15 May 2005
Exactly one month ago, the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Bishkek, capital of the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, where a popular revolt had recently ousted the country's autocratic leader. Rumsfeld met the interim leaders and ensured that the overthrow of President Askar Akayev would not prevent the US military continuing to use Ganci air base, near Bishkek, which it needs to send supplies to Afghanistan.
The Bush administration is facing a much bigger problem this weekend in next-door Uzbekistan, where hundreds of people are said to have been killed by forces loyal to President Islam Karimov and refugees have broken across the closed border into Kyrgyzstan.
In spite of a news blackout, eyewitnesses spoke of dozens of corpses loaded on to trucks and a bus in the eastern town of Andizhan, where the government claimed to have regained control after protesters stormed a jail and released prisoners on Friday. The inmates included 23 businessmen accused - falsely, according to human rights organisations and the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray - of links with Islamic extremism. Murray left the Foreign Office earlier this year after accusing the British Government of accepting intelligence obtained under torture by the Uzbek authorities, and stood against the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in this month's general election.
Phone calls to Andizhan on Friday were interrupted by gunfire and explosions. The US government, which has encouraged popular revolutions in former Soviet states such as Georgia and Ukraine, limited itself to calling for restraint on both sides. Yesterday huge crowds appeared on the streets of Andizhan for the second day running, shouting "killers, murderers", and demanding that Karimov step down. "I'm just awed by the bravery of these people," Murray told me yesterday.
The regime's control of news is so tight that people in the capital, Tashkent, were still unaware yesterday morning of what was happening in the east of the country. Violent attacks on police in Uzbekistan last year, including shootouts with rebels, were followed by a harsh security clampdown. Karimov runs a much more unpleasant regime than Akayev and he is not going to bolt, bolstered by the knowledge that the Bush administration welcomed him as an ally in the "war against terror". The Americans need the huge military base at Khanabad in Uzbekistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, an irony lost on the American embassy in Tashkent, which has steadfastly refused to criticise Karimov's atrocious human rights record.
Last night a former American ambassador to Uzbekistan echoed Karimov in blaming the protests on Islamic extremists, but Murray, who has visited Andizhan and knows at least two of the accused businessmen, says the real cause of the unrest is economic. With plentiful natural resources such as gold, oil and cotton, Uzbekistan should be wealthy, but it has stagnated under Karimov, a 67-year-old former aeronautical engineer from Samarkand who rose to become First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989 and President in 1990. Murray claims he asked the British Government to supply training and computers for the local democratic forum in Andizhan; his request was refused, he says, and Karimov would not allow the opposition to take part in parliamentary elections.
Human rights organisations estimate the number of political prisoners in Uzbekistan at around 6,000; two years ago the British Foreign Office described Zhaslyk prison as "notoriously brutal" in its annual Human Rights Report. But a wind of change is blowing through Central Asia, inspired by the rhetoric of President Bush and revolutions elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Karimov may manage to suppress the protests in Andizhan for the moment, but Uzbekistan looks increasingly unstable; in not too short a time, this grim totalitarian state may present the West with the toughest test yet of its public commitment to freedom and democracy.