” in terms of the number of people convicted. Thus, the token measures these officials put into place in response to Western pressure can have the counterintuitive effect of institutionalizing torture, as decrees calling for “more justice” are met by more torture. The question was proven somewhat moot when Uzbekistan unceremoniously revoked American rights to the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in southern Uzbekistan in 2005, after American officials complained loudly of the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the city of Andijon. Despite an international uproar, Uzbekistan’s behavior has remained relatively unchanged—even during the current rapprochement, which involves limited U.S. use of the Termez border crossing to transport logistical support for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Publicly, no U.S. official has admitted anything changed in the relationship.

When it comes to human rights and Central Asia, Uzbekistan gets all the attention, whether due to demographics (Uzbekistan has the lion’s share of Central Asia’s population), happenstance (it shares its name with at least one Islamist terror group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), or history (its cities – Tashkent, Bokhara, Samarkand, and Khiva – have been famous since before the Silk Road). But Central Asia is much more than just Uzbekistan, and the rest of the region is no less worthy of concern.

Just west of Uzbekistan, for instance, lies Turkmenistan, a vast desert filled with pits of eternal fire, world-class deposits of natural gas, and quirky dictators who place such weird, petty and appalling constraints on everyday life that it is one of the few countries in the world that Freedom House ranks worse than Uzbekistan. Indeed, thanks to many years of domination by Sapurmurat Niyazov, popularly known as Turkmenbashi (roughly translated, “the father of all Turkmen”), Turkmenistan probably represents the worst human rights record in the region. His was a personality cult to make even Kim Il-Sung blush – in which months of the year were named after his mother, his own autobiography was compulsory reading in state education, and an enormous gold-plated statue of himself rotates to always face the sun.

But even discussions of Turkmenbashi tend to gloss over the actual condition of human rights in the country. Most seem to focus on the ostentatious expressions of Turkmenbashi’s personality cult, with perfunctory mention of the country’s vast gas deposits. Little is said of just how ludicrous and venal his rule was, and how his legacy continues to be felt, years after his death.

The Ruhnama, a collection of poems, essays, and aphorisms mostly penned by Turkmenbashi himself, is the main source of education for students from primary school through university. It has become so pervasive in official life that the driver’s test includes a section on the book, and expressing insufficient fealty to its teachings can be considered near treasonous. Turkmenbashi went so far as to ban opera, ballet, and the circus as alien to Turkmen culture. About a year before his death he added to the list lip-synching and pre-recorded music at public events, claiming both diluted and negatively influenced Turkmen culture. Taxis are reportedly bugged to ensure that wayward foreign travelers don’t elicit too much anti-Turkmen sentiment.

Lest the discussion of Turkmenistan revolve solely around a series of almost funny (if petty) restrictions on life, the Turkmen government has a terrifying familiarity with violence. Journalists for Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe routinely wind up dead in police custody, their bodies covered in contusions and lacerations. Citizens face arrest and beatings if caught with anything considered dangerous, whether a weapon, too much gasoline, or a book.

Despite much early hope, things have not greatly improved under Turkmenbashi’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. In December 2007, Berdimuhamedov issued a blanket ban on satellite dishes. While he claims it was meant to beautify the capital, Ashgabat, the decree carries with it the side benefit of cutting off access to outside sources of news. (Internet access is practically non-existent). Before the Human Rights Dialogue with the European Union in June of this year, he oversaw a massive crackdown on human rights activists and independent journalists, the latest in a long line of incidents putting the lie to his initial promise to reverse the worst of Turkmenbashi’s excesses. Echoing Brezhnev’s horrific treatment of dissidence as a mental disorder, RFE/RL journalist Sazak Durdymuradov continues to be held in a mental hospital, even as word has leaked out of his torture.

There have been some curious aspects to Berdimuhamedov’s rule, as well. On Sept. 12, 2008, reports began filtering out from a northern suburb of Ashgabat about a deadly shootout with police. The news raised many eyebrows amongst analysts of the region, since access to guns is tightly restricted within Turkmenistan. Soon, the story had evolved into a heroic battle between the Turkmen government and Islamist radicals planning an attack of some kind. Within a few days, the Islamist angle had been discounted – blamed on the overactive imagination of a dissident website hosted abroad – and a new angle, that of heroin smugglers, was put forward.

