Situation Report: Uzbekistan

According to Plato, the primary motivation for a just man to seek political office is the fear of being ruled by an unjust man.  That fear is completely operable in Uzbekistan.  The problem is that the regime probably wouldn’t hesitate to throw the just man in jail long before he could actually mount a campaign.

There are some inspiring stories among the former republics and satellite states of the Soviet Union.  Poland, perhaps the greatest of these, has become fully integrated into NATO and the European Union.  Its people are free.  Their future is bright.  They can expect to achieve as much prosperity as freedom and virtue will allow in the years ahead.  The same, regrettably, cannot be said for the Uzbeks.  Until their rulers undergo a road to Damascus experience or, more likely, are put out by people who have had enough and can tolerate the pain and chaos of revolution, they will endure a marginal existence.

It is not as though the Uzbeks are uneducated people or are in some other way unworthy or incapable of possessing the blessings of liberty.  By all accounts, they are literate and diligent.  They have simply fallen under the rule of “kleptocratic” leaders willing to use power for plunder.

The Karimov family has managed to successfully continue the old Soviet tradition of maintaining political rule by removing every option other than deference.  It is much easier, of course, to govern when other voices are crushed, when transparency is denied, and when coercion becomes an easy way of resolving disputes.  The only problem for the Karimovs is that the relationship between power and authority will eventually work against them.  Authority enables political leaders to exercise power when necessary.  But the naked resort to power erodes authority.  Over time, the leaders of Uzbekistan will find that their legitimate authority has been exhausted and all that will remain is for the people to figure out how to overcome illegitimate power.  According to at least one report, the ruling family realizes as much and is moving wealth into secret accounts and hard assets elsewhere in the world for when the clock finally strikes midnight.

In the meantime, though, the Uzbeks are subject to a series of human rights abuses.  Watchdog groups, for example, have identified a number of individuals being held as political prisoners by the regime.  In addition, observers characterize the last round of elections as unfair.  Although many around the world have found ways to use the internet to disseminate ideas and to organize, Uzbekistan operates in a way described by Reporters without Borders as highly repressive.  Tactics include internet surveillance, site blocking, and “phishing” to obtain the data of users at some sites.

Apparent corruption and interference with the exercise of basic political rights are serious crimes, but the regime takes oppression a step further by preventing the free exercise of religion.  Christians and Muslims alike receive heavy fines (as much as 100 times the minimum monthly wage) for such crimes as possessing religious literature (even very fundamental texts), talking about ways to pray, wearing religious attire, teaching religion privately, and teaching religion without specialized education.  Confiscation of materials and equipment often accompanies the fines.

Religious oppression is especially grievous because it operates to prevent human beings from seeking basic truths about their existence.  Once people have adopted a faith, government censorship or criminalization forces them into the terrible position of being caught between God and Caesar.  In his famous Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke argued convincingly that no government should block efforts to seek religious truth for a variety of reasons concerning the nature of truth and human freedom.  But if the Uzbek government is unmoved by appeals of that sort, perhaps it will find Locke’s second line of attack more convincing.  He suggested that governments should allow people to discuss matters such as religion openly without penalty or interference lest they be forced to take such activities underground.  And which type of movement should a government fear more: one that operates in good faith for all to see or one that conducts its business in shadows?

At the moment, Uzbekistan is shielded from serious attention to its flaws by the U.S. and other NATO powers.  As Pakistan’s strategic value has degraded, Uzbekistan’s has grown.  It is currently very important as a supply route for operations in Afghanistan.  It is also a supplier of gas to China.  While it is important not to ignore matters of realpolitik in international relations, no one in the West should too easily set aside the very serious concerns evident in the plight of the Uzbeks.  Repression must not be allowed to gain a greater foothold than it has in the sovereignties of the world lest our spiritual poverty leave us unprotected from its resurgence.

According to Plato, the primary motivation for a just man to seek political office is the fear of being ruled by an unjust man.  That fear is completely operable in Uzbekistan.  The problem is that the regime probably wouldn’t hesitate to throw the just man in jail long before he could actually mount a campaign.

There are some inspiring stories among the former republics and satellite states of the Soviet Union.  Poland, perhaps the greatest of these, has become fully integrated into NATO and the European Union.  Its people are free.  Their future is bright.  They can expect to achieve as much prosperity as freedom and virtue will allow in the years ahead.  The same, regrettably, cannot be said for the Uzbeks.  Until their rulers undergo a road to Damascus experience or, more likely, are put out by people who have had enough and can tolerate the pain and chaos of revolution, they will endure a marginal existence.  

It is not as though the Uzbeks are uneducated people or are in some other way unworthy or incapable of possessing the blessings of liberty.  By all accounts, they are literate and diligent.  They have simply fallen under the rule of “kleptocratic” leaders willing to use power for plunder.  

The Karimov family has managed to successfully continue the old Soviet tradition of maintaining political rule by removing every option other than deference.  It is much easier, of course, to govern when other voices are crushed, when transparency is denied, and when coercion becomes an easy way of resolving disputes.  The only problem for the Karimov’s is that the relationship between power and authority will eventually work against them.  Authority enables political leaders to exercise power when necessary.  But the naked resort to power erodes authority.  Over time, the leaders of Uzbekistan will find that its legitimate authority has been exhausted and all that will remain is for the people to figure out how to overcome illegitimate power.  According to at least one report, the ruling family realizes as much and is moving wealth into secret accounts and hard assets elsewhere in the world for when the clock finally strikes midnight.

In the meantime, though, the Uzbeks are allegedly subject to a series of human rights abuses.  Watchdog groups, for example, have identified a number of individuals being held as political prisoners by the regime.  In addition, observers characterize the last round of elections as unfair.  Although many around the world have found ways to use the internet to disseminate ideas and to organize, Uzbekistan operates in a way described by Reporters without Borders as highly repressive.  Tactics include internet surveillance, site blocking, and “phishing” to obtain the data of users at some sites.

Apparent corruption and interference with the exercise of basic political rights are serious crimes, but the regime takes oppression a step further by preventing the free exercise of religion.  Christians and Muslims alike receive heavy fines (as much as 100 times the minimum monthly wage) for such crimes as possessing religious literature (even very fundamental texts), talking about ways to pray, wearing religious attire, teaching religion privately, and teaching religion without specialized education.  Confiscation of materials and equipment often accompanies the fines.  

Religious oppression is especially grievous because it operates to prevent human beings from seeking basic truths about their existence.  Once people have adopted a faith, government censorship or criminalization forces them into the terrible position of being caught between God and Caesar.  In his famous Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke argued convincingly that no government should block efforts to seek religious truth for a variety of reasons concerning the nature of truth and human freedom.  But if the Uzbek government is unmoved by appeals of that sort, perhaps it will find Locke’s second line of attack more convincing.  He suggested that governments should allow people to discuss matters such as religion openly without penalty or interference lest they be forced to take such activities underground.  And which type of movement should a government fear more: one that operates in good faith for all to see or one that conducts its business in shadows?  

At the moment, Uzbekistan is shielded from serious attention to its flaws by the U.S. and other NATO powers.  As Pakistan’s strategic value has degraded, Uzbekistan’s has grown.  It is currently very important as a supply route for operations in Afghanistan.  It is also a supplier of gas to China.  While it is important not to ignore matters of realpolitik in international relations, no one in the West should too easily set aside the very serious concerns evident in the plight of the Uzbeks.  Repression must not be allowed to gain a greater foothold than it has in the sovereignties of the world lest our spiritual poverty leave us unprotected from its resurgence.

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