Uzbeks Have Little Middle Ground Left

Observers say repression is driving the growth of Islamic radicalism and the people's anger, and that another uprising is all but guaranteed.

By David Holley and Sergei L. Loiko

Los Angeles Times Staff

June 1, 2005

ANDIJON, Uzbekistan — Extraordinary events were unfolding in Babur Square.

Relatives and friends of a group of imprisoned local businessmen had staged a violent jailbreak that morning. Then, after handing out Kalashnikov rifles to the freed inmates, including hardened criminals, they took over a government building near the downtown plaza.

Rather than fleeing the potential danger, thousands of residents streamed into the square to show support for the escaped prisoners and air their grievances under President Islam Karimov, the authoritarian ruler of this nation of 26 million.

"It was like a gulp of freedom in Karimov's scorching desert," said Lachinbek Tursunkhojayev, a local economist. "People spoke about all the problems so important to them, the economy, politics, Karimov, about the poverty that was driving them mad. I was there. I listened to every word. People wanted freedom and they wanted democracy."

But the rebellion in Andijon was stained with blood from its opening moments — and it had taken on a president who has long shown ferocity to his political enemies.

The events of that day, which ended with a brutal government crackdown against armed militants and unarmed civilians, illustrate how little middle ground is left in Uzbekistan. Critics say political and religious repression has created fertile soil for the growth of Islamic radicalism and bottled-up popular anger that could easily erupt into more violence.

Uzbekistan may yet see the kind of revolution that has toppled other leaders in the former Soviet bloc.

The Andijon uprising was no Orange Revolution, the name given to last year's peaceful rebellion in Ukraine, which was led by a former prime minister who could claim to be the legitimate winner of a presidential election. And it was no Rose Revolution, led by a U.S.-educated former justice minister who in 2003 brought Georgia's power structure tumbling down by leading a mass charge into parliament, carrying a single long-stemmed rose.

It wasn't even like the March upheaval in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which began just across the border from here and ended with a former prime minister coming to power.

The Andijon revolt was a localized explosion of rage, led by little-known individuals with no nationwide support.

But it came against a background of broad discontent.

"If Karimov doesn't change his ways — and it appears that he thinks it is safe for him to rely on iron-handed rule — then within the next three years there could be another popular uprising," Tursunkhojayev said. "It could begin as an act of spontaneous desperation again, but on a more massive scale."

Alexandra Tikhonova, 33, who sells used goods 160 miles away in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, fears the outcome of such an uprising.

"The poor people in the provinces are very angry and desperate," she said. "They will follow anybody — Islamists, Talibs, whatever — only to have some chance to change the situation. I'm afraid that hard-line Islamic militants may unseat Karimov. And their rule will be even worse…. I feel like we are in a trap between the tiger and the crocodile."

Eastern Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley, which is home to Andijon, is known as a hotbed of Islamic fervor. Much of former Soviet Central Asia is nominally Muslim, but people take their faith seriously here.

Kokhramon Zaripov, 54, who works as a driver in the city of Fergana, said life in the valley had deteriorated since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Back in Soviet times, this was a green town, full of life and joy," he said. "People knew what was in store for them in the future. Nobody went hungry."

The best jobs in Fergana are at an oil refinery and a cotton oil plant, but to get hired, an applicant must pay a bribe equal to about two years' wages, Zaripov said.

"If you complain about the system, they say: 'Oh, you are not happy. You must be a Wahhabi [a fundamentalist] or a member of [the banned underground religious group] Hizb ut-Tahrir.' You can go to prison forever if you make waves."

New York-based Human Rights Watch and other rights groups estimate that about 6,000 people are imprisoned in Uzbekistan as political dissidents or for nonviolent activity such as praying at unregistered mosques, holding religious meetings in homes and reading or distributing banned religious literature.

Karimov, a former communist who has run Uzbekistan since 1989, characterizes his government's imprisonment of alleged religious extremists as part of a battle against terrorism and an effort to preserve the country's secular society.

