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Midnight in Tashkent

Sabine Freizer
31 March 2004

At least forty-three people are dead after four days of violence – bombings, armed attacks against police, lengthy shoot-outs between militia and militants – in the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan. It is not easy to access accurate information about the reclusive Central Asian state, but according to sketchy news reports one child was killed and nine police officers – the remainder being alleged terrorists.

At first glance, the chaos of 28-31 March echoed that of February 1999 in the capital, Tashkent, when bombings killed sixteen people (according to official figures) and wounded at least a hundred. But in many ways the latest incidents are much worse, because they demonstrate the complete failure of the anti-terrorism strategy applied since the 1999 events. In the interim period, the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov has sought to tighten its grip over the country, portray itself as the only clear guarantor against regional instability and the spread of Islamist terrorism, and win the support of the United States as a strategic partner in “war on terror”. The current spate of violence indicates that all involved in this political project need to rethink.

The reaction of the Uzbek authorities to the two suicide bombings near Tashkent’s sprawling Chorsu bazaar on 30 March was immediate: they blamed Islamic extremists, in particular the illegal Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation). The London office of the group denied responsibility.

Also by Sabine Freizer on openDemocracy: “Dynasty and democracy in Azerbaijan: a warning for Central Asia?”
(December 2003) and “The pillars of Georgia’s political transition”
(February 2004)

After the 1999 bombings, the Uzbek leadership alleged that a coalition between the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the head of the opposition party Erk, Mohammed Solih, had organised the blasts. Since 2000, the IMU has been considered significantly weakened after the ending of the civil war in neighbouring Tajikistan (where it was alleged to have bases), and as a consequence of United States-led operations in northern Afghanistan. In late March 2004, the Pakistan military claimed that it had wounded IMU leader, Tahir Yuldash – partner in arms of the charismatic Juma Namangani, apparently killed in 2001 – in operations on the Afghan border.

As the threat of the IMU waned after 2000, Uzbek authorities began to charge the previously little-known Hizb ut-Tahrir of fomenting unrest and attempting to overthrow the Karimov government. Human Rights Watch and OSCE sources indicate that 2,000-3,000 persons have been tried and sentenced for their alleged connections to Hizb ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan. The state views Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organisation, and has repeatedly (and so far unsuccessfully) urged the US and Britain to designate it as such; its members state that their ideology is non-violent.

On 30 March, Uzbekistan foreign minister Sadiq Safayev is reported to have stated that the “hands of international terror” were behind the most recent violence as “attempts are being made to split the international anti-terror coalition”. Uzbek authorities highlight rather than evade their country’s staunch support of the United States in its post-9/11 “coalition of the willing” as a way of explaining this week’s events.

It may be suggested that the presence of several hundred US soldiers in southern Uzbekistan triggered reprisals by Islamic extremist groups. In a 30 March public announcement the US embassy warned American citizens in Uzbekistan that “supporters of extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al-Qaida, and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement continue to remain active in the region. These groups have expressed anti-U.S. sentiments and may also attempt to target U.S. Government or private interests in Uzbekistan.” The novel (for the region) use of suicide bombings, and especially of women among them, could support this thesis of external involvement in the recent violence.

Yet the estimated 7,000 men in prison for alleged involvement in anti-state Islamic activities mean that women have for the past few years been adopting a more active political role in support of their interned sons and husbands, demonstrating against torture in prisons and creating their own advocacy groups. They have not been immune from arrest and mistreatment while in detention. Deaths of their family members while in custody may have caused some women to follow the terrible examples of their Palestinian and Chechen sisters; but rather then reflecting outside support, the use of women suicide bombers may more significantly indicate a local mediation of the powerful and successful globalisation of international terrorist tactics and methodologies.

This would suggest that, against official explanations, the violence may in fact both be homegrown and relatively small-scale. There are reports that weapons – a rifle and two pistols, plus homemade ingredients for bombs and instructions for their assembly – were found at the scene of a house in Bukhara allegedly used by the assailants; if true, this indicate the meager resources available to them. Moreover, their low-intensity attacks and targeting of police bears little similarity to the massive and sophisticated terror plots that were unleashed in Madrid, Casablanca, Bali, Washington, New York, Istanbul and Nairobi.

A state of degradation

Five years after the 1999 bombings, and a little less than five years after President Karimov’s re-election, the security of Uzbekistan’s citizens has continued to decrease. According to the IMF, the economy grew by only 0.3% in 2003, and its GDP has fallen every year since 1998 – plunging to $350 per capita in 2003.

Transparency International (Global Corruption Report 2003: 167) which considers corruption to be “systemic” in Uzbekistan, questioned whether Uzbekistan was not being “let off the hook for corruption” due to its strategic values as an anti-terrorist partner. In recent years the country’s shadow economy, in which governmental officials are heavily implicated, has continued to grow. According to the EBRD (Country Strategy, March 2003: 21) Uzbek workers’ average income is little more than $40 per month. The widespread popular feeling in the country is that economic conditions are worsening rather then improving.

openDemocracy has published two articles by Malika Kenjaboyeva: “Uzbekistan: Stalinism without state benefits”
(November 2001) and “The US and global democracy: the text case of Central Asia”
(June 2003)

Uzbekistan citizens’ trust in the state and its law-enforcement agencies has collapsed. The Karimov regime relies largely on patronage networks at all levels of government. The main source of revenue in the country is the export of gold and cotton, which assures benefits to elite officials, but is not shared with the majority of citizens. Police forces’ near-systemic recourse to bribery, harassment and brutality has (according to an International Crisis Group report (ICG Asia Report 76, March 2004) created “a state within a state.” The fact that the main targets of the 28-30 March attacks appear to be militia and police forces may be significant here.

A repeat of the massive detentions and large-scale show trials that followed the February 1999 bombings will not improve popular trust in law-enforcement and the judiciary. In 1999, at least 100 and possibly as many as 2,000 persons were arrested and accused of being linked to the bombings. At least five major trials were held in which ninety-three persons were accused of collaborating in terrorist acts; twenty-eight were sentenced to death and most of the remainder given prison terms of ten-to-twenty years. As has become the norm in the Uzbek justice system, human rights violations were systematic during the interrogation and trials.

But the evident failures of the past five years, the inability to guarantee security to Uzbekistan and even limited progress to its people, is not the responsibility of the Uzbek authorities alone; it also illustrates the flaws in international engagement.

The policies promoted and endorsed by Uzbekistan and its international partners have defined security issues largely as narrow military and law-enforcement problems, rather than seeing them as linked to human rights protection and economic development. If current security challenges are to be addressed more effectively, Uzbek authorities and their partners need urgently to reform this approach – as recent reports by international analysts like the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch have advocated.

Without such reform, whose effects would in any case take time to develop, the threat of terrorism in Uzbekistan – both international and homegrown – will grow. With a parliamentary election planned for December 2004, the Karimov regime is likely to use the next few months to mobilise fears of terrorism as a pretext further to restrict fundamental freedoms. This strategy did not assure security after 1999; it will not do so now.

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