America’s despotic ally

By Stefan Wagstyl and Isabel Gorst

Financial Times

Published: May 21 2005

The massacre of Andizhan, in eastern Uzbekistan, shocked the world. But it has come as little surprise to those who know Islam Karimov, the pugnacious Uzbek president.

He has long made clear his determination to deal ruthlessly with "extremists" challenging his authority. "Such people must be shot in the forehead. If necessary, I'll shoot them myself," he said in 1998. And a year later he commented: "I'm prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic.

Mr Karimov runs one of the most repressive regimes in the former Soviet Union, with a feared secret police, thousands of political prisoners and a record of resorting to torture.

His personal role in Andizhan is unclear. But given that little happens in Uzbekistan without his authority, he almost certainly bears heavy responsibility for the troops who fired on the crowds on May 13. The incident started with a raid on a local jail, which escalated into demonstrations in which the armed raiders mingled with thousands of unarmed protestors. The troops may have faced a difficult challenge separating the gunmen from the rest. But they did not even try to do so. Witnesses said they fired indiscriminately, killing about 500. The authorities said 169 died. Witnesses say about 200 other people have been killed in other incidents near Andizhan.

Mr Karimov has defended his actions, saying that the trouble was perpetrated by "evil forces" in the shape of Islamic militants linked to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned extremist group. Refugees from Andizhan who have escaped to the Kyrgyz border respond by blaming Mr Karimov. "The shooting of demonstrators on May 13 showed the world what Karimov is like. Karimov's hands are steeped in blood," says Ukhtam Turanov, a man in his late 20s from Andizhan.

Mr Karimov on Friday rejected calls for an international investigation of the massacre in a clear sign that he intends to defy critics. He has no wish to become the latest victim of the popular protest that has swept the former Soviet Union and removed from office the presidents of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Martha Brill Olcott, a central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says: "He will never let go. He's not like Askar Akayev [the former Kyrgyz president]. He's not going to run away and flee Uzbekistan wrapped in a blanket."

Mr Karimov appears to have crushed his opponents. But he is paying a price by stoking new hatreds among ordinary Uzbeks. Much now depends on the continued loyalty of the political elite - especially the officials in charge of the security services. For the moment, western diplomats in central Asia expect the 67-year-old Mr Karimov to survive.

He is a tough man from tough origins. Born to a poor family and raised in a state orphanage, Mr Karimov studied engineering and economics and worked in a tractor factory before joining the Uzbekistan state planning commission. In 1989, a purge of the Communist party, initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, then Soviet leader, cleared the way for Mr Karimov to take over as Uzbek party chief. A year later, he supported the Communist hardliners' anti-Gorbachev coup but, when it failed, he jumped ship. He denounced the plot, abolished his own Communist party and declared Uzbekistan independent. He quickly realised that, in the volatile ethnic mix of Muslim central Asia, a strong national identity mattered, recast himself as a Muslim Uzbek patriot and won the 1991 presidential election by a wide margin.

He immediately clamped down on the secular opposition and free media and has been turning the screws tighter ever since. He promised to modernise the economy, but failed to dismantle many Soviet-era economic controls. A small clique of wellconnected business people grew rich, especially from cotton exports. Chief among them was his own family, notably his daughter, Gulnora Karimova, who came to control investments in property, trade and the main mobile telephone company.

Meanwhile, the population of 26m was mostly mired in poverty and increasingly angry at the restrictions imposed on even small-scale enterprise. With the mainstream opposition suppressed, anti-government sentiment focused on religious channels. Some people simply stopped co-operating with the authorities and focused their lives on the mosque; others supported Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a non-violent extremist organisation promising an Islamic state; a few joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant group later linked with al-Qaeda.

Insurgents mounted violent attacks on government targets, including, in 1999, an apparent attempt to kill Mr Karimov. The authorities responded in kind. Mr Karimov's hand was strengthened when the US launched its war against terror after September 11 2001. The boastful and manipulative central Asian autocrat suddenly became Washington's best ally in the region. Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, worried about the Islamist threat, also offered his support.

Mr Karimov capitalised on this backing to crack down even harder on opponents. The IMU, which had bases in neighbouring Afghanistan, was seriously weakened during the US-led attack. But splinter groups have since staged sporadic bombings in Uzbekistan.

Mr Karimov is reported to be suffering from a debilitating illness. Some of his more liberal senior officials have privately expressed concern about his repressive rule, but none has spoken out publicly. They fear his wrath. They are also afraid that dissent within the regime might encourage more protests that could prompt violent disorder. With no obvious alternatives, the elite of Tashkent appear to believe they must stick with Mr Karimov.