Uzbekistan: The Potentates of Central Asia
Does the revolt rumbling through east Uzbekistan, a Turkish-speaking republic in ex-Soviet Central Asia, mean an end to the régime of terror built by President Islam Karimov over his 16 year in power? Does it share anything in common with the Tulip Revolution, which recently rocked neighboring Kyrgyzstan? Is it true that criminal Taliban-like groups are behind the revolt, as the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, recently asserted based on information given him by the Uzbek authorities?
In reality, an unthinkable event occurred in Andijan, Uzbekistan’s third largest city, between Thursday 12 May and Friday 13 May. For the first time, the populace (4000 persons assembled in the city’s central square) supported the actions of an armed group which took over government buildings and a high-security prison, freeing the inmates inside. Aims have now fused together: those of an armed group, impatient to free its spiritual leader, Akram Yudachev, an Islamist ideologue arrested in 1999 after a series of bombing targeting the seat of power in Tashkent, and those of 4,000 ordinary citizens, demanding a better life and greater freedoms.
At the end of March, these same demands--chanted by the crowds across the border in Kyrgyzstan--led to the overthrow of President Askar Akaev, accused of fraud in the legislative elections. But the comparison ends there. Uzbekistan is not Kyrgyzstan. Under the cudgel of Islam Karimov opposition parties have been banned, an independent press is non-existent and the activities of NGOs are closely monitored. Living in the fear of revolutionary contamination across the country, the authorities in Tashkent have tightened the screws these last few months. Judiciary proceedings have started against the one of the few NGOs in the country, Internews Network, a Californian organization which fosters development of independent media. State television has been placed under the total control of the country’s secret police.
The security measures imposed are ridiculous, from forbidding motor bicycles in town to the banning the projection of a documentary, The Turkish Project. The film is an historical fresco of the 19th century Russo-Turkish War produced by a Russian film company which has won acclaim throughout the ex-Soviet region. The director, Janik Fayziew, is an Uzbek from Tashkent and the son of a local film star. And nothing can be done about it.
Simultaneously, popular discontent continues to grow, fed by ukaz (edicts) issued by the central government. While is the bazaar is the last remaining economic leg on which the country stands--the only possible place to find a job for millions of Uzbeks trying to make a living (the average monthly salary is between $10 and $20)--the government imposed a series of new regulations on small businesses last month which include a permit requirement and increased import taxes. The regulations have further alienated the population and increased demands for “social justice” intoned by the various Islamist groupings.
Meanwhile, the peasants of the Djizzahk region have initiated a embryonic war against the governor, Obaidullah Yamankulov, who is hunting down anyone attempting to join the underground Ozod dekhkonlar (Free Farmworker Movement). Their principal demand is privatization of the land.
This predominately agricultural country, the world’s Number 2 exporter of cotton, is still collectivized into kolkhozy. Uzbekistan remains soviet and any kind of economic autonomy is impossible. Nothing has been privatized and all political activity is entirely within the control of the government, says Boris Petric, a researcher at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and a Ferghana Valley area expert.
Fourteen years after their exit from the USSR, the four "-stans" east of the Caspian Sea (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), except for Kyrgyzstan, are run by leaders elected for life or repeatedly returned to office by public referendum. Three of the four republics (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) are run by regional ex-Soviet Communist Party Secretaries, who have literally become local potentates.
In absence of any legal political opposition, the underground Islamist organizations, Hizb-ut-Tahrir or Akramya (named after Akram Yuldachev), continue to win influence throughout the region, despite the repression rained down upon their militants.