Uzbekistan: The Andijon Uprising
Asia Briefing N°38
25 May 2005
On 13-14 May 2005, the government of Uzbekistan brutally suppressed a popular uprising in the eastern city of Andijon and the surrounding area. President Islam Karimov announced his forces had acted to end a revolt by Islamist extremists, yet the hundreds of victims -- possibly as many as 750 -- were mostly unarmed civilians, including many children. The uprising was not a one-off affair. It was the climax of six months in which especially ruinous economic policies produced demonstrations across the country. Nor is it likely to be the last serious bloodshed unless Western governments and international bodies press much harder for fundamentally different political and economic policies. Anger and frustration with the regime are tangible everywhere in Uzbekistan, and the explosion point is dangerously near.
The uprising began with protests over the trial of 23 local businessmen accused of involvement in Islamic extremism and acts against the state. Karimov was quick to blame Islamic groups, a theme eagerly adopted by the Russian government. However, there is no publicly available evidence for the involvement of jihadists: the businessmen were part of a self-help collective of entrepreneurs that, although motivated by religion, has shown no inclination to violence. Relatives of the men say the trial was motivated by their economic success and their growing power in the city due to their provision of charity to the less fortunate. The government has linked the protests and the 23 businessmen to the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation but has offered no evidence, and the businessmen's families deny any connection.
That an armed crowd broke into Andijon prison on 12 May 2005, freeing as many as 500 prisoners, was certainly a crime, but the government's response was to fire indiscriminately into unarmed, peaceful civilians who had gathered after the prison break. This seems to be when most of the civilian deaths occurred. The uprising comes after a period of rising tensions throughout Uzbekistan. Protests have taken place across the country in the past six months, mostly driven by government decrees that levied high tariffs on imports and restricted the activities of bazaar traders. In Uzbekistan's failing economy, shuttle trading across borders is sometimes the only way people have of making a living. Worsening corruption and bureaucracy have prompted rising anger against the government, as have shortages of gas and electricity throughout a very cold winter.
Uzbeks face an increasingly repressive economic and political environment. Anyone who opposes the regime is liable to be accused of being an Islamist radical or terrorist. There are small numbers of both in Uzbekistan but the vast majority of protests have been by people angered by economic policies that have concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny elite while stifling opportunities for others. Industry is in dire straits, foreign investment has evaporated, and agriculture provides almost no income for farmers. The World Bank calls Uzbekistan a "Low-Income Country under Stress", a polite term for a state at serious risk of failing. But the international community has been slow to recognise the dangers of instability.
Russia and China have strongly backed Karimov's approach, ignoring the reality that his failed economic policies and political restrictions have fuelled the potential for a serious Islamist opposition. U.S. policy has focused almost entirely on maintaining a strong security relationship, with far less attention to improving human rights, encouraging political reforms or opening the economy, thus inevitably undercutting these objectives and adding to some of the very risks that Washington says it is engaged in the region to prevent.
Unless Uzbekistan urgently adopts widespread economic and political reforms, it is likely to move with greater speed towards state failure. This would have a profound impact on all Central Asia, including Afghanistan. Chaos in the region would be the best possible outcome for a number of underground Islamist groups that are active in Uzbekistan and its neighbours.
As a first step toward assessing the true condition of the country, democratic governments and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Uzbekistan is a member, should press, following the lead of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for an independent and international investigation into what happened in Andijon. If President Karimov continues to block such transparency, governments will need to ask themselves whether the only way to avoid being tainted themselves by association with the Uzbek government, and to shock the Uzbek authorities into reform before it is too late, is to pull back their assistance and begin to distance themselves from the regime.
Bishkek/Brussels, 25 May 2005