Uzbekistan: Uneasy Calm Reigns After Attacks

As the government continues to arrest suspects, Tashkent residents voice anger at the conditions that they say fuelled the attacks.

Uzbekistan: Uneasy Calm Reigns After Attacks

As the government continues to arrest suspects, Tashkent residents voice anger at the conditions that they say fuelled the attacks.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

A week after Tashkent was rocked by violence, the mood in the Uzbek capital remains downbeat, even surly. And some of the anger is directed not at the attackers - assumed to be a group of Islamic radicals - but at the government many hold responsible for driving people to commit desperate acts.

Armed clashes and explosions - some deliberate, some apparently accidental - left 47 people dead, officials say. Of that total, 33 were “terrorists” and 10 police. The latter figure is significant since it seems that law enforcers were the principal target of the attacks.

Ilya Pyagai, deputy head of the interior ministry’s anti-terrorism department, told IWPR by phone that police are continuing to carry out arrests, although he would not say how many people had been detained so far. The prime suspects are Islamic groups, he said, without elaborating. Last week, he was quoted in the media as saying the attackers had links to al-Qaeda, a claim that ties in with statements by senior government officials that there was an international dimension to the attacks.

The official daily Narodnoe Slovo published a series of reports in which people all across the country condemned the attacks and called on everyone to rally around the government.

However, people contacted by IWPR from London appeared surprisingly unsympathetic to the regime.

Tashkent’s population is arguably the least likely to support any kind of trouble - all the more so when it’s apparently the work of Islamic radicals. The city has a lot of ethnic Russians, and the middle classes and elite, who have businesses or serve in the official bureaucracy, should form a natural constituency for the regime.

Yet that is not the picture reflected in IWPR’s interviews. People expressed alarm at the violence - but also a sense that Karimov has brought it upon himself through policies which leave people marginalised and impoverished.

“I think the authorities are to blame for the blasts,” said a taxi driver who asked not to be named. “Poverty drives people to extreme actions; poverty and hopelessness fuel terrorism.”

A city resident, who gave his name as Rahmatullo, said he hasn’t heard anyone condemn the attacks. “People in the city are mostly scared by these events, and fear that there will be more explosions, but they do not condemn the people who, they say, have decided to fight Karimov’s regime,” he said.

The sense of anger extends to public servants such as teachers. “The authorities have lost the people’s trust. My family used to be well-off, but now we can hardly make ends meet,” said a Tashkent teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. “I condemn the violence, but I realise what pushed these people to take up arms.”

One Russian woman of pension age, Nadezhda Ivanovna, showed a level of understanding for Muslim radicals that would have been unthinkable for someone like her a few years ago. Likening their plight to the Russian community’s own increasing sense of isolation, she said, “The rights of Muslims are being abused in the same way. Such ill-considered steps by the authorities are probably the reason for the explosions and the attacks on police.”

Others agreed that the persecution of Islamic groups was likely to have sparked the attacks. More than 6,000 people, mostly members of the banned group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, are currently in jail. One of the theories is that the violence was carried out by associates of the group.

“The explosions were carried out by relatives of those who’ve been accused of religious extremism and are now serving jail sentences,” said a local man, who asked to remain anonymous. “It was an act of vengeance.”

However, sources in the security services told IWPR last week that they did not think Hizb-ut-Tahrir - which says it is against violence - was the Islamic group involved in the attacks.

Bahodir Musaev, an independent sociologist, believes the anger people are now expressing is the product of years of failed political and economic policies by the government.

“I would go as far as to say that we are seeing an uprising by the Uzbek people,” Musaev told IWPR. “In Uzbekistan, there’s a growing sense of negative energy. People have suffered depression, followed by despair, which has now been transformed into real actions. I fear that our society has crossed the barrier, and troubled times lie ahead.”

In an earlier interview, conducted before the attacks, Musaev summed up this level of desperation with an old Uzbek phrase, “The knife has hit bone and the pain has become unbearable.”

The fact that so many policemen were killed suggests the assailants deliberately chose to target a group they identified as representing the current regime.

As Yury Konoplyov, a member of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Activists of Uzbekistan, said, “The police are the primary conduit for the authorities’ policies; they are always in direct contact with people, and it is from the police that the people mainly suffer harassment and abuse of power,” he said.

“Everyone’s had enough of the police,” said a man at one of Tashkent’s markets, who asked not to be identified. “They don’t let us work. So the explosions were directed against them.”

Expressions of open hostility were rare in the interviews IWPR conducted- most people were unsympathetic to the police without wishing violence on them.

And there were some who voiced support for the police. “Peaceful citizens are suffering, for instance rank-and-file policemen who aren’t guilty of anything,” said Andrei, a Russian. “No state can do without a police force, so I’m very sorry for those who were killed and injured.”

Police themselves are reluctant to discuss the possibility that they are being targeted. Ilya Pyagai of the interior ministry said investigators did not see this as a central aspect. Asked why anyone would attack the police in particular, Pyagai replied, “I hadn’t thought about it.”

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