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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 May 2005, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Democratic domino or dictator's stronghold?
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Uzbek President Islam Karimov
President Islam Karimov: which way now?

It is tempting for outside observers to assume that a democratic revolution is about to sweep through Uzbekistan.

After all, some other tough nuts in the former Soviet Union have been cracked, so why not another?

And there is an example right next door in Kyrgyzstan where, a couple of months ago, street protests forced out a president who had promised reform but who had not delivered.

Indeed, it would be rash to think that there will be no such revolution, and that the iron grip of President Islam Karimov will not be dislodged.

People once said that of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and others.


But there are significant hurdles for any would-be Uzbek reformers to overcome, which makes their task even harder than that faced by their predecessors in Eastern Europe.

For a start, the political structures in Uzbekistan are primitive compared to, say, Ukraine and Georgia.

There is therefore no obvious opposition leadership ready to take over.

This difference was highlighted in an article by Justin Burke of Eurasianet, a New York-based information group on Central Asia.

Uzbek soldier at roadblock in Tashkent
President Karimov runs a repressive regime in Uzbekistan

"Georgia had the Rose Revolution, and Ukraine had the Orange Revolution. Both featured well-managed anti-government protests, in which highly-organised student groups functioned as shock troops, acting under the direction of cohesive opposition political leadership," he said.

"Those two revolutionary efforts also benefited by having clearly defined and charismatic leaders - Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine - espousing relatively clear political programmes.

"All these factors helped ensured a relatively smooth transition of power."

Blaming Islamists

Another problem for reformers is that President Karimov has been able to pin the unrest on Islamic extremists, of which there are some active in Uzbekistan.

This has allowed him to cow the rest of the population by making them afraid of religious extremism.

It has also enabled him to attract support from both Russia and China, who face their own Muslim fundamentalists.

He has also had support from the West, especially the United States, which has an airbase near the Afghan border.

This support wavered only after the shooting of the unarmed demonstrators last week in Andijan.

The West has known perfectly well what has been going on in Uzbekistan in recent years.

Not only was former British ambassador Craig Murray constantly complaining of Karimov's rule, but in December last year the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that parliamentary elections had not been satisfactory.

"Fundamental freedoms in Uzbekistan remain severely restricted, and the relevant principles necessary for a meaningful democratic election process, such as freedom of expression, association and assembly, were not respected," it reported.

The Ferghana Valley and neighbouring regions of eastern Uzbekistan have been seething with discontent since late last year
Stephen Schwartz

But the West has trodden carefully, given Uzbekistan's role in supporting the war in Afghanistan and the country's resources of natural gas.

If enough pressure can be put on Mr Karimov to allow reform and opposition, then it is possible that his whole repressive structure will crash down.

But, of course, it is far from certain that this will happen.

Popular unrest

Although Mr Karimov has accused international Islamic groups such as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan and Hezb-e-Tahrir of fomenting revolution, it is important to keep an eye on the popular basis of the unrest.

This was picked up recently by Stephen Schwartz, a writer on Islamic affairs, during a visit to Uzbekistan.

He wrote in the US magazine The Weekly Standard: "The Ferghana Valley and neighbouring regions of eastern Uzbekistan have been seething with discontent since late last year, when thousands turned out to demonstrate against high taxes and restrictive state policies on commerce."

He noted that the protests had been triggered by the trial of 23 local businessmen in Andijan, rather than by any form of Islamic militancy.

"This turmoil is unrelated to radical Islam, and Islamist extremists were unable to capitalise on it. Nor is it motivated by desperate poverty - rather, it is an expression of rising expectations," Stephen Schwartz said.

"The democratising revolution in Kyrgyzstan, which lies on the border near Andijan, electrified the Ferghana Valley. The unsettled Uzbeks now have, next door, a successful example of direct action against unjust rule."

So there appears to be the basis for a popular protest movement. However, its success or failure cannot be predicted right now.

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