TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Two and a half millennia have passed since the Greek armies of Alexander the Great penetrated Central Asia, and the wave of democratic reforms visible in the post-Soviet and Muslim countries is now reaching Uzbekistan. On December 26, the same day Ukraine held the second round of its highly-contested vote, citizens of this Muslim-majority former Soviet republic went to the polls to elect a bicameral parliament.
As I write, on December 29, the results of the Uzbek vote are both incomplete and controversial. The allocation of seats to the various parties, including the ruling National Democratic Party of President Islom Karimov, has yet to be announced, and functionaries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have declared the balloting insufficiently democratic. But the OSCE inspires little confidence in such matters. For myself, I have witnessed several years of OSCE meddling and mismanagement of the promised transitions to democracy in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, and do not perceive the OSCE as possessing moral standing to issue such criticisms.
At the same time, while observing the Uzbek elections, I was reminded of earlier chapters in the history of post-Communist democratization. Whether the OSCE was satisfied or not, ordinary Uzbeks lined up enthusiastically to cast their votes on a multipage paper ballot. Meanwhile, the Uzbek authorities made extensive preparations to accommodate foreign journalists, who did not show up in substantial numbers. I had seen the same phenomena in Croatia in 1990, when that former Yugoslav republic held its first election. The Croatian vote, boycotted by the country's Serb minority, was followed by an atrocious war. However, Croatia will hold a normal presidential election on January 2, demonstrating that even the worst misfortunes may be overcome in the new democracies.
Uzbekistan's Muslim population overwhelmingly follows the peaceful traditions of Sufi spirituality, and the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), allied to al-Qaida, was almost completely destroyed with the fall of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Although Uzbekistan has seen local bombings and other terror incidents, the IMU recruited Uzbeks to fight outside the country and, significantly, never succeeded in launching a jihad within its borders. Thus, there is no shadow of armed conflict over Uzbekistan; yet the news from Ukraine continues to stir deep concern here. With pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych refusing to concede failure to Viktor Yushchenko, many fear that Ukraine could, like the former Yugoslavia, collapse in violent disorder.
There are more than a few parallels between Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia. The entrenched pro-Russian elements in eastern Ukraine, Christian Orthodox in religion and nostalgic about the Stalinist past, have agitated against local nationalists in western Ukraine, who include many Catholics and Uniates (Byzantine-rite Catholics), and who seek entry into the European Union. The Yanukovych forces have labeled Yushchenko supporters "fascists," "Jew-baiters," and "agents of the U.S." Much of this rhetoric is identical to that employed by Milosevic and his cohort in Belgrade against Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, almost 15 years ago.
Civil war in Ukraine would be an unmitigated disaster for the people of that country, but also for the other post-Soviet transitional republics. Two issues come into play in the Ukrainian controversy: democracy itself and Muscovite interference. Uzbek president Karimov, although accused of authoritarianism, has walked a tightrope between condemnation of Leonid Kuchma, the former Ukrainian leader and patron of Yanukovych, and criticism of the involvement of international democratic activists backed by the U.S., in the Ukrainian "orange revolution." Karimov, who has become increasingly wedded to his regime's military alliance with the U.S. in the war on terror, wants to keep Russia, and its president, Vladimir Putin, at a distance. But he is also fearful of a "domino effect" swiftly overtaking the rest of the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States.
Nevertheless, Karimov has a point in his denigration of the foreign-backed activist groups that have assisted Yushchenko, and it also echoes the history of former Yugoslavia. Western media and political circles are fond of citing the U.S.-assisted 2000 "revolution" against Milosevic as a positive example of change, and veterans of that campaign have flocked to Kyiv. But the removal of Milosevic was mainly cosmetic, and Serbia has sunk further into the abyss of mafia domination.
Putin, for his part, seems intent on dragging Russia into a similar black hole, and in liquidating the process of democratization in his own country. Uzbek intellectuals note that Putin brags about his employment with the Soviet secret police, speaks in loving tones about Stalin, and concentrates his fire on "oligarchs," which in Moscow is considered a code-term for "rich Jews." The Russian president's interference in the Ukrainian election has earned him hitherto-unheard disapproval from Washington.
One might compare Uzbekistan favorably with Russia, a former superpower -- but also with Saudi Arabia, which has ambitions to supreme leadership of the Muslim world. While Russia moves further away from democracy, Uzbekistan has taken steps that, however flawed, represent forward movement. In Uzbekistan, at least, voting takes place, with women included on the voters' registers, and 30 percent of the candidates are female. By contrast, Saudi Arabia has promised limited municipal elections for February 10, but women will be barred from participation. Meanwhile, Saudi clerics, as preachers of Wahhabism, the state religion in the kingdom, continue to incite jihadists to wreak terror in Iraq, in what we must hope is a futile attempt to disrupt that country's new electoral process.
In the ultimate reckoning of history, the fate of Uzbekistan is, in my view, no less significant than that of Ukraine. As I have previously written on TCS, a successful, bloodless transition in the latter country may encourage such an outcome in other places, including many in the Muslim world. Certainly, similar developments in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and other post-Soviet Muslim societies could accelerate the global democratic movement, including possibilities for a more rapid and positive, orderly and rational, change in Saudi Arabia.
At this moment all eyes are on Ukraine, and justifiably so. President Bush should step up his pressure on Vladimir Putin to back off, and to call off his proxy, Yanukovych. Let Ukraine be Ukraine. Let democracy prevail. If Ukraine falls back into the pit, hope for real reform will dissipate in Uzbekistan, to the detriment of its own citizens and of our alliance with its people, who are in the forefront of Afghan reconstruction, and of the general struggle against Islamist extremism. The stakes are too high to ignore the aspirations of Ukrainians for democracy.