Monday 17 January 2011

Congratulations, Mr Karimov!

I wrote this piece for the European Voice on 17 January 2011, just before the visit of Uzbek President Islam Karimov to Brussels. It deals with a serious subject, of course, but I have to admit I greatly enjoyed writing it in this sardonic tone. The article got a lot of attention (for a piece about Uzbekistan), and I was particularly happy to receive emails from inside the country from people who had heard it translated and broadcast via shortwave.


On the eve of your first official visit to Brussels in years, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, you deserve high praise. You have played the long game expertly and outmanoeuvred European foreign-policy makers so deftly that you have become a model of how to shrug off international pariah status.

Any old authoritarian ruler can dismiss UN reports of “systematic” torture in police custody and human-rights groups' long lists of political prisoners. But you managed to overcome so much more and win yourself a welcoming reception by José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, which is far more than the average tin-pot dictator from, say, Africa or Belarus ever gets.

After your security forces massacred some 700 civilian protesters in the city of Andijan in May 2005, things might have seemed a bit bleak to you. The EU set up sanctions against your country, including visa bans against some of your officials (not you, of course – well done, yet again). Brussels established clear criteria for the lifting of those sanctions, with a call for an independent international investigation and improvement in human rights (whatever those are) among them.

But did you let all that get you down? No, sir. You played the international community off against itself with the talent that comes from boldness and the experience that comes from more time in the top office than almost any leader in the world.

To be fair, of course, you have to laugh at some of the amateurs the international community throws at you. I mean, when you took power over 20 years ago, that Barroso chap was not even Portugal's foreign minister yet. And Hillary Clinton was merely ‘First Lady'. Of Arkansas.

And you always had a few perennial aces up your sleeve. If the West ever seemed to lose interest, you could always pretend to be friendly with Russia, and that got Washington and Brussels keen to meet you. If outside criticism got a little too heated, you could always release a political prisoner or two to show good will – while reminding your national audience of what really matters by arresting four or five others at the same time.

Still, yours was not an easy hand to play, and you had to execute your long game carefully. You quickly turfed out the Americans from their military base in southern Uzbekistan, a clear warning to the Germans, with their own base there. Thus, you won the constant support of Berlin at every stage of the sanctions review process, so that step by step, the sanctions were dropped in the course of just a few years.

Somehow, you realised those sanctions were never serious. Was it because Germany was willing to break them the minute they came into force, hosting your interior minister for medical treatment at a plush clinic in Hannover at the time? Was it because the EU's Special Representative kept requesting meetings with you and then rushed to publicly congratulate you in January 2008, one day after your latest inauguration, after winning 88% in a national exercise you got the world to accept as an election?

Whatever the reason, you saw that a bit of patience was all it would take to wear down the EU. Its heart was never in it.

Plus, your regime's diplomats exhibited far more political acumen than their counterparts in the EU. With the regular replacement of staff dealing with central Asia at the Commission, your team was able to convince every new generation that human-rights improvements were just around the corner. By the time their frustration with your regime's uncompromising approach to reform took hold, they were already looking for new positions elsewhere in the European machinery, and a new crop of eager innocents took their places.

Again, all the players around you keep changing, while you remain, so admirably, the constant.

When another wave of international condemnation emerged, you neatly brushed it aside. You understood better than anyone that very few people in the world actually care where the cotton in their clothes comes from. So, the fact that your country's number-one export is harvested by forced child labour, with over two million kids shut out of school and sent into the fields for up to two months – that is not going to disturb international diplomacy at all.

As you did with all that noise about political prisoners and torture, you accurately predicted that no one would mind what happens in some distant land few Westerners have ever heard of. You stayed the course, ignoring the pesky flies of your critics.

And through it all, you knew – somehow you knew – that no one in the West could play the long game like you were willing to do. It was only a few years before the world forgot all about Andijan and started courting you again for bases and military logistics support for the international effort in neighbouring Afghanistan. What a bonus: not only was the word ‘pariah' never heard again, the US and its NATO allies actually started paying you and your small group of elite to allow for transport and provide a whole range of goods and services to their forces. To top it all off, last year, as ethnic pogroms erupted in Kyrgyzstan next door, you managed to take advantage of the situation, soaking up international praise for allowing some refugees into your country – credit just for not helping slaughter people. Nice. You could not have played your hand more brilliantly.

Thus, Mr Karimov, as you sit down with Mr Barroso on 24 January – just a week after the EU expressed support for those who brought down another double-decade dictatorship, in Tunisia – you will do so as a true winner. You have won the respect of the West and the admiration of us all. You have outfoxed and outlasted everyone, and the international community now bends to your will just as your own countrymen do. You are truly the master of this game and a model for others. Congratulations.

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