Liddick: High stakes in the old Silk Road (column)
September 5, 2016
RIP, Islam Karimov.
For those scratching their heads, the deceased was the Soviet Union's gift to the people of Uzbekistan that kept on giving. Appointed First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan by Michael Gorbachev in 1989, he served as president from the one man, one vote, one time election of 1991 following the evaporation of the former Evil Empire until his death last week. He was last re-elected in 2015, with 90 percent of the vote. The Uzbek constitution allows only two five-year terms; do the math for insight into Mr. Karimov and the rule of law.
As in Russia, former KGB types rule Uzbekistan. The state is thus bloody-handed and tightly controlled: in 1999, following an "Islamic uprising," which may have been triggered by clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, thousands were shot, hundreds tried and more simply "disappeared." In a May 2005 followup, as many as 700 protesters were massacred during an enormous demonstration in the city of Andijan. Show trials for others went on for a year afterward. Again, "Islamic extremism" was blamed.
Now, President Karimov is dead, and, thanks to political maneuvering similar to that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, there is no clear-cut successor: Most are exiled, jailed or dead.
Why does any of this matter? Find a map and locate Uzbekistan. Note that it lies in the center of a strategic — and conflictive — part of the world. Uzbekistan lies athwart the old Silk Road, for millennia the major trade corridor between China, India and the West. It is home to vast reserves of energy and strategic minerals and, at 32 million, has the largest population of any Central Asian republic. It borders Afghanistan and Turkmenistan on the south, and is separated from the Caspian Sea by sparsely-populated fingers of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, relics of the Soviet era.
Although 90 percent Sunni, most of who are politically quiescent, Uzbekistan is not immune to currents that have roiled neighboring states. Before 1999, al-Qaeda had an active presence; it may not have entirely disappeared, and its franchise operations in Pakistan may be appropriate to a turbulent Uzbekistan. And, as we know from recent experience in Libya and elsewhere, ISIS loves a political vacuum.
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If Uzbekistan follows Libya into the maelstrom, what will eventuate? Might Great Russian expansionist Vladimir Putin sense an opportunity to extend Moscow's control — not only of politics and territory, but also of further substantial resources of oil and gas? Uzbekistan's Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the Prime Minister and current front-runner for leader, is a former aparachik and Russian ally. If his future looked doubtful, would Russia intervene as they did in 1979 in Afghanistan?
If that happened, how would China, which has been trying for decades to cultivate closer relations with Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors, react? How would Pakistan, seeing their nearby co-religionists falling back under the Russian heel? And Europe, watching accessible, if unexploited, sources of natural gas outside Russian control slip back into the hands of Vlad the Energy Blackmailer?
What should our reaction be to these eventualities? Each has potentially far-reaching effects that would not fail to find us, no matter how we tried to avoid or ignore them. In our interconnected and interdependent world, there's no running away from bad acts by great powers, whether Libertarians and Greens wish it or not.
The question falls by default to the candidates of our major parties, and, in this, we have an unenviable choice. On one hand, a newcomer to politics who seems rather boorish, ill-informed and uninterested in the affairs of a wider world — but who seems a quick study and, when he sticks to his knitting, can be both eloquent and reasonable. Think Ronald Reagan at the same point in the campaign of 1980.
On the other, we have a lifelong politician and pathological liar, who has abandoned employees to a deadly fate when politically expedient. Whose much-ballyhooed experience has been a litany of failure, retreat and denial of responsibility; whose response, when confronted with questions about wrongdoing involving national security, has been to blame a blow to the head for her partial amnesia.
Yes, there will be a learning curve with one, possibly similar to John Kennedy's, though hopefully not bringing the world as close to the brink of nuclear war, as he did. With the other, unfortunately, it is perfectly clear what we will get: A leader who has long since decided that personal profit trumps national interest so will allow Russia to have its way in Central Asia for a private "donation" and will lie about it if anyone is brave enough to ask.
Sixty-three days left. Choose wisely.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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