Tuesday, May 17, 2005

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How do you code Uzbekistan?

Is the recent unrest in Uzbekistan an example of the Uzbeks yearning to join the burgeoning fourth wave of democratization, or is it something else altogether, an example of Islamic extremists threatening a secular state? I'm still not completely sure, but my hunch is that it's the former.

The BBC provides a very useful timeline of events. The triggering event was an attack on the Andijan prison, where 23 local businessmen were held, accused of being Islamic extremists.

Rustam Iskhakov's first-person account of the prison-break in the Guardian cuts against the fourth wave thesis -- this looks violent and brutal:

I live five to 10 metres away from the jail [in Andijan] and saw it being stormed. At 11.10pm on Thursday people in civilian clothes came in 15 cars from the direction of the Kyrgyz city of Osh.

They were Uzbek, as far as I know. These men attacked the prison guards and drove an Ural 130 truck into the gates. They freed everybody in the jail. About 2,000 prisoners escaped. The guards were not ready for the attack - they did not even have bullets in their magazines.

The mob were about 100- strong with automatic weapons, sniper sights and Makarov pistols. They knew the guards did not have ammunition as they drove right up to the door.

They shot all 52 guards, including two women operating the telephone system. One guard survived by hiding in a watchtower.

However, this Ferghana.ru report on the official Uzbek response suggests that the authorities have bullets in some of their magazines:

Troops opened fire on thousands of demonstrators in the Uzbek city of Andijan on May13, bringing a bloody climax to protests sparked by a trial of local businessmen accused of being Islamic radicals.

As thousands of people including many women and children took part in a rally in the centre of the city, located in the east of the Fergana Valley, two columns of armoured cars moved in on the crowds and fired on civilians apparently indiscriminately.

IWPR’s country director Galima Bukharbaeva saw at least five blood-covered bodies lying on the ground, and many other people were injured.

Some protesters who had earlier seized Kalashnikovs and other weapons from a military base returned fire at the security forces.

The Weekly Standard's Stephen Schwartz argues that Andijan is an example of a fourth wave protest:

This turmoil is unrelated to radical Islam, and Islamist extremists were unable to capitalize on it. Nor is it motivated by desperate poverty; rather, it is an expression of rising expectations. The democratizing revolution in Kyrgyzstan, which lies on the border near Andijan, electrified the Ferghana Valley. The unsettled Uzbeks now have, next door, a successful example of direct action against unjust rule.

The crisis accelerated six weeks ago when citizens in the town of Andijan began peaceful demonstrations against the imprisonment of 23 young, local businessmen. The 23 were accused of belonging to an "Islamist conspiracy" called Akramiyya, which in reality seems to have been nothing more than a local spiritual and charitable circle. The Uzbek authorities and Russian and foreign news agencies and blogs have together accused Akramiyya of affiliation with Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT--the Liberation party), an extremist, neo-Wahhabi organization which is banned in several countries.

But Sheikh Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf, the 52-year-old, former grand mufti, or chief Muslim cleric for Central Asia, whom I interviewed at length in December, and who is notably pro-American, denies the charge that Akramiyya is connected to HuT. According to him (as reported by the Jamestown Foundation), Akramiyya "has nothing in common with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other radical political Islamic organizations."

Martha Brill Olcott, knower of all things Central Asian, makes a similar assessment in the Financial Times.

The limited amount of background research I did on Uzbekistan for The Sanctions Paradox suggests that Islam Karimov has been using the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism as an excuse to crack down on any and all opposition for the past thirteen years.

The fact that reporters have been kicked out of Andijan is also a decent sign that Karimov is dealing with more than terrorists. As Reporters Without Borders points out, "When the authorities keep journalists away from a conflict zone it is most often to hide abuses committed there."

Be sure to check out Registan.net blog for further updates -- it's the source of many of the links contained in this post.

UPDATE: Greg Djerejian is back at Belgravia Dispatch and has some thoughts on the what the Bush administration has done and should do.

Meanwhile, the New York Times' C.J. Chivers reports that the Uzbek government now admits more people were killed in the suppression of the Andijan protests than they originally acknowledged. And the AP's Burt Herman reports that an Islamic rebel in Uzbekistan has declared he controls a border town:

The government of President Islam Karimov quickly shrugged off Bakhtiyor Rakhimov's claims as "nonsense,'' but the rebel leader asserted that his forces controlled Korasuv, a town of 20,000 on the Kyrgyz border, and were ready to fight any government troops that came to crush his rebellion. The rebels claimed to control 5,000 activists.

"We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran,'' Rakhimov said in an interview with The Associated Press. "People are tired of slavery.''

The BBC has more on Rakhimov's aims.

FINAL UPDATE: Paul Reynolds provides some useful analysis for the BBC.

posted by Dan on 05.17.05 at 06:03 PM


I don't want to seem to swim against the fourth wave, but were the Uzbek demonstrations really pro-democracy or just anti-Karimov?

Uzbekistan is in Central Asia, not on the fringes of Europe. The democratic models available to it are thousands of miles away, Islam is a force among the opposition and the Russian influence is still a lot greater there than ours is, air base or no air base. On the other hand Karimov is by all accounts not just a dictator but an especially unreasonable one. At least to me opening fire from armored cars on an unarmed crowd seems a fairly unreasonable step, and I'd be surprised if it were the first instance.

Don't get me wrong: I'd be delighted to see an Uzbek democracy bloom on the steppe, but if people there were content to settle for an ordinary dictatorship to replace the one they have now I think we ought to count that as progress.

posted by: Zathras on 05.17.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

I wouldn't call it "pro-democracy" but rather "anti-economic-strangulation" and "pro higher expectations."

posted by: praktike on 05.17.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

rice has yet to condemn the massacre. pathetic.

posted by: carabinieri on 05.17.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

Hm. Not enough information... Uzbekistan was basically a staging area for Afghanistan, not a primary focus of either the intelligence services or the media.

It is not unreasonable to wait until details are known before commenting on something.

posted by: rosignol on 05.17.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

openDemocracy is currently headlining Uzbekistan, if the headline is rolled out, they're featuring the following four articles:

current stuff:
Nathan Hamm
Matt Black

archived stuff:
Malika Kenjaboeva
Sabine Freizer

posted by: Michael B on 05.17.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

A coalition of pro-democracy forces and fundamentalists overthrew the Shah in Iran, maybe the same thing is happening in Uzbekistan. While the bad guys eventually won out in Iran, that doesn't mean the same thing will happen 25 years later in Uzbekistan.

posted by: Brian S. on 05.17.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

"We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran,'' Rakhimov said in an interview with The Associated Press. "People are tired of slavery.''

Ah, my daily dose of irony. Thank you.

posted by: Achillea on 05.17.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

Trying that again, with the links not clobbered by the damned preview ...

daily dose of irony

posted by: Achillea on 05.17.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

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