The trouble with Uzbekistan
The news from Andijan has died down. As 2006 begins - months since the shooting stopped, since the hidden dead were buried in secret, mass graves - the fate of Uzbekistan, and the fate of its people, remain cloaked in silence. Reporting from Central Asia, never loud in the West, has settled back to its usual lull, awaiting the next crisis, the next blood bath, the next display of vulgar politics.
On May 13 Uzbekistan formally declared itself an enemy of its own people. The government, confronted with an uprising by thousands of citizens, fired on them with no warning and killed hundreds, as many as 750 men, women, and children, perhaps more. Human Rights Watch wrote later in a report, “The scale of this killing was so extensive, and its nature was so indiscriminate and disproportionate, that it can best be described as a massacre.”
Since then the country has been under siege by its own government. Secret police and security forces roam the country, arresting people on the hint of suspicion alone, torturing them, forcing out confessions, often for weeks at a time.
The entire Andijan region remains under martial law. Arbitrary arrests and torture are endemic. All forms of independent thought or action throughout the country are being eliminated. Western aid organizations are being shuttered, local civic organizations harassed and forced shut. Uzbek citizens, already suffering poverty and repression, feel the clamp around their neck tighten.
The massacre set something loose on the nation, a sickness of vehemence by the state against its own people that was always there, that was steadily increasing as time went on, and was waiting only for a moment like this to flood out into the open.
The Uzbek people do not deserve this. They do not deserve to be forgotten, nor to be recalled only at the next bomb blast. The continuing tragedy of Uzbekistan, the story of the people who died there, who fled as refugees from the country, deserve more than to be the occasional news clip.
What are now called the “Andijan events” were instigated by the trial of 23 businessmen from that southern Uzbek city, arrested in 2004 for alleged connections to an illegal Islamist movement. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the businessmen “were part of a self-help collective of entrepreneurs that, although motivated by religion, has shown no inclination to violence.”
Operating on the Muslim principle of zakat, or charity, they provided funds to orphanages and schools, assisted the poor, and provided honest employment with regular salaries - in short, they did everything for their community that a corrupt, insolvent, and discredited government could not.
The Uzbek authorities labeled them as “Akromists,” the name of an alleged Islamic movement that may or may not actually exist.
Whatever the reasons, the accusations against these popular public figures did not sit well with the Andijani public. Civil demonstrations sprang up after the arrests. The protests continued through the businessmen’s trial, gaining momentum, more and more people joining over the months until, just before the violence of May 13, the entire region was tense over the coming verdict.
The jail-break on May 12 tipped things over the edge. Friends of the accused took up arms, stormed the jail, and set in motion the insurrection that swallowed the region, building on the resentments and frustrations of a people sick of their poverty.
To be sure, the jailbreak did violate the law, as did the assault on local police and officials. Any government would be justified to put down criminal activity, but this is a delicate point and one easily confused with subsequent events. By the time Uzbek security forces were called in, thousands of peaceful demonstrators were in the streets, unarmed men, women, and children. It is primarily these people that the soldiers killed.
An eyewitness told Radio Liberty, “There was no warning... [Soldiers] started firing, hunting us like wolves. Those who could ran away, and those who didn’t run faced death. Men, women, and children ran. There were women running with children in their arms.”
Another told Reuters, “I saw soldiers killing several wounded with single shots to the head after asking ‘are there any wounded around?’”
Even after the massacre it took days before the Uzbek government had a handle on things. The country’s borders were sealed, the sweeps of arrests began. A bridge leading across the border, to Kyrgyzstan, to which hundreds of refugees had escaped, was blown up. A propaganda campaign began that still has headlines screaming accusations at foreign powers, Islamic terrorists, drug addicts, usually all at the same time. America received the brunt of the blame, leading in June to the US military’s expulsion from Karshi-Khanabad, the Uzbek military base so vital to Washington’s interests in Afghanistan since September 2001.
The men accused of leading the uprising were put on show trials, their scripted confessions paraded on national television, fantastic claims of conspiracy that cannot reasonably be true. Many are obviously idiotic. One example: confessions have implicated the US in conspiring with Uzbek terrorists to establish an Islamic fundamentalist state.
