What Georgia Taught Us

Washington must stop aiding Central Asia’s dictators.

The recent “velvet revolution” in Georgia, when tens of thousands of protesters forced out the Caucasian country’s longtime strongman Eduard Shevardnadze, contains an important lesson for the Bush administration: Democratic regime change can work. What it takes is some civil society on the ground and American willingness to support it. Sadly, that willingness is missing from Washington’s dealings with the other autocratic post-Soviet regimes in the Caucasus and Central Asia. If Bush is serious about spreading democracy in the region to root out terrorism, this needs to change.

America betrayed him, a bitter Shevardnadze has claimed in recent interviews. Long a favorite in Washington for his role in ending the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister in 1989, Shevardnadze now suspects that American diplomats in Tbilisi groomed pro-American opposition leaders and engineered the coup against him. This is not unlikely, as Washington grew more and more impatient with Shevardnadze’s increasingly corrupt and chaotic regime, which led Georgia to disintegrate and become a classic “failed state.”

Before the Bush administration congratulates itself on doing the right thing in Georgia, it should be reminded that it is doing all the wrong things elsewhere in the region. In an effort to have allies in the war on terror, Washington has jumped into bed with a number of very unsavory dictators, some nearly as tyrannical as Saddam Hussein. These unholy alliances contradict the Bush administration’s claims that it wants to spread democracy to dry up the breeding grounds for angry terrorists. In fact, the Faustian pacts are likely to cause more anger among suffering Central Asians who increasingly embrace virulent anti-Americanism and radical Islam.

In October, Heydar Aliyev, the ailing 80-year-old ruler of Georgia’s neighbor and U.S. ally Azerbaijan, rigged the presidential elections to pass on his crown to his playboy son Ilham. (For more on the Azerbaijani elections, see this “Foreigners” column.) The new baby dictator’s forces brutally put down popular protests against the establishment of the first hereditary dynasty in the former Soviet Union. They arrested hundreds of opposition members and killed at least two people. The next day, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage officially congratulated Aliyev on his “strong showing.” It was a move that did not exactly make the United States more popular with regular Azerbaijanis.

Armitage is a former board member of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce in Washington, established in 1995 to promote U.S. companies’ interests in the country’s multibillion-dollar oil industry. The Caspian oil and gas fields, the world’s largest energy reserves that could help reduce America’s dangerous dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East, are the main spoils in a fierce geopolitical power struggle that has recently broken out between the United States and its rivals Russia, China, and Iran.

This new “Great Game” also explains the Bush administration’s intense strategic interest in Georgia, as the country lies on the route of the gigantic $3.8 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline from the Azerbaijani capital Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Currently under construction by a British-Petroleum-led international consortium, the pipeline is scheduled to start pumping crude in 2005. Keen to diversify America’s oil supplies and to strengthen the ex-Soviet states’ independence from Moscow, the Bush administration strongly supports the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline because it circumvents America’s rivals Russia and Iran, whichoffer alternative transit routes across their territories.

In an effort to thwart the BTC pipeline plans, Russia has for years destabilized the South Caucasus by fomenting ethnic conflicts in Georgia’s breakaway provinces Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ajaria, as well as in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Thousands of Russian troops continue to be based on Georgian territory. To counter Russian influence, the Bush administration in May 2002 stationed 500 elite soldiers in Georgia to train the country’s ragtag army in anti-terrorist warfare. It also used the anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan to deploy thousands of U.S. troops in the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. This dramatic intrusion into Russia’s former empire angers many in Moscow, and President Vladimir Putin recently reacted by personally opening a new Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan, only 30 miles away from the U.S. airbase. Elsewhere in the region, America’s new ally, the Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, brutally suppresses Islamic and any other opposition groups. Human rights organizations estimate that tens of thousands of political prisoners languish in the country’s jails. “Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I will shoot them myself,” Karimov once famously told his rubber-stamp parliament.

Although the U.S. State Department acknowledges that Uzbek security forces use “torture as a routine investigation technique,” Washington last year gave the Karimov regime $500 million in aid and rent payments for a U.S. airbase in Chanabad. Some $79 million were earmarked for the security forces known to be the regime’s worst henchmen. Though Uzbek Muslims can be arrested simply for wearing a long beard, the State Department also quietly removed Uzbekistan from its list of countries where freedom of religion is under threat.

What are ordinary Uzbeks and the region’s other impoverished people to think of the United States’ cynical alliances with their despotic rulers under the rhetorical banner of anti-terrorism and human rights? My research during extensive travels in the region suggests that myopic U.S. policies are likely to jeopardize the few successes in the war on terror because the resentment they cause makes it ever easier for terrorist groups to recruit angry young men as new fighters. The Central Asian stability so important to Washington exists only on the surface, precariously resting on a Kalashnikov crutch.

We can no longer afford to be indifferent about how badly the dictators in the Middle East and Central Asia are treating their people as long as they kept the oil flowing. In two fine speeches recently, President Bush made it clear that autocratic regimes in the Middle East, including U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia, need internal reforms to stop churning out terrorists. Somehow, though, he forgot to mention Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Those countries need stronger civil societies if they are to experience a democratic revolution like Georgia’s. The current U.S. policy of helping tyrants to obliterate opposition does not help, but rather repeats the same mistakes that gave rise to Bin Ladenism. It is all very well to pursue oil interests, but is it worth mortgaging our security to do so?