Andijan and after: what future for Uzbekistan?

Nathan Hamm
16 May 2005

On Tuesday 10 May, approximately 1,000 people took to the streets of Andijan, a city of 300,000 people in the eastern part of Uzbekistan’s Fergana valley to demand that twenty-three popular entrepreneurs on trial for membership of a banned religious group be set free.

Signs of unrest had been present in Andijan for months. The city has suffered serious economic blows: the closure of a factory employing 2,000-3,000 people, followed by new registration requirements that shut down trade at the Kholis bazaar in September 2004, leaving a further 3,000 people without work. A week-long protest by merchants against the latter move failed to force the government to relent.

Also on Uzbekistan and central Asia in openDemocracy:

Malika Kenjaboeva, “Uzbekistan: Stalinism without state benefits” (November 2001)

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

Sabine Freizer, “Midnight in Tashkent” (April 2004)

Mary Dejevsky, “Kyrgyzstan questions” (March 2005)

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The men at the centre of the protest were arrested in June 2004 and charged with undermining the constitutional order of Uzbekistan, organising and participating in a criminal organisation, and preparing to distribute documents that threaten public safety. They are accused of being members of Akramiya, a group said by the Uzbek government to be an offshoot of the radical Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to relatives of the suspects whom Forum 18 interviewed in February, the group is a charitable Islamic organisation without any overt political goals.

Actually, both sides appear to be correct. The founder of Akramiya, Akram Yuldoshev, left Hizb ut-Tahrir over doctrinal disagreements and went on to publish pamphlets dealing with ethical issues. Relatives do not deny the men were associates of Yuldoshev, but say their goals were not political. They told Forum 18 that the men had been inspired by Islamic teachings to organise a mutual aid fund. They paid their employees very well, and are said to have donated money to schools and orphanages.

The story of a massacre

By 12 May, the Andijan protest had grown to around 4,000, and prosecutors dropped the most serious charges against the accused. During the night of 12-13 May, a group attacked the prison where the accused were held, releasing up to 2,000 prisoners. They went on to take over additional buildings and were effectively in control of the town as dawn broke the morning of 13 May.

Much of Friday in Andijan was marked by heavy tension as both sides waited for the other shoe to drop. Dee Warren, a Peace Corps volunteer, described the city as “unusually quiet” with “few kids playing in the lots, no cars, few people out and about – everyone hanging out their windows like I was.” (Warren’s full account can be read at her blog (which also contains emails and news from Uzbeks in Andijan and the surrounding area.)

Throughout the day, Uzbek troops surrounded Andijan as a crowd of about 10,000 gathered in the centre. Government officials say that negotiations with leaders of the protest failed. At some point troops opened fire on the crowd, killing between 50 and 500 people.

Protesters in the crowd said that soldiers did more than just fire to disperse protesters. One young man told Reuters that troops “shot at us like rabbits.” Others told reporters that soldiers fired from rooftops and chased fleeing protesters down alleyways. There are also reports that wounded protesters were “finished with single shots from a Kalashnikov.”

The sequence of events on 13 May is murky, and accurate details may never be known. For example, it is unclear whether or not the attack on the prison was planned or in reaction to government actions against the protesters. It is also unknown whether the operation was undertaken by protesters or by Islamic militants exploiting an opportunity that presented itself. It seems unlikely that 4,000 protesters would peacefully demand the release of respected members of the community over three days as part of a plan to violently seize the city or provide cover for those who sought to.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s (IWPR) Galima Bukharbayeva was in Andijan on Friday and provided an eyewitness account of events. Residents she spoke to said that on Thursday, SNB agents (inheritors of the KGB) began arresting people who had been outside of the courthouse during the hearings. During the night, a growing crowd seized weapons from a military unit in the city and freed friends and relatives from police offices. They went on to seize the regional administration building and held it until soldiers attacked on Friday afternoon.

Bukharbayeva’s reporting is at odds with claims such as those of the Uzbek and Russian governments that transnational groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Taliban (a bizarre and unsubstantiated accusation that Russia has made) or other organisations operating in central Asia masterfully planned and executed the violence in an attempt to overthrow the government. Rather, her account is of a people pushed too hard who pushed back. Events, as they often do, took their own course, and the city was out of the government’s control for much of 13 May.

