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Comment: Who's to Blame in Uzbekistan?

Tashkent holds Islamic militants responsible for the Andijan demonstration, but most of those involved simply appear to have been citizens desperate for a better life.
By Filip Noubel

What lies ahead for Uzbekistan, in the wake of the violence in the Ferghana city of Andijan? And how should the international community respond to the state’s brutal crackdown?


Reliable information on and in Uzbekistan is a scare commodity, due to the government’s firm grip on print and electronic media. This leaves the Internet, but access to independent news sites is very restricted. The principal way information is relayed is through word of mouth. Notwithstanding the communications problem, what is certain today, as confirmed by IWPR reporters, is that several hundred inhabitants of Andijan, demonstrating peacefully in the city’s main square on Friday May 13, were either killed or went missing after the security forces opened fire on them.


The talking point now is what lay behind the violence. The Uzbek government’s standard response, trotted out by Moscow, and some in the United States, has been to automatically blame radical Islam. Certainly, Uzbekistan has in the past experienced attacks by Muslim militants. But on this occasion, it would be a mistake to jump to such a conclusion so fast, especially since President Islam Karimov has rejected the UN’s offer to launch an inquiry.


A closer look at the situation inside Uzbek society shows radical Islam is not the root of the latest violence, but more a result of Tashkent’s policy of curbing any form of public criticism of the regime. Last November, Kokand, near Andijan, witnessed the largest violent mass protest in Uzbekistan in the past decade. The trouble, centred on the city’s bazaar, was sparked by an attempt by tax police to impose new taxes on top of hefty customs duties of 70 per cent on imported goods. In rural areas of Uzbekistan, market trading is a crucial extra source of income for many families.


Karimov has long promised to introduce reforms to loosen the state’s grip on the economy. The posh facades and shops in Tashkent speak of prosperity, giving an illusion that those goals have been attained. But a look at the dehkan, the farmers representing over 60 per cent of the 26 million population, tells a different story. They live like serfs - forced, along with their children, to produce cotton for the government for slave wages; the profits of their labours pocketed by corrupt officials.


In recent years, the people of Uzbekistan have tried to communicate their grievances to the authorities. But the standard response is that if you complain, you must be an Islamic radical.


The Fergana Valley - an impoverished, densely populated area, where adherence to the Muslim faith is much higher than other parts of the country – is where many anti-government protests have taken place, with locals feeling that they have no other means of the conveying their sense of desperation to the government. People here are in such a state of despair that there are around ten cases a year of self-immolation. Such conditions are the breeding ground for extremism, but all the evidence to date suggests that most of those who took part in the Andijan demonstration were ordinary, deeply frustrated citizens.


Many of those who we interviewed in Andijan want to know who gave the order to shoot at civilians – and that whoever it turns out to be must be brought to justice.


A similar demand was made by the people of Aksy in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in March 2002, after police opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, killing five and injuring dozens. That incident set in motion a political dynamic that eventually led to the overthrow of the Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev.


It is obviously impossible to predict what will exactly happen in Uzbekistan. One thing, though, is clear: the authorities’ response is not to address the grievances of the people. On the contrary, censorship has been ratcheted up; jourrnalists and human rights activists are being detained, attacked and threatened; foreign journalists and diplomats are being denied free access to Andijan; and more importantly the families of victims are being threatened.


Some members of these families are openly calling for revenge. Under such circumstances, there’s little likelihood of stability being restored. This will only happen once the government dramatically alters its policies and the international community begins to accept what the real problems are.


Filip Noubel is IWPR’s Central Asian project manager.


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