Whither Uzbekistan After Karimov?

In what appears to be a coordinated assault by Uzbekistan’s opposition figures and expatriate communities, there has been a rash of stories on the topic of Uzbekistan in the aftermath of Islam Karimov and his ruling clan. That neither Karimov nor his clan appear in any hurry to depart or any likelihood of being forced to do so in the foreseeable future appears not to have dented the participants’ hopes nor enthusiasm.

One unfortunate aspect to this outburst of anti-Karimov chatter is the near-everpresence of the execrable Scott Horton of Harper’s, the sort of fellow whose opposition to frostbite might make a reasonable person long for a death in sub-zero temperatures. Determined to live up to his reputation — earned over a decade of being wrong or offensively right about almost every major policy issue — Horton’s written foray is a case study in being aggressively wrong even where making a morally decent case.

It says something peculiar about the man that he can carry this into what was clearly an extremely important gathering on this topic. Warning: The videos on that page are not for people with any tendency to punch offensive people in the face.

Nevertheless, Karimov’s brutal reign is such a blight on human society that it is nevertheless worth exploring that future. Most writers focus on the effects of Karimov’s entirely hypothetical departure on American and European foreign policy — will the Uzbeks understand that we worked with him out of bitter necessity or will our relations be poisoned forever, and so on — but this misses the point.

Uzbekistan is a pariah state because of Karimov’s unceasing brutality, his totalitarian apparatus, his active attacks on religious groups and opposition parties, his Potemkin elections … really, all of the old Soviet features, an unsurprising panoply from a man who rose to power in the Soviet Union in its dying days. But beyond Uzbekistan’s terrible foreign reputation is the internal rot in the country.

The Soviets unstintingly and unabashedly believed that civil society as an intermediating force between the government and its people was not merely a bad idea but an affirmative threat to the world-historic project (and brutal regime) they espoused. In some former Soviet states — the Baltics, Ukraine, Azerbaijan — civil society held on, revived quickly, or has been a vital project of the government since independence.

In Uzbekistan, Karimov has declared war on civil society. Opposition parties, media, literature, religious groups, sporting clubs — despite a brief period of post-independence openness, Karimov has treated these things as direct threats to his rule and ruthlessly suppressed them. Without minimizing the Andijan Massacre, Karimov’s greatest crime has been his vicious destruction of the small beginnings Uzbeks have made to reclaim their lives and their private spaces.

That is Karimov’s real legacy, and poses the greatest danger in the wake of his entirely-unlikely departure. He has built the state around him and his clan, and all of the institutions of power revolve around him. Literature that does not glorify the regime is censored. Religious groups face imprisonment. These are the things that would provide the foundation for a functioning democracy, or at least functioning civil state; and they lie in ruins.

The aftermath of Karimov will be one of a country frozen for decades in the wake of the Soviet breakup, trying to create a government and a civil society at the same time. It will be a time of disaster, in which foreign policy considerations are secondary. At best, Karimov’s departure will leave chaos in his wake, at worst, a new dictatorship.

Beside this, what the Uzbeks think of the West seems awfully self-centered.

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