Uzbekistan-China alignment

A week after calm started to return to Uzbekistan (see out last blog post), signs of simmering unrest continue, and the geopolitics of the conflict are starting to become clearer… Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Newsline (RFE/RL) reported May 23 that hundreds protested in Korasuv, the border town which had been briefly seized by Islamists in a seemingly spontaneous uprising. The protest was quickly broken by security forces. Arrests of suspected Islamists also continue.

In a 24 May statement, NATO‘s North Atlantic Council pronounced itself “deeply disturbed by the recent violence in Uzbekistan” and warned that the crackdown could affect Uzbekistan’s relations with the 26-member bloc. “We condemn the reported use of excessive and disproportionate force by the Uzbek security forces,” the statement said. “We will keep our relationship with Uzbekistan under close review, and call for transparency, co-operation with international organizations and domestic reform to strengthen democracy and the protection of human rights.” The statement also called for an independent inquiry into the violence in Andijon.

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan expressed support that same day for the Uzbek government’s actions in Andijon, describing the unrest as Uzbekistan’s “internal affair.” The statement noted that China supports Uzbekistan’s efforts to crack down on the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism.

RFE/RL reported May 26 that Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov was in Beijing for talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The two signed a treaty on “friendly and cooperative partnership,” as well as a number of technical and economic cooperation agreements, including a $600-million oil joint venture (see RFE/RL, May 17). Before leaving for his three-day China visit, Karimov told journalists in Tashkent that Uzbekistan hopes to attract $1.5 billion in Chinese investments over the next three-five years. President Hu adopted a supportive tone in his May 25 remarks, telling his guest, “China respects the way that the Uzbek people have chosen to develop their country and their efforts to safeguard national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” Xinhua reported.

Speaking to reporters in Tashkent before his departure for China May 25, Karimov rejected calls for an independent inquiry into allegations that government troops fired on protestors in Andijon on May 13., “Our view, my view, and our government’s view is that we think that the idea of setting up an international commission on investigating the Andijon events is groundless, and we will never agree to this.”

RFE/RL reported on the 25th that the lower chamber of Uzbekistan’s parliament resolved to form a commission to investigate the events in Andijon, but this does not satisfy demands by the EU, US and UN for an independent inquiry.

Activists pressing the government for accountability on the Andijon events are also meeting with harassment and repression. Mavluda Ahmedova, the lawyer who is representing Andijon-based human rights activist Saidjahon Zaynobiddinov, told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that Zaynobiddinov faces criminal charges of defamation for statements he made to the press about the recent violence. Ahmedova said she has not yet been able to meet with her client. Zaynobiddinov (spelled “Zainabitdinov” in some reports) was an important source of independent information while events were unfolding in Andijon, and his accounts frequently contradicted information provided by official Uzbek sources. After Zaynobiddinov’s arrest on May 21, Human Rights Watch called for his release in a May 24 press release.

A May 25 New York Times account also mentioned Zainabitdinov, and noted claims of opposition activists being taken from their homes by men in black uniforms and ski masks. It also cited claims of anonymous witnesses that after the May 13 violence, bodies had arrived at the Andijon morgue with number tags. One witness watched and counted as the bodies came in, with the numbers on the tags reaching (with some gaps) into the 400’s.

The alignment between Uzbekistan and China is likely based on both mutual suspicion of US designs in Central Asia and mutual fear of Islamist movements, which have recently been making much trouble for China in Xinjiang.