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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Outlook bleak in wake of Andijan
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC Central Asia correspondent

A local resident walks past a tank at the centre of the Uzbek town of Andijan, 17 May 2005
Andijan has become a very uneasy city

The remote town of Andijan in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan attracted the world's attention for all the wrong reasons one year ago on 13 May.

A massive anti-government protest began that day in the central square of this ancient trading town. It began after overnight attacks on a military base and a prison breakout which freed 23 popular local businessmen the government accused of religious extremism.

President Islam Karimov flew in to oversee events, but he did not go to meet the protesters as many expected.

Instead, according to some 500 eyewitnesses who managed to escape, and several Uzbek and foreign journalists who were present, Uzbek troops surrounded the crowd of mostly unarmed men, women and children, and began firing.

President Karimov has said that these events were an attempt to start an Islamic uprising. He said fewer than 200 people were killed, and that they were killed by the protest organisers themselves.

He accused Western governments and major international media organisations - including the BBC - of helping to plan and carry out the attempted uprising.

Human rights groups say several hundred people were killed. Secretly, sources within the security apparatus have backed the eyewitnesses' version of events, saying that several hundred, possibly even a thousand people or more were killed.

Who organised the prison breakout and whether they had outside help is still unclear. The Uzbek government has repeatedly refused to allow an independent investigation.

Fear and fragility

During a visit to Andijan some months ago, I was sitting in a cafe in the central bazaar. Guessing I was a foreign journalist, a man came up to me, eager to talk. He went to buy some tea for us, but when he returned my taxi driver had joined me at the table.

Presidents Islam Karimov and Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin has welcomed Uzbekistan back with open arms

The man politely asked the driver where he was from. When the driver said he was from the capital, Tashkent, the local man briefly told me with a smile that everything was fine now in Andijan. Then he rapidly swallowed his tea and left.

In Andijan and much of Uzbekistan these days, anyone you do not know personally could well be a government spy. And if you say the wrong thing, you may find the secret police knocking on your door after dark.

Andijan has exposed Uzbekistan's political fragility and it has turned this once-promising Central Asia nation into an international pariah.

In response, say observers, President Karimov's government has launched a Soviet-style witch hunt for enemies of the people, with mass arrests and intimidation of anyone contradicting the government's account of Andijan.

Wooed by Moscow

Numerous Western-assisted social, educational and media organisations have been closed down, and President Karimov has instead turned to Moscow for support.

In the wake of Andijan, Uzbekistan has lost much of the international backing it once received. Tashkent has evicted a major American military base from its territory.

File photograph of some victims of Andijan uprising in Uzbekistan in May 2005
Uzbek relations with the US took a turn for the worse after Andijan

It has also criticised European governments, the United Nations and the World Bank, which were assisting Uzbekistan. Only China and Russia have backed President Karimov's action in Andijan.

President Putin has seized the opportunity to draw Uzbekistan back into Moscow's embrace.

Deals for military cooperation have been renewed and expanded. Russia's state-controlled oil and gas companies, Lukoil and Gazprom, have come courting, promising investment in Uzbek oil and gas fields.

Prospects bleak

Human rights groups say the climate of fear has deepened. More than 150 people accused of involvement in the Andijan unrest have been charged with terrorism offences and imprisoned for long jail terms.

Human rights workers and the few open members of the opposition have been jailed. A campaign against independent Muslims who resist government control has been renewed.

Uzbek citizens who have fled to neighbouring ex-Soviet republics must remain in hiding.

At least 19 men have been sent back to Uzbekistan from Ukraine and Kazakhstan this year, in contravention of international agreements. Once there, they face almost certain beatings or torture.

The United Nations and human rights groups have abundant documentary evidence that torture is routinely used by the Uzbek security services to obtain information and confessions - even though the Uzbek authorities themselves say that illegal methods are not used.

Gas installation in Kazakhstan
Russia has been sniffing around Central Asia's gas reserves

Ahead of the anniversary there have been renewed calls for stronger diplomatic action against the Uzbek government.

American politicians have said they will propose new sanctions against Uzbek officials.

The US senator, John McCain, said that last year's trials in Tashkent of the alleged protest organisers were "show trials reminiscent of the Stalin era".

The International Crisis Group, a respected think tank, said in a statement that the European Union should expand its limited sanctions against Tashkent, to press the Uzbek government for change and to prepare a fragile region for the likely turmoil ahead".

Already tight security around President Karimov, 68, has been increased. All roads around the presidential office in Tashkent have been closed. Traffic past his country residence is now forced to make a long detour around it. Tashkent is patrolled by hundreds of green-clad militiamen.

One year after Andijan, the prospects for Uzbekistan look bleak. If repression continues, unrest could well break out again.

Many analysts say that ultimately the president could well be removed by dissidents within the ruling elite. The alternative is that Uzbekistan will simply limp on for years more, until the president dies or hands power to an as-yet-unknown successor.


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