Uzbekistan: A Green or Purple Revolution?

By Adam Weissmann

President Bush praised the people of Georgia last week for the “Rose Revolution” of late 2003, which overthrew former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, as the precursor to the flurry of democratic uprisings across Eurasia in the past year. The “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine (in late 2004), the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon (this past February), and the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan (in late March) brought democratic reform to states long dominated by authoritarian politics. In the case of Lebanon, popular demonstrations prompted the withdrawal of Syrian occupation forces, which had been in the country for nearly 30 years.

This week, a popular revolt is underway in Uzbekistan, aimed at toppling President Islam Karimov’s dictatorial rule; but the Bush administration has not taken a stand in favor of the pro-democracy demonstrators. The revolutionaries in Uzbekistan are urging democracy, but they are part of a fundamentalist Islamic movement that hopes to gain power through popular support. A critical moment has come for the President and his advisors: Is the priority of the “Bush Doctrine” to promote the spread of democracy or to combat the spread of fundamentalist Islamic rule?

In cities near the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border, protesters have been attacked by government troops, and many have fled to Kyrgyzstan, where a large number of ethnic Uzbeks live. President Karimov is not going down without a fight; early estimates for casualties have already topped 700 dead and many more wounded. The “revolution” taking place in Uzbekistan is starting to look more like 1989 Beijing than 1989 Prague. If Karimov can successfully quell the revolt, which will undoubtedly involve the deaths of many more civilians, the Bush administration will retain a key regional ally and its airbases on Uzbek soil, poised strategically near Afghanistan, Iran, and China.

But Karimov is a despot, and while the United States could get away with propping up supportive dictators 30 years ago (read: Latin America), doing so today is incongruent with current policy. There are likely to be many headaches among the President’s staff this week, and policy makers must weigh Karimov’s benefits against the costs of an anti-American Islamic state taking hold in Central Asia, democratic or not. It seems from the administration’s silence so far, that they are more inclined to see a “Green Revolution” fail.

Allowing it to be suppressed would be a mistake. Islamic or not, if the uprising that has been spreading across Uzbekistan is indeed democratic, the Bush administration should support it. It is better to stand up consistently for democracy, even when one’s military and political interests may be threatened by the resulting popular will. Instead of tacitly supporting Karimov’s regime against the democratic Islamic opposition groups, President Bush should extend support to the opposition on the condition that they uphold civil liberties and democratic government within the Islamic state that they build.

Karimov has demonstrated his brutality this week through his government’s response to the demonstrations. It is clear that his rule is unjust, and it is unproductive for the future growth of the Uzbek state and the betterment of its people. If the Bush administration is truly committed to supporting internal regime change against despotic autocrats, then it must prove itself so. If the United States fails to send the message that it stands with all people who desire self-determination and freedom, then those who paint America as a supporter of its own monetary and military interests will be proven correct.

What is necessary, though, should Bush decide to support the opposition, is a concerted campaign by pro-democracy activists around the world targeted at any new Uzbek democracy. Liberal NGOs, free governments, and philanthropists will have to promote a democratic culture within Uzbekistan so that the new system created by the Islamic opposition parties is not a democracy in name only. If an Islamic Republic of Uzbekistan is created through a democratic process, the United States should not isolate it; rather it should extend its arms with economic and political incentives for the preservation of civil liberties and popular sovereignty.

Democracy takes a long time to entrench itself within the culture of a nation that has experienced long periods of autocracy. But if what the Bush administration calls the “Purple Revolution” in Iraq (remember the ink used to stamp Iraqi voters’ fingers?) proves successful, then perhaps with a little nudging a democratic Uzbekistan too might endure. Along with Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, it would help reinvigorate Central Asia and create a bloc of free, democratic states in a critical region bordering Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan. This week, while the President and his aides have an opportunity to fulfill their pledge to aid those who rise up against tyranny, they seem instead to be paralyzed, seeing only green when they could be dreaming of purple. We should hope that they decide to act in the best interests of the Uzbek people (and the free world) and not just through an irrational fear of Islam.