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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 May 2005, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
Uzbek crackdown set to fuel unrest
By Malcolm Haslett
Central Asia analyst

With the Uzbek city of Korasuv back in the hands of government forces, it seems that the outbreak of unrest in eastern Uzbekistan has been contained.

The Uzbek public have been shocked by the brutal shootings
But will the situation in the country, and indeed in the whole Central Asia region, ever be the same again?

The toll of the recent protests is disturbing.

The government says 170 people died but unofficial sources say 500 or more were killed, in what the authorities justified as a crackdown on Islamic militancy.

The true figure may never be known, but the many different photographs of dead bodies, sometimes dozens of them, bear ample testimony to the carnage that ensued.

And this story is now widely known in Uzbekistan itself.

Most populous central Asian former Soviet republic, home to 26m people
Ruled since 1991 independence by autocrat Islam Karimov
Accused by human rights groups of serious abuses, including torture
Rocked by violence in capital Tashkent in 2004
Government says radical Islamic groups behind violence

Yes, many Uzbeks are frightened by the prospect of militant Islamic groups taking power and forming a fundamentalist caliphate in the Ferghana valley.

Most Uzbeks do not want that, and in the past have been prepared to support President Islam Karimov, even with his defects, in taking tough measures against Islamist groups.

The problem is that the recent actions of the security forces have themselves been brutal. And popular support for the president, particularly in eastern Uzbekistan, will have been severely shaken.

There are some extreme Islamist groups in Central Asia who are quite prepared to use violence to take power. But there are other Islamic groups which are non-violent. And other groups, still, who would just like a more democratic government.

Yet President Karimov has persistently lumped them all together and tried to stamp on all dissident activity, religious, economic and political, whether it be violent or peaceful.

Thus the sort of moderate opposition which in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan was able to channel popular anger into largely peaceful protest and regime change just does not exist in Uzbekistan. They have been driven out by the president, accused of joining forces with violent revolutionaries - something they have always denied.

Peaceful protests against economic or social injustice - like the farmers' protest outside the US embassy in Tashkent earlier this month - have been broken up with quite unnecessary force.

Swapping partners

The situation in Uzbekistan is highly polarised, and very unstable, largely through the fault of the government itself.

Islamic radicalism was probably not at the root of the recent violence in Andijan, but the danger is that militant Islamist groups may be able to harness and exploit the social frustration

President Karimov has always swung back and forth between developing relations with the West or sticking with the traditional 'big power' of the region, Russia.

For a long time he clearly hoped to loosen Russian political and economic domination of his country and attract significant investment for his country from the West.

But in recent years, irritated by constant Western lecturing about the need for human rights and democracy, he has veered sharply towards Moscow.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov gestures speaking at a news conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Tuesday, May 17, 2005
President Karimov has swung between the West and Russia
He recently withdrew his country from the GUUAM grouping of former Soviet states, led by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which have successfully loosened their ties with Russia and turned towards the West.

President Karimov has led Uzbekistan in the opposite direction, reaffirming close ties with Russia.

While the US and Britain have led a chorus of criticism of recent events in Andijan, questioning the official version that this was a dangerous Islamic-inspired rebellion, Russia has largely gone along with the official Uzbek view.

It seems unlikely that he will openly break with the West by, for example, demanding the withdrawal of the US base at Kahanabad, opened during the military operation against the Taleban.

But at the same time, it does seem probable that President Karimov, never one for compromise or diplomacy, will persist in snubbing Western demands for meaningful democratic reforms.

He is likely to try and maintain his tight grip on Uzbek society and intolerance of independent political or social activity.

Control slipping

Yet this may now be more difficult to achieve. Many people in the eastern Ferghana valley managed to give vent to their anger and disgust at the authorities' actions there.

And even before the recent tragic events there were signs that Uzbeks generally are losing their fear of what may happen if they protest.

Farmers, journalists and traders are among groups which have mounted public protests in recent months. And violent suppression of protests will not eradicate the root causes of this widespread social discontent.

Islamic radicalism was probably not at the root of the recent violence in Andijan, but the danger is that militant Islamist groups may be able to harness and exploit the social frustration of the Uzbek population for their own ends.


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