In reality, no one really knows what happened – and this is the problem with trying to research human rights in Turkmenistan. The Turkmen government tends to place blame for all its problems on whatever happens to be the U.S.’s biggest concern at the time – a tendency it shares with every other government in the area, all of which try to play on America’s desire to see Islamist puppet masters (or Afghan opium lords, as the case may be) behind every separatist movement. While it is not impossible for there to have been a shootout with drug smugglers, there are other possible explanations (there was a recent crime wave, for instance, after the government rationed access to gasoline), none of which could ever be investigated fully. In effect, the highly restrictive nature of Turkmenistan’s press and political environment reduces most of the international community to relying on rumors, speculation, and educated guesses – providing just enough of a glimpse to know things are horrible there, but not enough to tell just how horrible they really are.

Central Asia is not an unbroken stretch of misery, however. To the north of Turkmenistan is another energy-rich country, Kazakhstan. While most people only know the country as the birthplace of Borat (including, unfortunately, most major newspapers and wire services), the human rights picture there is fairly complex. Kazakhstan, perhaps more than any other country in the region, exemplifies the paradox of Central Asia: nearly boundless promise tempered by curious policy choices and standing human rights issues.

In that sense, Kazakhstan is perhaps the most representative example of Central Asia itself. Nevertheless, a lot of the analysis of the human indicators in the country not only views it as static, but solely in terms of its urban/rural split. The cities, especially the biggest one, are relatively well off, while the countryside toils along in borderline-19th-century conditions. But while growth has been concentrated in the cities (particularly Almaty, the former capital, and Astana, the current capital), there has also been some development of the countryside as well. A small number of people are certainly getting richer than everyone else. But the fact that Kazakhstan has a larger per-capita GDP than the other four ’Stans combined – despite starting out at similar levels when the USSR collapsed – says something about their economic policies: to a large degree, they have worked.

Yet not all is sunshine. Kazakhstan’s human rights record was recently highlighted when it bid for, and then won, the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – despite the opposition of future U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and several human rights groups. While Kazakhstan certainly has one of the better rights record in the region, that is admittedly not much of a standard. Since 2001, no less than seven journalists have been murdered – most Russian-style, in which they mysteriously wind up underneath a truck or are found in their cars shot to death. Predictably, not a single case has been solved.

Anecdotal evidence of corruption and lawlessness is easy to gather in the country, stories that often barely rise above the level of common thuggery and a sort of standard-issue judicial corruption. Nevertheless, what adds to the paradoxical picture of the country is that every horror story seems balanced by some sort of meaningful improvement, or vice versa. The government announces its intention to eliminate the so-called “seven percent rule” that limits parliamentary participation of opposition groups, for instance, yet elections have been postponed until 2012. The government declares its firm support for ODHIR, the elections-monitoring body of the OSCE, even while it endorses the Russian election that banned the group from participating. Journalists’ violent deaths go uninvestigated and unprosecuted, at the same time that authorities begin to loosen up censorship and libel laws, paving the way – at least on paper – for a marginally more liberalized media environment.

The contradictions make it difficult to make a conclusive case about such a country. Regional experts are neatly split on whether or not the human rights situation in Kazakhstan will improve or stagnate under Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship, and no one can really say what direction the country will take in 2010.

Looking at human rights issues from a national perspective, however, misses a crucial point, because in many ways, human rights is a regional issue. Most countries in the region share a habit of blaming their own rights abuses on the fight against Islamism in an attempt to curry favor and blunt criticism from the West. Thanks to Joseph Stalin, national boundaries are a jumbled mess in the Ferhgana Valley, the most densely populated and, in a sense, the most Islamic of all the areas in Central Asia. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all have territory in the Ferghana, and cross-border traffic has, to a limited extent, fueled some resentment and Islamization. Uzbeks live in Kyrgyzstan, Tajiks live in Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyz live in Tajikistan – all within a few dozen miles of each other.

