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Comment: Uzbekistan's Relentless Downward Slide

Anyone who thought the government would ease off after Andijan is dead wrong, argues an Uzbekistan-based analyst.
By Babur Anvarov
May 13, 2005 was the most instructive of dates in Uzbekistan’s recent history as well as being the most terrible. Never before had the essence of President Islam Karimov’s regime been laid bare so openly – brutality, cynicism, dictatorship, and hostility to its people.

Recent events in the country - and the Andijan killings above all - offer complete and graphic proof that this readiness to repress even on a grand scale is no accident, no isolated episode, but rather a distinguishing feature of Karimov’s personality, as a politician who has forced his way to power and is now trying to hang onto it at any price.

This maniacal hunger for power explains why Karimov manipulates elections and referendums to perpetuate his rule; why his relationships with the United States and the West on one hand, and Russia and Kazakstan on the other, have shifted opportunistically; and why he perpetrates regular bloodlettings on his own people.

Karimov’s readiness to use extreme force is nothing new. When there were student disturbances at Tashkent university in 1992, government ministers of the time report that a furious president asked interior minister Zokir Almatov, “Why didn’t you shoot? You should have immediately wiped out the organisers of this unrest.”

Andijan only confirmed this policy. But that did not lessen the shock of this merciless, large-scale attack on peaceful citizens.

The popular uprising in Andijan was caused principally by underlying social tensions which created a potential for protest that is far from exhausted even now. Factors specific to this case included the trial of 23 men accused of membership of a group called Akramia, and possibly some external influence which might have found fertile ground amid the general sense of dissatisfaction with economic, social and political conditions in Uzbekistan.

There have been many cases in history where after committing some terrible act of violence, a government sobers up and shows some regret for its actions - some desire to make amends - and starts pursuing more liberal policies and ingratiating itself with its opponents.

But in Uzbekistan, the reverse has happened. Immediately after the violence, the authorities launched an unprecedented campaign against all dissidents, above all journalists and political figures. Speeches by the president and the official media accused them of betraying the nation and of serving western masters whose goal was to deprive Uzbeks of their independence, even of their own way of thinking.

Every kind of state and public resource was deployed in this brainwashing effort, including propaganda methods revived from the Soviet era – “agitation brigades” (teams of people sent out to deliver the official line), and set-piece speeches at local community level, academic institutions and in the workplace.

Almost all international foundations, centres, legal offices closed down.

Criminal cases were opened, usually on fabricated charges, against any more or less independent-minded figure. This included anyone who might conceivably challenge Karimov at the next presidential election, scheduled for 2007, which will be used endorse yet another term for a leader who has been in power since 1989, and award him with what will be presented as a sweeping majority.

There were some sincere but naïve patriots who took the view that Andijan was a watershed, and that since further bloodshed would lead to regime collapse, a dialogue needed to be created with pragmatic politicians and businessmen so as to achieve a drastic upturn in the economic situation.

But this initiative - and I refer here to the Sunshine Coalition - was to prove quixotic. It was cut short, and the coalition’s leaders were jailed.

Events are now progressing in a very negative direction, with no grounds to believe the trend will be reversed. The witchhunt grows more intense day by day, and the machinery of repression gains momentum.

In this context, the tolerant attitude which Russia, Kazakstan and some other countries have taken towards the Karimov regime is not only inappropriate, but is actually an insult to our people. Regime ideologists make great play of the support offered by these countries.

Their government fail to realise the inherent risks entailed in working with President Karimov, who is as unpredictable as he is ambitious. Their blindness to the facts is a great shame.

Babur Anvarov is a pseudonym for an independent analyst in Uzbekistan.

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