Beyond Ukraine

Beyond Ukraine
By Amitabh Pal

The Progressive
February 2005

In the prolonged election battle in Ukraine, the United States cast
itself as the friend of freedom and self-determination. The Bush
Administration made strong statements in support of democracy and the
electoral process in the country, and denounced the initial rigged
election of ruling party candidate Viktor Yanukovich.

Do not think this is the norm, however.

In several instances in other countries of the former Soviet Union,
the Bush Administration has backed dictatorships much worse than
the government of Ukraine. It also hasn’t had much of a problem with
other recent elections that have been blatantly fixed. The occasional
proclamations by the United States in favor of democracy aren’t taken
seriously by most ruling governments in the area. “The United States
has a rhetorical commitment to human rights,” says Rachel Denber,
acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central
Asia division. “But its first priority is fighting the war on terrorism
and drug trafficking. That’s why there are no real consequences for
governments in the region that violate human rights.”

In Azerbaijan, a current favorite of the United States, presidential
elections in October 2003 were marked by large-scale fraud. In
monarchical fashion, Heydar Aliyev handed over power to his son Ilham.

Heydar, who died two months after this crowning act of nepotism, had
been warmly courted by the United States since the Clinton era due
to his country’s oil wealth. (Western oil companies have invested
$4 billion in the country and are expected to put in $10 billion
more in the coming years, according to Mother Jones.) During the
Clinton Administration, Heydar’s attempts to bolster relations with
the United States were helped along by oil companies and a luminary
of go-betweens that included Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew
Brzezinski, as well as Dick Cheney and Richard Armitage.

The Bush Administration maintained the warm relationship with Heydar.

“Our common security interests, our commercial interests, and our
interests in peace and prosperity will be strengthened with each
length of pipe laid along this line,” Bush said in a letter read
aloud by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham during the groundbreaking
ceremony of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline in September 2002. (Two
American companies, Unocal and Amerada Hess, are investors in the
pipeline.) “All of us here today,” Bush stated, “are part of a new,
more promising chapter in a new, more promising history between
our nations.” For his part, Abraham lauded Heydar’s “vision and

Bush’s high regard for the father was transferred to the son. Back
when he was governor, Bush in 1996 had made Ilham an honorary
Texan for facilitating the entry of Texas-based oil companies into
Azerbaijan. When Ilham was chosen as the prime minister shortly before
the presidential elections, Bush sent him a letter of congratulations
through a visiting Congressional delegation.

The Bush Administration continued its friendship with the Ilham
regime after the rigged October elections, even though not only
were the elections set up, the aftermath was marked by a brutality
not yet seen in Ukraine. At least one person was killed in protests,
and security forces arrested hundreds of opposition members, many of
whom were tortured, Amnesty International found.

Although the United States spent more than $2 million during the
elections ostensibly to promote democracy, in its initial statement
on the election, the State Department said that early indications
were that the polling had gone smoothly, even if it was reserving
final judgment, a very different response from that of an official
European observer who said that the brutality of the security forces
made it seem “that a war had started.”

Deputy Secretary of State Armitage made a phone call to Ilham shortly
after the election, congratulating him on his “strong performance
at the polls,” according to Mother Jones. Armitage also expressed
the Bush Administration’s “desire to work closely with him and
with Azerbaijan in the future.” Not coincidentally, Armitage is a
former board member and co-chair of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of
Commerce. “For a long time, it was the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of
Commerce that was the real link between our two nations,” Armitage
said in a 2002 speech before the organization. “I think now we’ve
got a pretty solid government-to-government link.”

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Azerbaijan in December
2003, just six weeks after the elections. He again congratulated
Ilham and refused to comment on the fairness of the poll. Armitage
tried to make amends by holding a meeting with opposition leaders
during a visit in March 2004, but expressed confidence at a press
conference that the human rights situation would soon get better.

Apart from the oil link, Azerbaijan has proven useful to the United
States in other ways. It has granted overflight rights to the United
States, and has sent 159 troops to Iraq. The Bush Administration
requested $70 million in aid for Azerbaijan in 2004, including $8
million in military aid. Until September 11, the regime received no
military aid because of its poor human rights record and an ongoing
dispute with Armenia.

“United States policy toward Azerbaijan has focused on Azerbaijan’s
support for America’s war against terror and oil interests,” Human
Rights Watch stated in a 2004 report. “The U.S. role has been marred
by weak responses to rights abuses, including those accompanying the
2003 election and its aftermath.”

In October, the government sentenced seven opposition leaders to
years in prison for allegedly organizing the disturbances following
the elections. Human rights rapporteurs sent by Europe denounced
the imprisonment. The United States made no big fuss.

