Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Andijan Remembered

After shooting down protesters in 2005, Uzbekistan’s government concluded that repression works, that historical truth can be suppressed, and that no one will really care in the long run.
By John MacLeod
  • Protesters covered the Uzbek embassy in London in red paint after the Andijan killings. May 17, 2005. (Photo: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
    Protesters covered the Uzbek embassy in London in red paint after the Andijan killings. May 17, 2005. (Photo: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
  • Protesters covered the Uzbek embassy in London in red paint after the Andijan killings. May 17, 2005. (Photo: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
    Protesters covered the Uzbek embassy in London in red paint after the Andijan killings. May 17, 2005. (Photo: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

Ten years ago today, Uzbek security forces opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan. The authorities did their best to shut down media reporting and ensure that the bodies of civilians were removed and secretly buried. They have had some success – the world has moved on, and inside Uzbekistan, the anniversary is not being marked.

The government claimed the number of dead was under 200, most of them armed militants or people they killed. The best independent estimates put the number of civilian dead on May 13, 2015 at several hundred, although one police officer speaking soon after the event told IWPR he understood the figure was far higher. He said casualties were on such a massive scale because of the use of armoured vehicles fitted with powerful machine guns. Human rights activists on the ground gathered up numerous spent shell casings from the weapons, unmistakable because of their huge size.

“These combat vehicles simply mowed everyone on the square down like hay,” the police officer told IWPR. “A densely packed crowd of demonstrators occupying the entire area of the square made an ideal target for the armoured personnel carriers and the Spetsnaz troops sitting on them.”

A reporter who was there picked up the story, telling IWPR, “Suddenly, armoured troop carriers appeared in the central square and started shooting randomly at people. There were a lot of children and youngsters near the demonstrators, and many of them were the first to be hit. Panic broke out, people started running… a bullet flashed past my head. I turned round and saw a middle-aged man fall to the ground, his face covered in blood.”

As the largest massacre carried out by government forces in post-Soviet Central Asia, Andijan seemed like it would be a watershed moment. The international community demanded an independent inquiry, the United States was forced to remove its military presence from the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, and the European Union imposed travel bans on selected Uzbek officials. The government drove out foreign media and democracy-building groups and arrested not just eyewitnesses to the massacre, but their relatives too. IWPR’s country director Galima Bukharbaeva and a dozen other IWPR contributors were among those who left the country after reporting the story of Andijan.

But if we take the long view, there was no real watershed moment. The government of Uzbekistan intensified its already aggressive suppression of human rights defenders, independent journalists and dissidents, assisted by the departure of journalists and rights groups who would earlier have relayed their stories from inside the country. (They continue to do so from outside Uzbekistan – Human Rights Watch, for example, has marked the anniversary with a film worth watching to recall what happened.)

The EU sanctions melted away, and by 2010, Washington was reengaging with Tashkent to secure transit routes to supply NATO-led troops in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan’s canny leaders read this as a sign that security and economics trumped human rights concerns, which they believed were no more than a bargaining chip for the West. They learnt nothing from the experience, except that grassroots dissatisfaction can and should be dealt with early on, by all available means and at any cost. The narrative, they decided, could be managed later on.

In 2015, there is little to be said about political liberties and freedom of expression in Uzbekistan other than to note their complete absence. The government continues to apply a mix of Soviet statist economic policies while allowing a limited free-for-all in which powerful figures get to carve up prize areas like the import-export trade. As the elite enriches itself, general living standards have stagnated. Events in Andijan started as a revolt against this way of running an economy.

Farmers are held in thrall to the state-monopoly cotton industry, which also benefits from the mass coercion of young people and public sector workers to provide seasonal labour. The annual migration of Uzbeks to Russia’s labour market has acted as a safety-valve for discontent among a young, under-employed population. That is changing as the contracting Russian economy has less and less need for Central Asia’s surplus labour.

For many in Uzbekistan, the Russia of the 1990s – for all its chaos – represented something they could aspire to. People there could express themselves, protest, read a range of views in the newspapers, and vote for more than one person. 

That has all changed now. President Vladimir Putin has turned the clock back and reverted to the authoritarian mentality and methods to which Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov has held true for two decades and more – a legacy both men inherit from Joseph Stalin.

Karimov is getting on in years, but his re-election to yet another term in office this March is a sign of fragility, not strength. Forget actually electing a successor – he has been unable to identify anyone to take over from him who will not turn on him and his family once he steps down. So he is doomed to being president for life, while what happens afterwards remains unclear. Officials in Washington and Moscow may have resigned themselves to this state of affairs simply because alternatives involving a major shake-up could bring instability, an Islamist insurrection and who knows what else.

But that is to assume all the pieces on the board are going to remain where they are – the economy muddles along just well enough;  an unhappy population remains quiescent; and Afghanistan remains troubled but not enough to create a knock-on effect in Central Asia. None of that may hold.

For officials in Tashkent and abroad, concluding that overwhelming force is always going work in the Uzbek context is precisely the wrong lesson to learn from what happened in Andijan.

John MacLeod is IWPR’s managing editor.