"Let's go blow up Iraq, I mean Iran, I mean North Korea, I mean Syria...I mean Texas...
-Steve Earle, Amerika v. 6.0
Have you ever sat around waiting for a story to break? You know something's up and you keep watching the news waiting for it to appear? It never does, at least not in time to matter. For instance, I predict that the words in the Steve Earle quote at the beginning of this article will include a new country by the time we enter full decades in this new century.
This isn't about Steve Earle though--this is about imperialism. In this case I'm talking about the next Saddam Hussein...the next dictator that the US will build up, then chop the knees out from under while denying all responsibility. This story doesn?t take place in Iraq though, or even the Middle East. It takes place in Uzbekistan. Like a bad drama on cable, the players are the same, but the location and haircuts have changed to give the appearance of something new happening.
Who are the players? Oil, gas, greed, corruption, short-sightedness and a complete disregard for human life or anything approaching sanity. The actors are named Bush, Powell, Rumsfeld, Tommy Franks, Condoleeza Rice, and a man named Islam Karimov.
Karimov came to power in Uzbekistan in 1990. He held his office by a plebiscite in 1995, then ran an election so blatantly crooked in 2000 that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) refused to send observers. In January of 2002 Karimov had the constitution of Uzbekistan amended to extend presidential terms from five years to seven years, so he doesn't have to pretend to have an election until 2007.
Who is this man? Well, some of the things he's said might give us a clue to that:"The OSCE focuses only on establishment of democracy, the protection of human rights and the freedom of the press. I am now questioning these values." That was in 1999, after the OSCE criticised his election.
"I'm prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic. If my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head." Also in 1999, speaking to Agence France Presse about violent acts in Uzbekistan.
I'm not a big fan of violent acts, but ripping people's heads off is a little extreme as a retaliation even for those who like violence. The peace and calm in the Republic is fairly relative...it's got more to do with peace and calm for Karimov than with the citizens he rules.
Karimov offers a fairly stable leadership in the area because he is a dictator. He controls the press, prompting Reporters Without Borders to put his face up on their web-site beside the likes of Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-il. Reporters Without Borders notes, "The war against Islamism and terrorism is systematically invoked as justification for indiscriminate attacks on opponents and journalists. Official censors ensure that no comments appear in the press about any opposition, or criminality, corruption, or the respect of human rights. In 2002, three journalists were imprisoned for having violated these prohibitions."
So what does some petty dictator in a country last heard of in a Ren and Stimpy cartoon have to do with anything? Maybe he's a bad person who boils people alive for talking back, but what he's doing is the same thing that happens all over the planet, isn't it? Yes and no. It is happening all over the planet. There are murderous dictators everywhere. The ones with something that can make a few western politicians even wealthier get help in maintaining their power. As we saw in Argentina not that long ago, democratically elected leaders that dare to challenge the US get overthrown in coups. As we are seeing in Iraq, dictators who challenge the US are eliminated at al costs. What we are seeing in Uzbekistan is that dictators who will deal with US interests have their crimes down-played. Karimov isn't that different than many other men, his situation and US support for him is eerily close to the support the US gave Saddam though...all that's missing, at least officially, is genocide and a war with a neighbour.
Uzbekistan's human rights record is atrocious...trumped up charges, torture, death. The records Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International keep are full of atrocities. Until the terrorist attacks on the US, Karimov and Uzbekistan were routinely criticised by the American government for their record of human rights violations. That position took a turn when Uzbekistan became part of George Bush's coalition though. Huge aid agreements were signed and trade grew. Human rights violations and democracy suddenly took a back seat to access to Uzbekistan.
The US has claimed not to like Karimov, but their actions belie their words. In spite of reports from Human Rights Watch indicating that the torture of political prisoners in Uzbekistan continues, the State department says that they are making progress on humans rights issues there. There is no evidence of that progress. In fact there is much evidence against it. There is evidence that when a country has oil and is willing to let the US stage troops for the ever-expanding war for oil and money, that they can do whatever they want.
So why Karimov? Why a man who is so potentially politically embarrassing and so potentially dangerous to those around him? Well, he did let the US troops stage there for the attack on Afghanistan or war on terrorism or whatever it's called now that the US has moved on to more profitable ventures. Just like Saddam Hussein, Islam Karimov has a few things that those who put money before all else really like. He has gas and oil. He runs things...none of the vagaries of changing governments or actual elections. Karimov wields the real power in Uzbekistan and maintains that power by ensuring that there is no effective opposition. He is an imperialist's friend, a capitalist's dream.
According to the CIA World Fact Book, Uzbekistan is a doubly land-locked country that borders Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Its natural resources are natural gas, petroleum, coal, gold, uranium, silver, copper, lead, zinc, tungsten, and molybdenum. Those are all things that US companies would like more access to, especially the proven reserves of 297 million barrels of oil and 937.3 billion cubic metres of natural gas. It is a country that imports equipment and machinery. It is the world?s second largest cotton exporter. All that wealth and less than 7% of Uzbekistan?s trade is with the US. There is definitely room for improvement there.
It is also in the middle of a suddenly strategically important area. Relatively close to the Middle East and within a stone's throw of China, part of the former USSR, resource rich but cash poor, in an unstable part of the world that is just beginning to discover and develop it's own resources. Not a bad place to be able drop troops off if things get a little too interesting for US companies operating in the region.
So here we go again. We've been here before. Twenty years ago Donald Rumsfeld, then part of the Reagan administration, was photographed shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. They knew Saddam was a bad man, but they didn't care because he had a strategically important position next to Iran and buckets of oil. Two decades later Rumsfeld, Powell, Bush, and Tommy Franks are photographed shaking hands and cozying up to Islam Karimov, a bad man who rules a strategically important country and controls buckets of oil and gas.
Since the New Year is looming and it is the season for prognostication I'll venture a little prophecy of my own. Twenty years from now while the Bush twins, half-way through their first term as Co-President with Paul Wolfowitz sitting as Vice President, bomb Uzbekistan in an attempt to rid themselves of the embarrassment of Islam Karimov's legacy. Here in my office I'll be looking at pictures of the twins shaking hands with a man who is considered a criminal by human rights groups and international bodies. They?ll all be smiling. I'll be listening to Steve Earle's son sing political songs and typing, "I told you so," over and over again.
Reverend Blair was raised in Saskatchewan and currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He comes from a long line of social activists and cried on Tommy Douglas before his first birthday. His column appears biweekly on Vive le Canada.