When Kazakhstan held parliamentary elections in September and October
2004, the results left the opposition with the sum total of one member
in parliament. The member refused to take his seat in protest.

Widespread fraud occurred.

“My wife is a school director, and on election day we both voted six
times, because we had to,” a driver told The New York Times. “You
call that democracy?”

After the results, the European Union condemned the vote as
unfair. The U.S. Embassy, however, remained mum. Armitage flew to
Kazakhstan a month after the vote and did not mention the elections
at all during his news conference. Nor did he refer to the State
Department’s own human rights report in February, which noted the
almost complete muzzling of the media in the country. Instead,
he said, the main purpose of the visit was to thank the government
for its twenty-eight-member contingent in Iraq. Armitage had earlier
praised Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in an April 27, 2004,
speech before the U.S.-Kazakhstan Business Association for making
his country the “most stable and prosperous Central Asian state.”

This seems to be the general White House line in the region. On
November 28, 2001, at the launch of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium,
Bush issued a statement praising Kazakhstan for helping “build
prosperity and stability” in the world. Nazarbayev got to visit the
White House in December 2001, partly as a reward for allowing the
U.S. Air Force to use an airport in his country. During his visit,
Nazarbayev presented Bush with a fancy saddle worth $7,500. (Under
current regulations, Bush has to turn over all his gifts to the federal
government.) The two countries signed a series of agreements. “We
declare our commitment to strengthen the long-term, strategic
partnership and cooperation between our nations seeking to advance a
shared vision of a peaceful, prosperous, and sovereign Kazakhstan in
the twenty-first century,” the joint statement by Bush and Nazarbayev
stated. As if to wave at Kazakhstan’s problem, the declaration did
“reiterate our mutual commitments to advance the rule of law and
promote freedom of religion and other universal human rights.”

This expression of a commitment to human rights by the Kazakh
government did not seem to have much of an effect on its behavior. An
August 2004 report by Human Rights Watch documented a host of abuses in
Kazakhstan, including the jailing of opposition figures, the suspicious
death of a journalist, and harassment of nongovernmental organizations.

In September 2003, the two nations signed a five-year cooperation
plan that includes the supply of helicopters, military cargo aircraft,
and ships, plus supply equipment for Kazakh troops and anti-terrorism
training. U.S. aid to Kazakhstan grew from $47.9 million in 2000 to
$92 million in 2003, of which half was for security-related purposes.

“We are grateful for the strong and growing relationship we have and
for the friendship and for the steadfastness of the Kazakh people,”
Rumsfeld said in a visit to Kazakhstan in February 2004. “Kazakhstan
is an important country in the global war on terror and has been
wonderfully helpful in Iraq, and I came here to personally say ‘thank
you’ and express our appreciation.”

The Bush Administration’s fondness for Nazarbayev is partly explained
by the fact that U.S. oil companies have significant investments in
his country. Chevron Texaco is putting in billions of dollars in
Kazakhstan. Cheney was a member of Nazarbayev’s Oil Advisory Board
when he was running Halliburton. During his visit to the United
States, Nazarbayev also met with Bush Senior, whom he awarded one
of Kazakhstan’s top civilian honors. A host of former and current
officials have lobbied for, and worked with, the Kazakh government,
including Armitage, Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, and President Reagan’s
deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, according to Ken Silverstein
in the Los Angeles Times.

Islam Karimov, a complete thug, rules Uzbekistan. The jails are filled
with an estimated 6,500 political prisoners, says The Guardian. At
least two prisoners have been boiled to death, according to a British
Embassy report. The U.N. rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, stated
after a 2002 visit that torture in the country was “institutionalized,
systematic, and rampant.”

But since Karimov has cooperated in the Afghan War and allowed the
setting up of a U.S. base in his country, he has become a crucial ally
of the United States. He was received in the White House in March
2002, and top cabinet officials such as Colin Powell and Rumsfeld
have visited the Central Asian republic. The country has received
hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid and rent money since
September 11, according to Lutz Kleveman in Amnesty Now, the Amnesty
International magazine.

“People have less freedom here than during Brezhnev,” a senior Western
official in Uzbekistan told The Guardian. “The irony is that the U.S.
Republican Party is supporting the remnants of Brezhnevism as part
of their fight against Islamic extremism.”

Powell, among other top U.S. officials, has lavished praise on
Karimov. “It was my pleasure to bring to the president the greetings
of President Bush and also to extend to him our thanks for all the
support we have received from Uzbekistan in pursuing this campaign
against terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere throughout the world
as well,” Powell said during a December 2001 visit to the country.