During the late 1990s, the border confusion allowed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to avoid capture for some time, even as they antagonized the Uzbek government and famously abducted four American rock climbers in Kyrgyzstan in 2000. And the infamous 2005 massacre at Andijon – Uzbekistan’s fourth-largest city, located near the border with Kyrgyzstan and not far the Uzbek-majority town of Osh, Kyrgyzstan – highlighted just how serious the border problems can be. In the days after the Uzbek military opened fire on protesters, thousands fled toward Kyrgyzstan, leading the Uzbek government to seal off the border to stave off the exodus. For its part, the Kyrgyz government turned away thousands more, even as fleeing civilians dodged Uzbek machine gun fire along the border.

The Uzbek government claimed both actions – slaughtering people at Andijon, and closing the border with Osh – were appropriate responses to the rise of Islamist terror groups in their midst. They claimed the Andijon Incident was fueled by the actions of a radical group called Akromiya – even though a subsequent investigation by regional analyst Sarah Kendzior found little evidence to support the existence of such a group. Similarly, the Uzbek government has justified repeated harsh crackdowns in Tashkent by claiming it is rounding up IMU and other militants.

There is, unfortunately, little evidence that the IMU remains much of an organization in Central Asia proper. By most accounts, its founder, Juma Namangani, fled to Afghanistan sometime in late 1999 and died during the initial U.S. invasion two years later. His successor, Tohir Yuldashev, is by all accounts cooling his heels in Waziristan, where (according to rumors, at least) his group has the occasional violent spat with local Taliban militant groups.

Regardless, Uzbekistan is not the only country to justify harsh measures by citing IMU militants. Kyrgyzstan, in 2006, claimed to have killed several IMU militants near Osh. The group of allegedly dead militants included a highly popular Imam with few provable ties to extremism, which led to many residents expressing frustration at the government’s apparent shadow-boxing. Also in a 2006 report, the International Crisis Group revealed that the Uzbek government has cracked down merely on sympathizers and not actual militants – indicating yet again that the crackdowns are really about oppression and not terrorism:

For years, the Karimov regime has justified Uzbekistan’s repressive policies as a necessary element of its own war on terror, an argument which has found support in the West and in Moscow. Karimov’s allies and apologists portray him as the country’s sole bulwark against extremism and his government as the only alternative to a Taliban-style extremist regime in the Ferghana Valley. Such claims seem greatly exaggerated today, but if the regime continues to crush internal dissent, eviscerate civil society, silence the independent media and smother religious institutions, the danger that they could become a self-fulfilling prophecy will grow.

A more worrying development is the elevation of Hizb-ut Tahrir – a pan-Islamist movement formed in Haifa in 1953 – as a violent extremist movement. It is undoubtedly fundamentalist and Islamist in outlook, yet there is no evidence that links HuT to any sort of violent activity. The group itself explicitly disavows any violent activity, preferring to establish an Islamic state via protests and elections. That hasn’t stopped the three Ferghana countries from raising alarm over HuT membership, and justifying violent crackdowns by a pressing need to limit HuT activity.

Of course, all of these regional concerns spill over into Afghanistan. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the IMU had extensive ties to the Taliban and used Afghanistan as a base from which to stage attacks into the Ferghana Valley and elsewhere. The IMU now foments militancy in the uncontrolled Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of northwestern Pakistan, and in 2007 was the driver of a series of violent clashes across Waziristan that had little to do with the Pakistani government. Post-Taliban Afghanistan faces its own serious human rights issues, too, from the recent commutation of the death penalty for a 24-year old journalism student to the repeated public cries for more executions, to the growing problems of women having their uncovered faces doused with acid or their clothes lit on fire.

The challenge facing policymakers and President-elect Barack Obama as they move forward is not only how best to balance the need for security with the demand for human rights, but to determine whether, and how, we can achieve both. Is it an acceptable trade-off to lose basing rights by complaining too loudly about certain abuses? Can ceding the OSCE chair to Kazakhstan bring about positive change in the country, or is that a reward for a corrupt government run by the whims of an oligarchy? Can the West afford a setback in human rights issues in exchange for positive movement elsewhere, like the opening of a new land route into Afghanistan? It isn’t a simple picture of good versus evil, nor is it entirely shades of gray. There are real choices to be made, and ultimately real trade-offs.