Adrian Hamilton: You can't temper the tyranny of dictators

We are in one of those moments in history when there is a mood for change across the globe
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The Independent Online

Last weekend's massacre at Andijan was, on all accounts, the worst slaughter of civilian protesters since Tiananmen Square. But then what happened after that occasion? The world stood aghast, the capitals of the West were loud in their condemnation. Arms sales sanctions were introduced. And then?

Last weekend's massacre at Andijan was, on all accounts, the worst slaughter of civilian protesters since Tiananmen Square. But then what happened after that occasion? The world stood aghast, the capitals of the West were loud in their condemnation. Arms sales sanctions were introduced. And then?

Nothing really. All the huffing and puffing in the world made not a blind bit of difference to the imprisonment of dissidents or the curtailing of free speech and dissent within the country, nor in the policies of the West towards Beijing.

It will be the same with Uzbekistan. The outside world will express its shock and condemnation. It will send its ambassadors in to assess the damage. As yesterday, they'll tut tut and declare their refusal to be taken in. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, will be pressured to give some nods towards democracy. But in reality he will quietly revert to his oppressive ways as the only means he knows of ensuring his power.

A counsel of despair? Not necessarily. But it is a reminder of the simple truth that, if we really want to do something to help the oppressed and deprived of the world, we are not going to do it merely by proclaiming our belief in liberty and freedom, a rhetoric that is going to keep crashing against the rocks of actual power and self-interest.

You can argue that President Bush's adoption of democracy as the guiding principle of US foreign policy at least gives some measure against which Western policy can be judged and Washington held to account. And that is not a negligible force, as the President's reception in Latvia and Georgia earlier this month demonstrated.However self-serving and hypocritical Bush's approach to foreign affairs may be, this should not blind his critics to the value of having a President who at least proclaims some basic ideals.

Unfortunately, Andijan has shown up the limits of this rhetoric. Karimov is the Saddam Hussein of our day and the US (and Britain) is locked into supporting him for much the same reasons - because he's there, because he is a useful strategic ally, because he provides the US with a base in the region and because he is a player in an area with resources vital to us. It's not right to say we prefer him because he's a dictator with control of his country. But it is right to say we are prepared to keep with him because we fear the alternatives - in this case instability, ethnic warfare and Islamic fundamentalism. And you can say the same for our support of President Musharraf in Pakistan and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan.

Bush's talk of freedom is really directed to the Middle East, and then only to the countries around Israel, where it sees its security and resource interests served by a move to democracy that will bring with it American free markets, the break-up of Opec and a recognition of Israel. It is not applied to, or at least not intended for, Pakistan or Central Asia, or even Egypt or Saudi Arabia, where Washington's interests are best served by its relations with existing regimes.

So it was with Saddam and, just as with Saddam, it is pointless trying to make the Karimovs of the world temper their tyranny. They keep power by exercising it, as well they know. And looking at recent history, it is hard to deny them the truth of that instinct. Kyrgyzstan, the one Central Asian country to have seen regime change, is also the one which was furthest along the road to introducing some democracy.

If only we could see countries in their own terms rather than ours, we might be able to do more good - as I still believe we could have done in Iraq if only we'd seen Saddam Hussein for what he was from the start. We are in one of those moments in history when the end of an era and the coming of age of a post-Cold War generation is producing a mood for change across the globe.

Whether this moment is like 1789, when revolution swept Europe, or 1848, when a wave of uprisings surged across the Continent only to ebb away soon after, we don't know. What we do know is that the generation of Russian-trained leaders which took over the republics of the former Soviet Union now looks distinctly endangered. Global communication and trade have led to a restlessness, a desire for a different, more equal order through most of the developing world, including the Middle East, Pakistan and the remaining authoritarian regimes of Asia.

What we should also recognise, however, is that, although developments may fit a broader pattern, they vary in specifics from country to country. What is happening in Central Asia now is not the same as what is happening in Ukraine and Georgia. Nor is it - despite the US State Department's efforts to channel everything into one course - only about the demand for democracy. Ethnic division and economic deprivation have more to do with the unrest in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan than political demands.

We cannot control these developments. We should not try to own them. But we can help them along if we wish. As a good start, we could stop supporting dictators. It never works over the long term. Then we can try to offer the economic and nation-building assistance that works with what populations want rather than telling them what's good for them from the outside.

We can jump up and down over the hypocrisy and shame of Andijan and feel the better for it. Much better if we used it as the occasion for a sober reappraisal of our "ethical" foreign policy and started to learn just what we can and cannot do to help the downtrodden of other countries.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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