Death is usually a sad event. The passing of a world leader, particularly one who brought stability to a tense part of the Muslim world for several decades, is typically cause for concern.
The death of Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov is not typical.
For the majority of the long-oppressed citizens of Uzbekistan, the end of one of the world’s bloodiest and most corrupt dictators — and, to our eternal shame, an American ally — is cause for joy and gleeful celebration.
He died 82 years too late.
Except for the time Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson called it “a small, insignificant state … Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” the hell on earth created by Karimov doesn’t get much coverage in the news media.
Few Americans could find this backwater on a map to save their lives. Yet Uzbekistan, once known as the underbelly of the USSR, is incredibly important. Which is why the rich and powerful — military generals, energy company executives, Hillary Clinton — know all about it.
Unfortunately for the Uzbeks, these American elites’ interest in their country has made their lives unspeakably miserable. And unless something radically unexpected takes place, that’s likely to continue.
That’s why, during this presidential election season, American voters ought to ask the candidates most likely to win (Clinton and Donald Trump) as well as those who should be most likely to win (Jill Stein and Gary Johnson) how they would change U.S. foreign policy in obscure/important places like Uzbekistan.
American policymakers care about Uzbekistan because it is an energy giant: one of the largest producers of natural gas in the world, a significant supplier of oil and the fourth-largest source of gold in the world.
Sitting smack dab in the middle of Central Asia, the nation has undeniable strategic importance.
Uzbekistan has the region’s largest population, its most sophisticated infrastructure and its biggest cities: Tashkent, a city of 2.3 million people, even has a subway. The nation also has the blockbuster tourist attractions: the Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand should be on any world traveler’s wish list.
Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian republic with common borders with all of the others, as well as with perpetually troubled Afghanistan.
Oil and gas pipelines to and from the biggest source of fossil fuels on earth, the Caspian Sea, crisscross this blisteringly hot, dry nation.
Given Uzbekistan’s tremendous oil, gas and mineral wealth and its geographically and geopolitically strategic importance, its citizens ought to enjoy a high standard of living.
Instead, the average Uzbek subsists on $3 to $8 per day. Where does all that energy wealth go? Karimov, his family and cronies steal it.
Gulnara Karimova, the deceased despot’s flamboyant chanteuse daughter, is accused of raking in more than $1 billion in bribes from telecommunications companies seeking permits to do business. Another daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, is linked to shell companies that own gaudy multimillion estates in the United States.
Cultural and ethnic heirs to Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, Uzbeks are neither stupid nor lazy. It requires and incredibly brutal and ruthless military and police apparatus to prevent them from rising up and overthrowing their oppressors.
So this is exactly what the Karimov regime has delivered since the country became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Uzbekistan is routinely awarded the world’s “Worst of the Worst” status for its extreme corruption and violations of fundamental human rights.
Phones are tapped and militia goons shake down motorists at innumerable checkpoints. Print and broadcast media are completely state-controlled. There’s a zero tolerance policy toward political opposition.
In 1999, Karimov said: “I am ready to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, for the sake of peace and tranquility in the country.” By which he meant his peace and tranquility.
Four percent of the population is subjected to slavery. At least 10,000 political prisoners are rotting in the nation’s prisons. Torture is standard and endemic; Team Karimov landed a rare spot in the news for boiling dissidents to death.
In 2005, Karimov asked security forces confronting protesters in the southern city of Andijon to wait for his arrival from the capital of Tashkent so he could personally witness and coordinate their massacre. An estimated 700 to 1200 Uzbeks were slaughtered.
“People have less freedom here than under (Soviet leader Leonid) Brezhnev,” a U.S. official admitted.
Every now and then, some naive U.S. State Department official has issued a toothless tsk-tsk report documenting human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. But the Americans who run the show are obsessed with maintaining the country’s role in the Northern Distribution Network, a crucial aerial and ground supply line between the United States and its European allies and the endless war against Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They’re willing to do pretty much anything to protect the NDN — including funneling weapons to one of the most disgusting regimes on the planet.
In 2012, President Barack Obama’s administration quietly lifted a post-Andijon ban on weapon sales. One major shipment included a 2015 delivery of 320 armored personnel vehicles to Karimov — exactly the kind of equipment an authoritarian state uses to crush demonstrations.
“Perhaps worse than equipping a government so well-known for abuses against its own people and for its defiance of international norms with such powerful military equipment,” said Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch, “is the message that the Obama administration is sending the people of Uzbekistan: that Islam Karimov has gotten away with it.”
American news accounts of Karimov’s death omitted America’s role propping him up.
It would be nice to hope that the flowers of democracy will sprout in the soil of the dictator’s grave. But years of suppression have destroyed the opposition groups that might have been able to step into power as part of a post-Karimov transition.
The post-KGB security forces will continue to protect themselves and their kleptocratic bosses. Acting Uzbek President Nigmatilla Yuldashev will no doubt call for another of the country’s sham elections, which a hand-selected member of the ruling elite is predestined to win. And Obama will keep the military aid flowing.
This is the kind of thing that causes Muslims to hate us. It’s why we are a constant target of terrorism. But nothing is going to change there unless something changes at the top here.
— Ted Rall is the author of Bernie, a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. His next book, the graphic biography Trump, comes out July 19 and is now available for pre-order. Click here to contact him, and follow him on Twitter: @TedRall. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.