The Uzbek turmoil

Published : Jun 17, 2005 00:00 IST

Uzbekistan sees an eruption of anti-government violence led by Islamists even as the Bush administration goes ahead with its agenda for Central Asia.


ON May 12, in the city of Andijan in Uzbekistan, relatives and supporters of 23 local businessmen who had been tried on charges relating to Islamic extremism attacked a police station and an army garrison. They captured arms, seized control of a prison and freed hundreds of inmates, including the jailed businessmen, and barricaded themselves in a local administration building vowing to fight until death if attacked by government forces. Thousands of residents gathered in the city's central square to support the revolt, which also had more jobs and better pay as a demand. As night fell, troops poured into the city and fired on the peaceful demonstrators as well as the armed rebels, before bringing the situation under control. Two days later, rioting occurred in the towns of Pakhtabad, north of Andijan, and in Karasuv, on the border with Kyrgyzstan. In both places, the army was used to reassert government control. The authorities put the overall death toll at 170, including 40 police and army personnel. However, witnesses said hundreds had been killed, and an opposition group claimed that it had compiled a list of 745 casualties.

This is the worst violence in Uzbekistan since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. The use of force appears to have put down the revolt in the region for now, but experts say protests may resume once people have buried their dead. Islamist-led rioters in the Fergana Valley, where more than a third of the country's population lives, protested against grinding poverty, corruption and bureaucratic abuse of power. Poverty and radical Islamisation - the main factors behind the violence in Uzbekistan - are the direct result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The independent states that sprang up on the ruins of the Soviet Union were all splinters of a centralised economy rather than self-sufficient economic entities. The fall of the socialist superpower led to the disruption of economic links between republics, massive closures of factories and the ruin of collective farms, leaving millions in Central Asia without any source of livelihood. These conditions pushed people towards Islamists.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin described recently the fall of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century", his statement was greeted with indignation and derision in the West, which is proud of its victory in the Cold War.

The new states of Central Asia were the worst hit by the collapse of the Soviet Union, since, as the poorest republics, they depended heavily on the huge subsidies from the central budget. The collapse interrupted a gradual process of economic, social and cultural evolution in the region.

During the first 10 years of independence, the Central Asian economies shrank by more than a half. Even though economic growth has resumed in the past few years, economic and social problems are growing much faster. Uzbekistan is still one of the poorest of the countries that came out of the Soviet Union, and independent studies show that a vast majority of its population lives far below the subsistence level. In the fertile Fergana Valley, cotton plantation workers earn $5-$10 a month. Despite a 7.7 per cent growth, poverty has not diminished because Uzbekistan has one of the world's highest birth rates - 2 per cent, or 500,000 babies a year.

President Islam Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since the break-up of the Soviet Union. He has rooted out all genuine opposition parties, which acted as a safety valve for growing popular discontent. The Fergana Valley has become a breeding ground for Islamic extremism and the stronghold of the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has been linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The IMU mounted armed attacks in the region in 1999 and 2000 in an effort to set up a base to build a Central Asian Caliphate.

The authorities have cracked down on radical Islamists and anything that even remotely suggests religious extremism. Many mosques - they grew like mushrooms in post-Soviet Uzbekistan - have been closed, religious literature is screened, sermons are monitored by state officials, and public calls to prayer have been banned. Thousands of "extremists" have been jailed.

However, Karimov's actions appear to have bred more extremism. Just over a year ago, Tashkent, the capital, and the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara were rocked by a series of bomb attacks, which claimed 48 lives. The attacks, which for the first time in Central Asia featured female suicide bombers, were blamed on the Islamic Movement of Turkistan (the renamed IMU). Radical Islamists in Uzbekistan, as in other Central Asian states, have experienced no shortage of money, because of drug-trafficking from Afghanistan which has boomed since the ouster of the Taliban by the U.S.-led coalition. Afghanistan under American control has outstripped Colombia, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand to top the list of heroin-producing countries. The main drug transit routes pass through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which share a border with Afghanistan. The Fergana Valley, shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, has historically been an explosive mix of ethnic, social and economic conflicts rooted in the scarcity of land and water resources. These conflicts were aggravated when administrative borders drawn by the Soviet government in Western Turkestan, a single province in Tsarist Russia, overnight became the state borders of newly independent nations after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Fifteen years ago, violence broke out in Kyrgyzstan's part of the Fergana Valley between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, and hundreds died. A much wider carnage was barely averted at that time when President Karimov stopped truckloads of Uzbek youth heading towards Kyrgyzstan to avert the slaughter of their relatives. There is the danger that the exodus of refugees from Uzbekistan, which began in the wake of the latest unrest, will heighten ethnic tension in Kyrgyzstan and set the Fergana Valley on fire.

