Comment: Uzbek Leaders Address Some Causes of Dissent

While conspiracy theories are still the order of the day for public consumption, a Moscow-based commentator argues that Uzbek officials have realised that popular dissent has domestic roots.

Comment: Uzbek Leaders Address Some Causes of Dissent

While conspiracy theories are still the order of the day for public consumption, a Moscow-based commentator argues that Uzbek officials have realised that popular dissent has domestic roots.

The authorities in Uzbekistan continue to tell anyone who will listen that they are the victims of an international conspiracy, played out through a subversive plot in Andijan in May 2005.

Yet there are signs that senior officials do understand the real reasons why popular dissent exists - and they have even taken some steps to address these concerns.

However, cautious attempts at liberalisation have been balanced by a continued crackdown on alternative structures such as western-funded non-government organisations, NGOs.

The main strategy to date seems to have been to dismiss low or mid-level officials for corruption without addressing structural problems of governance and economics.

This tactic became apparent a month after the violence, when Andijan’s local television channel showed a meeting between Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev and local government officials.

The prime minister publicly upbraided the regional governor for closing a bridge linking the Kyrgyz and Uzbek halves of the border town of Karasuu (Qorasuv in Uzbek), which had been a lifeline for the many people travelling to trade at the sprawling wholesale market - Central Asia’s largest - just inside Kyrgyzstan. Uzbek officials partially destroyed the bridge two years earlier, but local people reopened it amid the chaos in Andijan.

The original decision to close such an economically and politically important bridge by inflicting damage to it can only have taken in Tashkent. But the carefully-spun message from the prime minister was that the fault lay with local government.

Further attempts by central government to distance itself from the causes of protest were to follow.

An investigation into both the interior ministry, which controls the uniformed police, and the National Security Service revealed that senior officers controlled major banks and companies, and were involved in other forms of corruption. Both agencies underwent a major shake-up. The allegations relate solely to financial wrongdoing.

The aim of these purges seems both to show the government is doing something, and perhaps also to remove some of the real problems that affect people’s daily lives.

After Andijan, workers at a number of state-run enterprises in the Fergana valley began receiving their salaries on time, and getting unpaid wages due to them previous months as well.

Other moves appear designed to reduce the burden of an often corrupt and always cumbersome bureaucracy. President Islam Karimov has issued decrees instructing the numerous agencies who pester private businesses for bribes - tax inspectors, firemen, and health and safety officers - to visit them no more than once a year.

Reforms such as a recent decree on microcredit loans for farmers are also clearly aimed at reducing social tensions. Whether such measures will actually come to anything is another question, since good intentions often end up sinking in the mire of bureaucracy.

Finally, regional governors - the key figures in sub-national government - are reportedly under strict instructions from Tashkent to handle disputes in a conciliatory manner so that people are not driven to mount mass protests.

It seems that Tashkent has concluded that conspiracy theories are all very well, but that there are also genuine causes for domestic dissent.

At the same time, the government has continued its zero-tolerance policy towards NGOs and media organisations, especially those funded from abroad.

The roots of this policy date not from Andijan, but from March last year when President Askar Akaev was ousted by a popular revolution in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Many analysts have dated Tashkent’s shift in strategic policy - away from the United States and towards Moscow - to the weeks after Andijan period, when the government was riled by western calls for an international investigation.

However, in reality the dramatic reorientation was prompted by the Kyrgyz revolution, and by the perception that it was sponsored by external forces.

A Central Asian politician whom I shall not name has told me that the Uzbek authorities were totally convinced that the American embassy in Bishkek was behind the Kyrgyz opposition movement - and that Uzbekistan would be next on the list.

The Andijan uprising only convinced them that they had been right, so they began expelling NGOs. As well as US-funded NGOs, they kicked out others which had no American connection but which worked in the areas of civil society and democracy.

In the minds of the Uzbek leadership, such work is tantamount to preparing people to engage in public protest - and this was not going to be tolerated.

Sanobar Shermatova is a columnist for the Moscow-based journal Bolshaya Politika.
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