Andijan, Germany and Europe

Marcus Bensmann
13 May 2008

The armoured personnel carriers stormed Babur Square in Andijan with lightning speed on Friday 13 May 2005, bringing death without any warming. The uniformed men riding atop the vehicles fired purposefully and indiscriminately into the crowd of more than a thousand men, women and children gathered under the monument to the Mongol ruler Babur. In an instant, Uzbekistan's authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, had drowned the anti-tyranny demonstration in blood.

Marcus Bensmann is a freelance journalist, working with Weltreporter.net. He has reported on central Asia since 1994

I was one of five journalists on the square in the provincial city in eastern Uzbekistan that day, covering a rare public protest which turned into a massacre. Together we watched the bullets of the state-security forces take down one demonstrator after another. The exact number of dead may never be known; the best estimate may be around 745 (far higher than the regime's official tally of 187), but it could be even more.

Three years later, the despot Karimov is again Europe's colleague in central Asia.

Uzbekistan under Karimov remains a fortress of repression. Even the neighbouring autocracies of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seem like open societies by comparison. Karimov crushes every flickering attempt at political or economic freedom with an iron fist. Laws passed by the rubber-stamp parliament declare penal reform or the abolition of the death penalty, but they never move beyond the paper they are written on: thousands of political prisoners remain behind bars, and torture remains (in the words of the United Nations rapporteur on torture) "systematic". This is not a state in which law has any meaning beyond the dictator's will (see Human Rights Watch, "Uzbekistan: Repression Linked to 2005 Massacre Rife", 12 May 2008)

The reality is merciless. Tens of thousands of children are forced out of school by the police for months at a time every autumn to pick cotton for little or no compensation, farmers are told what to plant, journalists are told what to write, and aspiring entrepreneurs are robbed of their assets if they show any sign of success. And the driving force of the repression remains a threat worse than death - torture includes such unique twists as being boiled to death - for both those who cross the authorities and their families.

Nevertheless, Uzbekistan remains a partner of the west.

Also in openDemocracy on politics and conflict in Uzbekistan:

Nathan Hamm, "Andijan and after: what future for Uzbekistan?" (17 May 2005)

Matt Black, "Uzbekistan's gift to radical Islam" (17 May 2005)

Deniz Kandiyoti, "Andijan: prelude to a massacre" (20 May 2005)

Malika Kenjaboeva, "Uzbekistan: Stalinism without state benefits" (29 November 2001)

Malika Kenjaboeva, "The US and Central Asia: the test case of global democracy" (11 June 2003)

Sabine Freizer, "Midnight in Tashkent" (1 April 2004)

Anora Mahmudova, "Uzbekistan's window of opportunity" (26 July 2005)

Nathan Hamm, "Farewell K2: Uzbekistan's American fallout" (8 August 2005)

Iain Orr, "Who defends British values? Craig Murray in Uzbekistan" (18 July 2006)

The path to an uprising

It is essential to recover the true story of what happened in Andijan from the orchestrated denial and lies of the Uzbek regime. These started the very day after the massacre, by when Karimov was already setting out his line: Islamist extremists under the guidance of al-Qaida had attempted a coup d'état in the city, and the state had reacted to defeat jihadis. Those who spoke the truth about the events - witnesses and their families, journalists and human-rights activists - were silenced and suppressed. A series of Stalinist-style show-trials confirmed the regime's official version (see Farangis Najibullah, "Uzbekistan: West Accused Of Memory Failure Over Andijon Bloodshed", RFE/RL, 12 May 2008).

The reason for the uprising was something else entirely - and altogether more revealing about this regime. A group of Andijan businessmen had been working together in a kind of guild, providing loans to small businesses and supporting local social initiatives and thus establishing a network of economic self-reliance. It was exactly the kind of independent movement a paranoid authoritarian regime finds suspicious; so the government cracked down on it, arresting its leading figures. As their trial on numerous trumped-up charges proceeded, thousands of local people - friends, co-workers and those who had been helped by the guild - organised peaceful protests, standing before the law courts and demonstrating against this all-too-typical assault on private initiatives (see Deniz Kandiyoti, "Andijan: prelude to a massacre", 20 May 2005).

As late as 11 May 2005, the protest was still entirely peaceful, and the public prosecutor, who led the prosecution of the businessmen, even told me on tape that the "accused men had not committed any crime yet", and that they were so far neither "terrorists" nor "enemies of the state". But, he told me, he had concern about possible "future acts" by the group.

On the night of 12 May, something changed. A group of armed men attacked the prison where the businessmen were being held; shots were fired, and people were killed. A government administration office was then occupied early on 13 May, and a predominantly peaceful crowd met to again protest against state arbitrariness - this time in front of the occupied building. By the afternoon, interior-ministry troops were firing into the huge crowd.