Poverty, protest and Islam

It is important not to discount the threat of violent Islamic groups in central Asia, and it is not possible at this point to rule out their involvement in storming the prison and seizing the city. Rustam Iskhakov, an official with the human rights group Ezgulik, lives close to the prison and witnessed the assault on it. He tells the Guardian that the assailants were heavily armed and merciless; they killed all but one of the 52 guards – none of whom, says Iskhakov, had ammunition.

The nature of what took place on 13 May in Andijan may never be entirely clear, but the facts we do know suggest that this uprising – like other recent protests throughout Uzbekistan – is in response to economic insecurity rather than a manifestation of religious militancy.

As residents of Andijan mourned and buried their dead on 14 May, thousands of Uzbeks attempted to cross into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Many were seeking refuge from violence and repression, but those attempting to cross at the border town of Karasu (Korasuv) appear to confirm this assessment of the economic roots of unrest in Andijan and other areas of Uzbekistan.

The river at Karasu divides the town between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Residents on the Uzbek side demanded that the border be opened to allow the flourishing cross-border trade to continue. The mayor refused to rebuild a bridge that connects the two sides of the city, and in response residents beat him and took control of the town. Uzbek troops then surrounded the Uzbek part of Karasu, but trade has reportedly resumed and Uzbek merchants are deeply underselling their Kyrgyz counterparts. The BBC quotes a community leader as saying that residents are ambivalent about their president, Islam Karimov – all they want is to be left alone and have a chance to make a living.

This suggests that what is happening in Andijan cannot be simplistically labelled either a “Fergana valley problem” or an outburst of Islamic fundamentalism. The prime concern of most Uzbeks is how to make ends meet, and like those in Karasu, they are unconcerned with who leads them so long as their needs are met.

With few economic opportunities, many Uzbeks rely on trading in bazaars. Since 2002, the government has tried to bring this trade under control by passing laws that discourage individual sellers. In November 2004, merchants in Kokand rioted after authorities tried to implement new trade regulations. It was becoming clear that individuals who rely on bazaar trading were reaching a breaking-point.

And beyond the bazaar, it has become increasingly clear that the economic situation for most Uzbeks is becoming sufficiently dire that they feel they have nowhere to turn but out into the streets. A lingering protest in the Djizak region resulted in demonstrations over land seizures and government non-payment for crops. Just before the Andijan eruption, a small protest in front of the United States embassy in Tashkent demanded that the government return a successful farm near Qarshi seized from private owners. Unless such issues are addressed, and even if calm returns to Andijan, the underlying causes of the unrest will linger.

What the west must do

There is little sign of flexibility from the government in Tashkent, where Islam Karimov has made it clear that he has no intention of backing down in the face of protests. Karimov is an economist by training and has repeatedly shown he is acutely aware that economic policies can lead to social unrest. But does he understand that too tight a hand on the economy could lead to political chaos? His government faces the difficulty that unregulated trade deprives his government of tax revenues, yet is for many Uzbek citizens the only way to survive. The Uzbek government urgently needs to inaugurate a reform programme, whose guiding principle should be: some short-term chaos is acceptable in exchange for long-term stability.

Meanwhile, western governments are left with few options in the wake of the violence. In contrast to much conventional opinion, relations between Uzbekistan and the west are lukewarm at best. The United States is indisputably Uzbekistan’s most important western partner, but it has yet to form a cohesive and consistent approach to the country across all its agencies (which the US Committee for International Religious Freedom recommends in a May 2005 report).

The Andijan massacre should be a wake-up call to the United States and other western governments. However, disengagement would be a poor choice. This may be morally satisfying to those outraged by Uzbek government repression, but it would sever the fragile bonds to civil society groups, students, and Uzbek citizens who benefit from western assistance and contacts.

Instead, the west must make crystal clear to the government in Tashkent that there are diplomatic consequences for a regime that massacres its civilians, while offering strong incentives for reform. This combination of criticism and engagement is the only way that the west can make a positive impact in Uzbekistan. There are no short cuts.

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