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Commentary: A Dictator's Last Days?

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ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan -- The attempt by the Uzbek Army to retake control of the eastern town of Andijan was not unexpected. But few expected a massacre, and no one can predict how the present political convulsion will ultimately end in this, the biggest and most strategically important Central Asian state.


IWPR (Institute for War and Peace Reporting)

 By Galima Bukharbaeva

A country where even press spokesmen won't speak to the press, Uzbekistan is clearly a difficult place to be a journalist. But Galima Bukharbaeva makes it look easy.  Click here to read more about Galima.

I have never seen so much blood. A bullet ripped through my rucksack as I stood interviewing people in the central square, packed late Friday afternoon with 5,000 people.

People were also occupying the compound of the regional government building. "Just in front of me a soldier shot dead a woman with two small children," a woman told me. The authorities had made no attempt to clear the square, but simply shot into the crowd from almost point-blank range. At least nine were killed in the first volley, including five men close by me. A first column of armored personnel carriers swept by the compound and was followed by a second column, which opened fire. Demonstrators had been carrying the first victims inside the government building, but when the APCs started shooting there was absolute panic and we gave up counting bodies and dived for cover.

In Tashkent, President Islam Karimov denied that troops had opened fire first on demonstrators, and in any event declared, "We do not shoot at women and children." Yet according to a pathologist I spoke to, 500 corpses were lying in School No. 15 of the Old Town: They included women and children. Unlike male bodies, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, they were not being given back to relatives. The doctor said they might even end up in mass graves.

Hundreds of refugees have been trying to flee to neighboring Kyrgyzstan and 500 are trapped in no-man's-land near the Kyrgyz town of Jalalabad. At another border town, Kara-Suu, protesters took over, declaring themselves the new authority. Thousands of residents swept through the streets, chasing officials, destroying police and tax buildings, setting fire to police cars and pushing at least one into a canal. Kara-Suu is no longer controlled by the central government in Tashkent, and the question on everyone's mind is whether -- like Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia -- the weekend's disturbances could lead to a revolution overthrowing the government.

The obvious difference is the bloodshed. Uzbekistan is a harsh dictatorship with no political freedoms or free press and widespread human-rights abuses. The original demonstrations began several days ago in protest against the trial of 23 local businessmen, accused of belonging to a militant Islamic group. When family members protesting the trial were jailed, thousands took to the streets and eventually took over the prison, seized weapons, and released the prisoners. Interior Minister Zokir Almatov telephoned a protest organizer, Kabuljon Parpiev, to issue a clear warning. According to Mr. Parpiev, "He said there would be an assault even if they had to kill three or four hundred people."

The other difference, or so President Karimov claims, is Islam. He has consistently accused political opponents of Islamic fundamentalism. There are 7,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan, many charged with membership of the banned extremist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir. Mr. Karimov has parlayed his Islamic problem and the country's strategic position -- borders with every country in the region -- into a strategic partnership with the U.S. in its war on terror, allowing the U.S. to maintain a significant air base in the south. Another group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is on the State Department's official list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Islamic radicals have fought Uzbek soldiers in this area for years, but the real problem is not Islam as much as the attitude of the government toward civil rights, including religious freedom. Any form of Islam that is not controlled by the state -- in the traditions of the Soviet period, when most mullahs doubled as agents of the KGB -- is denounced as a threat to national security.

Overall, the demands made by protesters in Andijan echo the exasperation that is present across the country. A disastrous economic policy has put many traders out of business, leaving many in the rural areas deprived of their livelihoods. Last November, angry demonstrators defied authorities in Kokand, another key city in the Ferghana Valley. This time, demonstrators have seized weapons. Unless President Karimov dramatically alters his policy, his people, having no other option, are unlikely to stop expressing discontent by nonviolent means.

For Moscow and Washington, the problem extends beyond Uzbekistan, as other Central Asian states could be affected by the situation. The hermit-state of Turkmenistan, heavily dependant on Uzbek water resources, could see the power of its absolute leader challenged. He has massed most of his troops on the border with Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan is anxiously monitoring the situation, too. While the economy in Kazakhstan is much better than in Uzbekistan, there is widespread frustration at President Nursultan Nazarbayev's powers and the dynastic ambitions of his daughter.

Is there a domino effect? Is the U.S. succeeding in bringing changes to regimes that stood unshaken since independence in 1991, where present leaders were in power even during the Soviet period? In Kyrgyzstan, the answer is clear. In Uzbekistan, the process will take more time, and has proved to be much more violent. But unless President Karimov dramatically reviews economic priorities and the need to allow more freedom, he might have to contemplate the idea of exile in Moscow.

Ms. Bukharbayeva is the Uzbekistan country director for Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Filip Noubel, IWPR's Central Asia project manager, contributed to this essay.

Created by anita
Last modified 2005-06-12 12:45 AM

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