The government’s story, in brief: A terrorist underground planned the insurrection at least a year in advance, aided and abetted by American aid organizations, that would spread from Andijan throughout the country and establish an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. Various foreign powers infiltrated Andijan, sending reporters and “human rights investigators” ahead of time to insure world-wide coverage of the events. There was no rebellion, no mass demonstrations - there were only bandits aimed at causing violence.
Karimov’s government claims a much lower figure of casualties: 137 dead, including 30 or so police officers killed by the rebels. In a press conference on May 19, Uzbekistan’s Prosecutor General, Rashid Kadyrov, “categorically declared” that reports of government forces opening fire on a peaceful demonstration were “a blasphemy and mockery of any common sense.” He also stated, as has the president repeatedly since then, that “only bandits were liquidated by government forces during the operation.”
Islam Karimov was appointed head of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in the final years of the Soviet Union, and suddenly found himself President of independent Uzbekistan when the USSR fell apart in 1991. Since then he has maintained his presidency by force, intimidating and harassing his opponents, stifling all forms of expression, and holding back any economic reforms that would loosen his hold over the economy.
He has been particularly hard on practicing Muslims, equating belief with extremism. Laws putting severe restrictions on religious activities in the 1990s have led to mass arrests of peaceful Muslims, and even wearing a beard and skullcap has been enough to warrant detention.
That Andijan became something larger than the usual show trial, that it turned into a popular revolt, that there was an actual jailbreak and armed (or semi-armed) insurrection, is as much a question of the historical moment as popular discontent. Oppression in Uzbekistan is not something new. From the Khans to the Soviets, it is the only way of life the people know. It is more the tentative liberalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s that was the historical exception.
A second exception followed after September 11. The US and Uzbekistan formed a strategic partnership in the so-called War Against Terror. Karimov conceded an appearance of liberalization as a concession to Washington’s interests. Oppression did not cease in Uzbekistan but the government became just a shred more hesitant about it. The “Akromists’” arrest on dubious charges was business as usual, but the public protests that began over them, and that grew in size over the year, were tolerated.
Then came the revolution in Kyrgyzstan. The mass uprising there that led to regime change, following the peaceful revolt in Ukraine in December 2004, shook Uzbek society, giving hope to the sunshine coalitions, while terrifying the country’s leadership. Pictures of unarmed mobs storming the presidential palace in Bishkek, reports of Kyrgyz President Akayev fleeing the country, transmitted an impression that even Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled media could not hide.
Karimov was apoplectic. He accused Western powers, particularly the US, of aiding and abetting the “forces of instability” that swept the old regimes from power. He started clamping down on dissent, kicking international organizations out, and upped the anti-Western rhetoric. Then in May, once the public protests in Andijan transformed into insurrection, Karimov truly bared his fangs, called all bets off, and put an end to any pretense of tolerance.
Why the Andijan protests would lead to insurrection is clear if one knows how the Uzbeks live. The country, in effect, is a ruin. Once considered the Soviet Union’s vanguard republic in Central Asia, the country has deteriorated under Karimov’s ham-fisted dictatorship since 1991.
To visit Uzbekistan is to enter the suffocating atmosphere of a police state, a country of shadows and silence. The economy is a shambles, no private property, no foreign investment, little domestic commerce. Whatever minor reforms there have been, were enacted out of self interest alone, to benefit or protect the leadership, and otherwise ignored.
Officials have carved the country into personal fiefdoms, using their positions to extort and control the population. Cotton, the country’s largest source of hard currency, has literally enslaved millions of people, forced to work the fields every year. The system is corrupt, exhausted, a mess from the top down.
This is the rule of thumb on politics in Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan - everything, everything is personal. There are no “national” politics. There is no “public” policy. The powerful use their political stations to enrich themselves. They use the tools of government to squeeze out their profits, patronize their allies, and destroy their enemies.
Uzbek politics are clan politics, and the biggest and strongest clan is Karimov’s. In the sense that his decisions benefit his family and allies the most, that is the whole breadth and depth of national politics.
