When Uzbekistan’s authoritarian ruler, Islam Karimov, flies into Prague later this month, he will land at Václav Havel Airport. Yes, a man who is currently jailing thousands of political prisoners will arrive at a place named after one of the most famous and most respected political prisoners of our time.
It’s a situation so absurd that even the late absurdist playwright-turned-president Havel himself wouldn’t have imagined it.
And no one I’ve met in Prague over the past couple days - journalists, activists and officials - can quite explain why the current Czech President, Miloš Zeman, has invited the chief of one of the most repressive countries in the world to this Central European capital.
It’s doubtful Zeman is unaware of the kind of state Karimov has been running for nearly 25 years. Uzbekistan is infamous for its oppression. Torture is systematic in police custody and in the prisons, where there are many people jailed for political reasons - journalists, rights defenders, peaceful opposition politicians, and thousands behind bars for nothing more than practicing their religion outside strict government controls.
This is a state that every year forces well over a million people, including children as young as nine, into the cotton fields for weeks at a time in horrific conditions and for little or no pay. And it was Karimov’s security forces that committed a massacre in the city of Andijan in May 2005, firing indiscriminately into crowds of demonstrators and killing hundreds.
Surely, Zeman knows these things about his guest. So, why would he welcome him at Prague Castle?
There’s very little trade between the two countries, and no one can identify any major new deals on the horizon - certainly nothing worth selling out the country’s international reputation.
Some say this is simply another episode in a competition over domestic political influence as the country’s first popularly elected president (previous heads of state were determined by parliament) pushes against an incoming government comprised of former party colleagues he famously fell out with. But that seems unimaginably petty-minded.
In any case, that sound you hear under the wheels as Karimov’s plane lands here will be Havel spinning in his grave.