The United States has chosen this explosive region to "advance the cause of liberty", as President George W. Bush put it. The revolt in Uzbekistan clearly drew inspiration from the "tulip revolution" in Kyrgyzstan, where Washington had channelled millions of dollars through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) under the 1992 Freedom Support Act. Two months ago, angry crowds stormed the seat of government in the Kyryz capital of Bishkek, forcing the reformist President Askar Akayev to flee to Russia.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been allies of the U.S. in its "war on terrorism". They provided the U.S. with air bases to support its anti-Taliban operations in neighbouring Afghanistan. However, the U.S. was unhappy about having to share its influence and resources in the Central Asian states with other key players in the region, above all Russia, which two years ago set up a major air base in Kyrgyzstan.

President Karimov's short post-9/11 romance with the U.S. came to an end last year after the latter cut its aid programmes for Uzbekistan, citing human rights violations. Then, in June last year, Uzbekistan signed a strategic cooperation treaty with Russia. Under the pact, Russia will supply defence hardware to Uzbekistan, upgrade its armoury and train officers for its army in return for access to military facilities in the country. The two countries pledged to "coordinate their efforts for building an effective regional security system in Central Asia". The alliance not only threatens the U.S.' political and military interests, but also dashes its hopes of bringing under control Uzbekistan's rich gas reserves. Following the conclusion of the pact, Russian companies signed deals to invest billions of dollars in developing gas fields in Uzbekistan. Russia and Uzbekistan are both members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which also includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and has no role for the U.S.

Washington has been promoting an alternative security structure for the region on the basis of a Caspian Guard programme, which envisages setting up a trilateral alliance with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to provide military security for the Caspian. At a later stage the alliance may incorporate Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey, but lock out Russia.

Therefore Washington's plans for the region have no place for President Karimov, who in April withdrew from the alliance of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova (GUUAM), a U.S.-sponsored alternative to the Russia-led Commonwealth of Indepedent States (CIS).

Barely a week before the riots in Uzbekistan broke out, President Bush made it clear that the danger of creating instability would not stop the U.S. from carrying on with its global "freedom crusade". "We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability," Bush declared on the eve of the 60th anniversary celebrations of allied victory in the Second World War, in Moscow.

Several days after hundreds of people died in violence in Uzbekistan, Bush announced the establishment of an Active Response Corps and a Conflict Response Fund to "push the freedom agenda" across the world. "Across the Caucasus and Central Asia, hope is stirring at the prospect of change - and change will come," Bush said in an address at the U.S. International Republican Institute, which played a key role in orchestrating "coloured revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past 18 months.

The U.S. administration pointedly ignored an alternative programme, formulated by President Putin, for advancing democracy and development in the post-Soviet states, without upheavals. In his annual state-of-the-nation address on April 25, Putin called for promoting "democratic values in conformity with the national interests" of the former Soviet states and for "synchronising the pace and parameters of the reform processes in Russia and CIS states". In this Putin sees a continuation of the "civilising mission of the Russian nation on the Eurasian contininent," which was interrupted by the tragic disintegration of the Soviet Union. If the U.S. were genuinely interested in promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union, it should welcome Putin's new plan and join hands with Russia in speeding up economic, social and political modernisation of the former Soviet states. However, Washington greeted Putin's proposals with stony silence. The proposals are unacceptable to the U.S. because they would imply recognition of Russia's leading role in the former Soviet Union and renunciation of America's own power-related interests in the region.

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