- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

A year after the government of Uzbekistan bloodily suppressed street protests in the eastern city of Andijan, relations with the United States and the West have plummeted while Russia has become the strategic Central Asian nation’s new best friend.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that the Bush administration would not rule out additional sanctions against the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov, even as Mr. Karimov was being warmly received by Russian President Vladimir Putin at Mr. Putin’s Black Sea summer residence.

“A year after the tragic events in Andijan, the government of Uzbekistan still owes the victims and survivors a full accounting of what took place,” Mr. McCormack said, adding that the Karimov government should “cease immediately the crackdown on civil society.”

“We’re simply not in a good place in this relationship,” said Olga Oliker, a senior international policy analyst with the Rand Corp. think tank. “And I don’t think it’s likely to be looking terribly good in the near-term.”

The still-murky clashes that began May 13, 2005, in Andijan marked a decisive break in what were already deteriorating U.S. relations with Uzbekistan, the most populous of the Central Asian states.

The Karimov government insists its forces put down a revolt by Islamist extremists who had seized a number of government sites. While resisting Western calls for an independent investigation into the violence, the government has said that fewer than 200 people were killed, including more than two dozen police and security officers.

But eyewitnesses and human rights groups insist the toll was far higher and that peaceful protesters and bystanders were indiscriminately targeted. Analysts for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group say the harsh government action followed a string of popular economic protests that had rocked the Karimov regime.

The Uzbek leader, who provided key logistical aid for the U.S.-led coalition in the 2001-2002 war in neighboring Afghanistan, abruptly changed tack.

In the year since Andijan, Mr. Karimov ordered U.S. troops to leave the Karshi-Kanabad air base and barred U.S. military overflights. Western press and nongovernmental groups, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Freedom House, the Eurasia Foundation and the Peace Corps, also were evicted.

In November, Mr. Karimov and Mr. Putin signed a “pact of allegiance,” calling for Uzbekistan and Russia to come to each other’s aid in the event of a third-party threat.

“We are seeing very serious challenges and attempts by powers outside the region to establish a presence,” Mr. Karimov told Mr. Putin yesterday, in remarks quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

In Washington, two Republicans, Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, are sponsoring a bill to apply new sanctions to Uzbekistan, including a travel ban and asset freeze for top Uzbek officials and their families.

Mr. Smith told a Washington conference on Uzbekistan earlier this week that Tashkent’s deteriorating human rights record, its crackdown on political and religious dissent and its intimidation of its neighbors made it a poor long-term strategic ally for the United States.

“It was just a matter of time before the arrangement collapsed,” he said.

Mr. Smith and other critics say the harsh government repression is only fueling the radicalism Mr. Karimov fears, and may hasten the regime’s collapse.

Daniel Kimmage, a Central Asian analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said Mr. Karimov’s power was increasingly “brittle.”

“This is a regime that will be stable until all of a sudden it isn’t,” he said. “And then all bets are off.”

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