It is still not certain exactly how and why the peaceful protest escalated into violence in those few days. Perhaps a radical group splintered off from the protesters, or maybe the regime organised a provocation to give itself an excuse to crush a public protest that had in its eyes gone on far too long. In Uzbekistan's police-state, this tactic is far from unusual.

What is clear is that the uprising was sparked by the arbitrary imprisonment of businessmen: an everyday occurrence in Uzbekistan, but in this instance, the people had the courage to raise their voices against it. Ultimately, the regime's repression was the cause of this uprising and, of course, the massacre that followed (see Galima Bukharbaeva, "Remember Andijan?", International Herald Tribune, 9 May 2008)

Our friend in Tashkent

In October 2005, four months after the Andijan massacre, the European Union imposed targeted sanctions against the central Asian regime and demanded an independent inquiry of "the Andijan events", as the mass murder of civilians became known in diplomatic circles. But regardless of sanctions, Germany in particular - governed at the time of the massacre by the Social Democratic Party (SPD)-Green coalition with Gerhard Schröder as chancellor and Joschka Fischer as foreign minister - never hid its warm feelings for the dictatorship and made it evident at every opportunity that Islam Karimov has a strong friend in Europe.

The German armed forces maintain an air-base in the southern Uzbek city of Termez, through which Berlin coordinates its deployments in next-door Afghanistan. The Bundeswehr believes that the airstrip and railhead at Termez makes its base there of inestimable importance to its Afghan mission. The Germans, having seen the Americans lose their own base at Karshi-Khanabad after Washington criticised the regime over Andijan, are determined to keep Karimov cooperative.

The visa ban on key Uzbek officials (one of the targeted sanctions) came into force in November 2005; but the German government - by now, after the September election, a Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/SPD coalition, with Angela Merkel confirmed as chancellor on 22 November - lost no time in violating it. It allowed one of the chief architects of the Andijan massacre, interior minister Zokirjon Almatov, to have treatment in a special hospital in Hanover; the rationale was, as the German government explained without a hint of irony, "humanitarian reasons" (see "Andijan Victims Let Down by German Ruling", IWPR, 9 February 2007). In December 2005, then secretary of state for the German defence ministry Friedbert Pflüger (of the CDU) flew to Tashkent to plead with the Uzbek president to let the Termez base remain despite European sanctions.

But the government is not alone in Germany in acting in ways that offer succour to the Uzbek regime. Two large German foundations, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (associated respectively with the CDU and the SPD) have implemented a number of projects in Uzbekistan since the Andijan massacre, ensuring their continued presence in the country when almost every other western NGO (and foreign journalist) has been kicked out. The Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation worked with European Union money to run a million-euro programme for media training - absurd in a country where the regime allows no independent media whatsoever and where opposition journalists are pursued, harassed, and killed by the security services. Even those living in neighbouring countries can be murdered in broad daylight, as Alisher Saipov was in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on 24 October 2007.

German interest is not about Termez alone, however. A central Asia strategy established in 2006 by Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Joschka Fischer's SPD successor as foreign minister, and vice-chancellor) set a course to make Germany - and Europe more broadly - a geopolitical player in the region between the Caspian Sea and the Chinese border. The strategy saw the resource-rich states of central Asia as more than just providers of oil and gas: they were to be allies in the fight against terrorism and extremism. This approach matches Islam Karimov's own shrewd presentation of himself to the west as a comrade-in-arms in "the war on terror".

The voice of silence

Today, three years on, Berlin and Brussels continue to refuse to side with those daring Uzbeks who fought against their oppression. Instead, they have chosen an air-base, the promise of raw materials, and the illusion of an effective ally in the "war on terror". The sanctions they did impose were gradually relaxed, then - in October 2007, and again in April 2008 - suspended for a six-month period. In October 2008, they will undoubtedly disappear altogether. The massacre at Andijan and the EU's original demand for an investigation into the "the Andijan events" are forgotten. Politicians and EU member-state governments are now standing in line to shake Karimov's hand in Tashkent (see "Uzbekistan: German delegation visit fans debate over democratization strategy", Eurasianet, 29 February 2008).

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is camouflaging his dance with Tashkent's despot with anodyne words such as "dialogue" and "change through rapprochement". The effect is to lead the German public to think that the approach resembles the popular policy of détente towards the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic under the SPD chancellor Willy Brandt during the early 1970s.

But in the case of Uzbekistan's repressive regime in 2008, there are no changes to observe - and certainly no admission of the truth of what happened in Andijan on 13 May 2005. Rather, German foreign policy is here functioning as the European agent of a despot. So far, the German and European public seems little aware of what is being done in its name.

This article was translated from German by Andrew Stroehlein and Fiona Stroehlein



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