Even Tikhonova, the Tashkent trader who fears Islamic rule, criticized the president for not taking steps to build a democratic system.

"Karimov does not understand that he needs to give people more freedom," she said. "He keeps on pressing harder and harder."

Bobomurod Abdullayev, director of Ozod Ovoz, a Tashkent-based organization advocating freedom of speech in Uzbekistan, said he often tells visitors from the United States and Europe that their governments are far too tolerant of Karimov's harsh measures, including persecution of those who wish to practice Islam outside of officially sponsored mosques.

Abdullayev said he tells such visitors: "You yourselves are now afflicted with Islamophobia, and are imagining Islamic terrorists everywhere. In the end, your shortsightedness will lead to the emergence of a really fundamentalist structure in Uzbekistan, the way it happened in Iran. The shah of Iran doggedly pursued an almost identical policy and you were encouraging him, and in the end what did you get?"

The U.S. government has criticized Karimov's human rights record for years, but Washington also views this country as an important ally, largely because a U.S. military base in Uzbekistan is used to support operations in Afghanistan. Critics say this prevents U.S. officials from speaking out as strongly as they otherwise might.

Witness accounts from reporters for Western wire services, local human rights activists and others in Andijon have indicated there was brutality on both sides on the day of the uprising.

The 23 businessmen freed in the jailbreak were accused of being religious extremists running a criminal organization. But many in Andijon considered them respectable business leaders who were also devout Muslims.

The May 13 clashes began when relatives, friends and colleagues of the imprisoned businessmen resorted to force to free them, said Rashanbek Khadzhimov, a lawyer who had taken part in the men's defense. "They decided that all other means had been exhausted and total injustice was being done, and they could bear it no longer," he said.

The government has placed the death toll in Andijon at 173, although human rights activists and others say hundreds more were killed.

Khamid Urinbayev, 65, said his son Aibek, 23, who worked selling flour in a downtown market, was among those slain.

"I don't understand why, when they decided to shoot at the crowd, they didn't announce through a megaphone that all unarmed people should disperse," Urinbayev said. "They warn people of danger when there's an accident or an emergency situation. Why didn't they give them a warning? So many innocent lives could have been saved. Life is so hard in the valley as it is. Why make it harder, treating people like that?"

Urinbayev said bitterly that his son's body was on the ground outside the city morgue for three days before the family was informed of his death.

"He had an ID in his pocket, and that's how they learned who he was," Urinbayev said. "If not for this ID, they would have buried him in one of those mass graves somewhere and we would never have found him. I saw 50 or 60 bodies in the morgue. Why couldn't they inform us earlier? Why did his body lie on the bare ground for three days? It is so inhuman. The bodies were piled up on the ground as if they were not people but animals."

Some Karimov supporters are openly contemptuous of the Andijon protesters.

Utkirjon Gopilov, 53, who works delivering goods to a Tashkent marketplace, even drew a comparison to animals in disparaging those who died.

"Karimov did the right thing," he said. "These peasants are so ignorant, they're like a flock of stupid sheep. They don't understand anything. They are so easily misguided. I will not be surprised if next time the authorities use flamethrowers on the crowd.

"I don't like Karimov. But I respect him," Gopilov said. "He's a real solid leader who can resist Islamists with all his might. You won't find many people in Tashkent who want to live in an Islamic state. It is only ignorant people in the outlying regions who are stupid enough to want it."

Human rights activists, moderate opposition politicians and others say the goal of a secular but democratic Uzbekistan is not beyond reach. Some believe it could be achieved following the model of the popular uprisings of the last two years in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Karimov can't be certain that the police and army would stay united around him in the face of such a challenge.

"Peaceful massive public protest all over the country" would be able to change things, said Alisher Taksanov, an independent political analyst in Tashkent. But fresh violence in the Fergana Valley is more likely, he said.

"The biggest mistake the rioters made in Andijon was to resort to violence themselves," he said. "That way they gave a real trump card to the regime, which was only too happy to use force against force."

Holley reported from Moscow and Loiko from Andijon and Tashkent.