On November 6, 2012, Sharnoff’s Global Views interviewed Dr. Sanjar Umarov. Umarov is the founder and chairman of Sunshine Uzbekistan, a political coalition founded to promote human rights, the rule of law, and social and economic reforms.
He earned a PhD from Tashkent Polytechnic Institute in 1982 and taught physics and engineering in Biskra, Algeria. After returning to Uzbekistan in 1988, he began a successful career in business that included the founding of Uzdunrobita and several companies in the agriculture and energy sectors as well as the facilitation of foreign investment in Uzbekistan. With the purpose to improve economic and human rights he founded the Sunshine Uzbekistan coalition with other intellectuals and businessmen.
In October 2005, he was arrested and charged with embezzlement and money laundering. Dr. Umarov was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 14.5 years in prison. He was placed in solitary confinement for two years and regularly tortured and forced to take psychotropic drugs. In November 2009, Dr. Umarov received an unconditional amnesty due to his poor health and an international campaign for his release. The UN Human Rights Committee eventually found that his arrest and conviction was politically motivated and obliged Uzbekistan to restore justice and cover his losses.
SGV: Uzbekistan, a landlocked country in Central Asia, barely receives media coverage in the United States. Can you tell us a bit about Uzbekistan, its president and why the United States should pay attention.
SU: Uzbekistan historically has been the key state in Central Asia. In any case, during the difficult struggles with tsarist Russia, the region of Central Asia was divided into three Uzbek monarchies: the Kokand, Khiva, and Bukhara emirates, while Uzbek Tashkent became the administrative center of the entire Turkestan general governance. After the Soviets took power and formed the USSR, it was Uzbekistan which was the fourth most important republic in the new super power.
Tashkent, the capital city, was the fourth most populated area after Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. Objectively speaking, even with all the shortcomings of the Soviet totalitarian, planned system, former feudal Uzbekistan, in the course of a few short decades, rose from a backward colonial appendage to a rather developed industrial and agrarian society, having almost 100% literacy, with a multi-faceted scientific and cultural population.
Uzbekistan had a successfully functioning Academy of Sciences, with institutes of nuclear physics, physical-technical sciences, cybernetics, and dozens of other research departments, universities, conservatories, opera and drama theaters, film studios, etc. The republic had its own intelligentsia, that is, the most active (together with the student population) portion of the population, which was open to the world and to all political and economic transformations, which would soon allow an independent Uzbekistan to join the most developed countries in the world.
If only for one (the most important!) thing – circumstance. As the Soviet system was waning, the first secretary of the Communist Party came to power, then as president – Islam Karimov. Karimov, a man with a “Napoleon complex,” sees himself as the direct descendent of the great warrior of the Middle Ages, Amir Temur (Tamerlane).
One could understand this if not for his narcissism and his usurping of power, his sickening disgust for any independent thought. He has deprived Uzbeks of all basic rights and has forced the majority to live on the edge of poverty and extinction, and that same thoughtful intelligentsia has mostly all emigrated abroad, or is hidden behind bars, or have become a disciplined herd of scared law-abiders.
But the “great leader-ism” of Karimov is also dangerous in that over the years of his reign, the small group of his closest relatives and cohorts have hoarded all the country’s national treasures. They have become immeasurably wealthy while millions of the work-inclined population has to search for work, under slavish conditions, outside of their homeland.
Contemporary Uzbekistan is a police state which exists only due to a system of fear, total control and a network of informers, with practically an absence of civil and human rights. To ignore this “cancerous tumor” and not take notice of it, is unjust from the point of view of democratic principles which is preached by the United States media.
SGV: In 2005, you were arrested by Uzbek authorities for speaking out against a government crackdown of peaceful protestors. What was your experience like in prison and why did the government release you?
SU: First off, they freed me because they did not find any “explosive” or unconstitutional activities in the actions of the “Sunshine Coalition.” Secondly, they got the court decision they desired, which in the eyes of society placed me in the position of an “illegitimate personage” (this is their everyday practice – to legally “soil” all smaller potential opponents, to take away their rights to be elected to any organization).
And thirdly, releasing me was a tactical move in the negotiation process with the most powerful government in the world. It must be mentioned that such clever politics works, allowing the USA and the West to lessen its demands of the criminal regime. It seems that I was one of the cards in this game.
SGV: You received asylum in the United States and are currently living in Tennessee. What inspired you to create the Uzbek opposition Sunshine Coalition and campaign for regime change?
SU: We created the “Sunshine Coalition” not after my imprisonment, but before. My imprisonment was a result of the appearance of this non-sanctioned societal organization. Our completely innocent, patriotic desire to take a real part in improving the economic situation in the country brought forth such vehement anger from Karimov, and deprived me of a few years of my free existence and incurred such a blow to my health.
SGV: What activities and projects are you now engaged in to bring awareness about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan? How much support do you have inside Uzbekistan?
SU: I must honestly admit that there aren’t too many direct supporters of our movement in Uzbekistan because we had no access to official media, but there are many opponents of the regime in power, including some in the most diverse organs, some even in state offices. The shame is that they are afraid to openly voice their opinions and positions.
SGV: If real change and reform cannot come from within Uzbekistan due to the authoritarian nature of the regime, how can democracy develop?
SU: Perhaps this is the most important and unpredictable process. We must set our hopes on the certainty of reforms and the maximal possible support of the leading Western countries which would not just look at short-term interests, but continuously keep things in perspective.
SGV: The United States relies on Uzbekistan as an ally in the War on Terror. It is also in a strategic position to help facilitate US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. Yet Egypt under Mubarak was also a dictatorship and close US ally. Washington ultimately sided with the Egyptian people. Are you optimistic that Uzbeks could be inspired by the “Arab Spring,” rebel against the government, and be supported by Washington?
SU: You raise a convincing example with Egypt. But in my view, the USA knew fairly well about the political leanings and potential enemies of Mubarak and made the decision to support his powerful enemies. To the degree my sources in Uzbekistan have informed me, I know that two to three years ago emissaries of the USA were in Uzbekistan and held meetings with various representatives of the internal opposition.
After the discussions, they had to explain how real the possibility was to repeat the 2005 Andijan massacre in which Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of peaceful protestors. Throughout all this, they were given carte blanche from the corresponding political organs, had no obstacles placed before them, and no one followed them around, etc. They managed to convince the USA that there were no opposition forces capable of open confrontation and therefore, for military and political interests, they must, regardless of all else, enter into an acceptable partnership with Uzbekistan.
How much of a long-range political move this is remains to be seen, but nonetheless, this episode clearly proves that the leading organs of power in America know the real goal and value of the President of Uzbekistan.
SGV: Finally, what is your vision for Uzbekistan and message to Uzbeks and Americans?
SU: I would not want the Americans to risk their good relations with the masses of very tolerant, peaceful, work loving people of Uzbekistan. It is open to all that is good, all honest, worldwide values, and it could, in the future be friends with all developed democratic governments. Uzbeks want to maintain faith in the future, to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but to conserve in themselves the best ideals without losing their souls or their conscience. This is exactly what should unite and defend all healthy forces of society. For remaining “Time is the Supreme Judge”…
SGV: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.