The unfortunate people of Uzbekistan are the pawns of these petty personal rivalries. If a group of businessmen are arrested in Andijan, it has more to do with local politics than any actual Islamist conspiracy. The “Akromists” were allies of Kobiljon Obidov, Andijan’s previous governor. Their arrests came not long after Obidov was removed and replaced by a close Karimov ally. Regardless of how popular or devout they may have been, their arrests soon afterwards could have simply been a “housecleaning’ of regional elites as the new governor got rid of his predecessor’s cronies in favor of his own.
Perhaps this is not, factually, the case. It has been alleged in some news reports but it is typical of Uzbek politics that no one can know for sure. If not this, then it is something else. The government’s story, of an Islamic conspiracy against the secular state, simply is not tenuous.
Uzbekistan is a tightly controlled, atomized society. Awful as the regime may be, their persistence, their invasiveness, their unforgiving, brutish suspiciousness do the one thing that even the most stable democracy cannot - they keep people in line.
The Uzbek state is not monolithic, however. There have been terror attacks in Uzbekistan before, bomb blasts as late as 2005, and a threat of radicalism does exist, though not to the degree that Karimov has been screaming about. Indeed, they have probably done more to strengthen Karimov’s hand, as he uses the War Against Terror to clamp down even harder on dissent.
The further tragedy of Andijan is that it reveals the two directions Uzbekistan can take: toward chaos or toward further oppression. Once Karimov goes - and he will go, eventually - either another dictator will take his place, or the country will descend into disorder and chaos. Karimov has spent 15 years eliminating all opposition, secular and religious, until there is no one left standing. There is no democratic opposition waiting in the wings, no “striving” towards electoral democracy that will guarantee a transition to a brighter future. No one understands what democracy means.
The instability that a failed Uzbek state could bring would extend beyond the country’s borders. Uzbekistan is the most populous state in Central Asia, with significant links with neighboring countries. Chaos in Uzbekistan would spill out into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which have significant Uzbek minorities, and affect more stable neighbors like Kazakhstan and Russia. True Islamic revolutionaries could percolate up from Afghanistan and elsewhere, bringing a real religious insurgency where Karimov has only been imagining one.
The danger is enough to merit attention, but as with other pariah states, only those with significant interests are paying it.
The West is no longer interested in the country. The US has decided simply to ignore Uzbekistan and has all but cut off diplomatic relations. Washington continues calls for an independent international investigation into the Andijan events but their concern has dried to a slow trickle of policy statements.
The EU has been more forceful, launching a trade embargo and a travel ban against Uzbek government officials in November. Germany is also filing suit against Uzbek Interior Minister Zokirjon Almatov, who sought medical aid there, for crimes against humanity.
Russia and China, countries which don’t give a fig about human rights, have been quick to embrace Karimov and readily back his version of the Andijan events. Both countries have signed economic and security treaties with Uzbekistan since May 2005, and made the country an important partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional economic and political grouping.
In the meantime, the people of Uzbekistan are suffering. Their great country is reduced to a flailing, failing state, a nation of 27 million with few options amidst continuing misery. Political activists and journalists who challenge the official story have been arrested, beaten, and intimidated. Evidence of mass arrests of Andijani residents and psychiatric torture of dissidents has been reported. No steps have been taken to investigate the actual murder of civilians on 13 May or scrutinize any government officials.
Predictably, all 15 defendants thus far put on trial for the Andijan events were handed guilty verdicts of 14 to 20 years in November. Their innocence or guilt is irrelevant. There is no due process, no open inquiry to sort out the truth. And in a country where no one is free, where guilt is assigned, rather than proven, the continual roll of convictions convinces no one, damning the government more than the accused.
Chaos or repression: those are Uzbekistan’s two choices. That they are both bad choices is beside the point. Uzbeks as a rule do not prefer disorder. They would be ready to accept another dictator, so long as he brought some wealth to the land. Given their options, perhaps the best they can hope is that the next dictator will be more enlightened, less paranoid, able to balance clan interests and promote greater openness without instability, so that the Uzbeks have more opportunity, more alternatives, and are able, in time, to evolve into a people with less fear, without the yoke of fear and death hanging over them.