What happened in Uzbekistan?

The government and opposition protesters are sharply at odds in Uzbekistan days after the eastern city of Andijan exploded into violence. A May 15 AP report claimed some 500 bodies had been laid out in a school in Andijan for identification by relatives, “corroborating witness accounts of hundreds killed” when soldiers opened fire on street protests. Medical authorities also reported some 2,000 wounded in local hospitals. However, a May 18 account on Russia’s MosNews.com quotes Uzbek officials denying this very death toll. “Not a single civilian was killed by government forces there,” Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov said. According to him the overall death toll was 169 people, including 32 soldiers. Kadyrov claimed reports of 500 or even 700 dead are “deliberate attempts to deceive the international community.” He assailed the protesters as “terrorists,” “criminals” and “extremists.”

The US has been largely non-committal. “We are deeply disturbed by the reports that the Uzbek authorities fired on demonstrators last Friday. We certainly condemn the indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians and deeply regret any loss of life,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. Calling Uzbekistan’s political system “too closed,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “They really need political reform and we’ve been saying that to the Uzbeks for some time.” (AFP, May 17) She predictably failed to metion that the U.S. has been saying this while massively underwriting the brutal regime of President Islam Karimov. (See our in-depth report on the Karimov regime.)

Reads a May 17 analysis in the UK Telegraph, picked up by the Muslim Uzbekistan opposition website:

Much of the blame for the present crisis rests on the shoulders of the United States, Britain and European powers who since September 2001 have refused to support democracy and instead propped up dictatorships in Central Asia. Before 2001 the countries of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were a forgotten corner of the world. Their leaders and regimes had barely changed since the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and they had refused to carry out desperately needed reforms.

The US and Europe had little incentive to support democratic change in the region. Instead, the Pentagon established close relations with Uzbekistan in 1998, funding and training Uzbek troops to deal with Islamic extremists. The CIA and MI6 followed suit, helping to train and re-organise the Uzbek security services which are notorious for torture. After September 2001 the US leased military bases from Mr Karimov while Uzbekistan became one of 10 countries where the CIA has ”rendered” dozens of al-Qa’eda suspects in the full knowledge that they would be abused.

US diplomats and some of their British colleagues, such as Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Tashkent, fought a losing battle with the Pentagon and the intelligence services, urging them to push for reforms. Instead, more aid was showered on the Uzbek military and secret service. The harsh words the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, used to condemn the Uzbek regime on Sunday were almost exactly the same that Mr Murray, who was forced to resign, used in his reports to the Foreign Office in 2002.

The overthrow of President Askar Akayev in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan last month represented the first break in this systematic repression in Central Asia. The Kyrgyz and the earlier Ukraine revolutions should have been a wake-up call for the West.

UK ambassador Craig Murray was forced out after protesting the CIA’s practice of “rendition,” or turning terror suspects over to Uzbek authorities for interrogation. During 2003 and early 2004, Murray recently told reporters, “CIA flights flew to Tashkent often, usually twice a week.” (NYT, May 1)

But others believe that the West was, in fact, behind the Kyrgyz and Ukraine revolutions–and probably behind the current unrest in Uzbekistan as well. Karimov himself strongly hinted at a foreign hand in the protests. “The coincidence of everything that happened on the streets of Andijan … indicate that everything was calculated and planned beforehand,” Karimov was quoted by Eurasianet.

An analysis for the Russian news service RIA Novosti notes that the revolt came just as the Karimov regime, which had been walking a fine line between Washington and Moscow, had tilted significantly towards that latter:

The drama in Andizhan (the revolt of the Islamic fundamentalists and its suppression by government forces) was the backdrop for a crucial geopolitical choice made by the Tashkent authorities. Aware of political risks to his political regime after a series of “color revolutions” in the CIS countries, President Islam Karimov had to make a choice: Either to continue relying on the U.S. or launch rapprochement with Russia.

“The Uzbek leadership posed as a friend of the U.S. for a long time, but Karimov has seen that this cannot serve as a guarantee of his regime,” said State Duma deputy Konstantin Zatulin. This is why Karimov reviewed his foreign policy and announced the withdrawal from GUUAM, an organization comprising Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova that opposes Russia, and began to play a more proactive role in CIS structures.

Certainly, the timing of the Uzbek unrest cannot be lost on Moscow hardliners, coming on the heels of George Bush’s controversial comments in Riga. Stopping in the Latvian capital May 7 on his way to Moscow for a ceremony marking the 1945 victory over the Nazis, Bush said that the “captivity” of eastern European nations under Soviet domination as a result of the influence spheres carved up by the Allies at the Yalta conference was “one of the greatest wrongs of history.” (Reuters, May 7) Then, in a May 10 stop in Georgia, Bush saluted that country (which underwent a revolution against Soviet-era politican Eduard Shevardnadze’s government in November 2003) as a “beacon of liberty.” (Both U.S. and Georgian authorities played down the tossing of a grendade towards the stage where Bush was speaking–the device failed to explode but CNN later quoted officials denying early reports that it had been a dud.) Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili followed up on these remarks by calling for a “new Yalta” conference that would establish “a voluntary association of new European democracies” outside of Moscow’s orbit. Saakashvili also implicitly invoked regime change in Belarus (Moscow’s closest post-Soviet ally), saying “the world can do much more to aid the Belarusan people in the quest for freedom.” The May 17 account of his remarks in The Messenger, Georgia’s English-language newspaper, actually broached the imminent collapse of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and its replacement by the pro-West GUUAM group–from which Uzbekistan had withdrawn just as the unrest broke out there.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International, in a May 17 statement, is calling for an independent investigation to detemine the truth of what happened in Andijan.