At Karimov’s White House visit a few months later, Bush “expressed
appreciation” for his help. The Uzbek government made the most of
Karimov being feted by the White House. “The world community cannot
deprive this person of the moral and physical right to stand among
those who have suppressed the forces of fear and terror becoming
the living symbol of his country,” gushed an Uzbek government press
statement released during his sojourn to the United States. While
in the United States, Karimov signed five bilateral agreements with
Washington. The Bush Administration was careful, however, to invite
Karimov for afternoon tea, instead of dinner, and to avoid a press
conference afterward.

When I visited the country later in 2002, a Western diplomat
characterized the U.S.-Uzbek relationship as “very good” and claimed
that there had been “measurable improvement in the human rights
record” in that nation, a claim refuted by the Human Rights Watch
office director for the country. The indulgence toward the country
continues. The U.S. ambassador warned Uzbek activists early last year
not to ask him “political questions,” according to Harper’s Magazine.

“Tortured dupes are forced to sign confessions showing what the Uzbek
government wants the U.S. and U.K. to believe–that they and we are
fighting the same war on terror,” Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan,
Craig Murray, stated in a document leaked to The Financial Times. Tony
Blair forced Murray to resign because of his outspoken criticism, in
large part due to pressure from Washington, according to The Sunday
Times of Scotland.

Roughly 1,000 U.S. troops are stationed at a base in Uzbekistan, named
K2, eighty miles from the Afghanistan border. A formal agreement
commits the United States to respond to “any external threat” to
Uzbekistan. U.S. Special Forces have provided training to the Uzbek
military, and the U.S. Army has provided military communication
equipment to the Uzbek armed forces. In 2002, Uzbekistan received
$43 million in U.S. military aid. It also participates in the NATO
Partnership for Peace program.

After meeting Karimov in February 2004, Rumsfeld said that
U.S.-Uzbek defense relations were “growing stronger every month”
and that the country’s human rights record was just one part of its
relationship with the United States, which could not be based on a
“single pillar.” He added, “We have benefited greatly in our efforts
in the global war on terror and in Afghanistan from the wonderful
cooperation we’ve received from the government of Uzbekistan.”

In July, at the advice of the State Department, the United States
cut some aid over human rights concerns. But General Richard Myers,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly disagreed with that
move during an August visit to Uzbekistan. “My own view is that is very
shortsighted, and it’s never productive,” Myers said. “In fact, it can
often have the opposite effect that people intend, because you lose any
ability to influence at all, at least through a military standpoint.”

Uzbekistan’s neighbor Turkmenistan has the worst regime in the
region–and one of the nastiest in the world. Dictator Saparmurat
Niyazov put on show trials in late 2002 and early 2003. “Many people
in Russia and the West are calling [these trials] the most chilling
public witch hunt since Stalin’s show trials of prominent Bolsheviks
in the 1930s,” The New York Times reported.

Niyazov has renamed the months of January, April, and September
after himself, his dearly departed mother, and The Book of Ruhnama,
a treatise authored by Niyazov that every schoolchild has to study at
least one day a week. Portraits and statues of him are everywhere,
including a revolving thirty-five-foot golden statue whose raised
arms welcome the dawn and bid the sun farewell at dusk. His face is
on everything from the currency to vodka. The country’s oil revenue
is put in an offshore account that only Niyazov controls.

“Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the
world,” says Human Rights Watch in a 2004 report. “The government
systematically violates virtually all civil, political, economic,
social, and cultural rights.” But Niyazov’s neo-Stalinism hasn’t
stopped top U.S. officials from visiting Turkmenistan and courting him.

“The support of President Niyazov to our efforts, and the support of
the Turkmen people to the Afghan people, remain very important to our
efforts,” General Tommy Franks said after meeting Niyazov in August
2002. “The cooperation between our nations remains very good and,
of course, I am thankful for that, as well.”

The Bush Administration requested $19.2 million in military aid
for Turkmenistan in 2003, according to the Federation of American
Scientists. A small contingent of U.S. troops has been based in
Turkmenistan to refuel cargo planes for aid into Afghanistan. During
an April 2002 visit, Rumsfeld discussed with Niyazov the expansion of
the Foreign Military Financing Program, under which the United States
has donated a Coast Guard cutter to the country. The United States
has also trained Turkmen military officers under the International
Military Education and Training program.

Rumsfeld was effusive in thanking Niyazov during his visit. “I took
the opportunity to thank the president and the people for their very
fine cooperation” in the war on terror, he said, adding that the
United States was “grateful and appreciative.” Rumsfeld expressed
gratitude to Niyazov for his “very fine contribution with respect
to humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan.” He made no mention of
Niyazov’s dubious humanitarian record in his own country.

Amitabh Pal is Managing Editor of The Progressive.