Central Asia: Uzbekistan at 10 –Repression and Instability
Central Asia: Uzbekistan at 10 –Repression and Instability
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 21 / Europe & Central Asia

Central Asia: Uzbekistan at 10 –Repression and Instability

Uzbekistan plays a pivotal role in Central Asia. It is the region’s most militarily capable and populous country, and large Uzbek minorities live in neighbouring states. As it approaches the tenth anniversary of its independence, however, internal and external pressures threaten to crack the nation’s thin veneer of stability.

Executive Summary

Uzbekistan plays a pivotal role in Central Asia. It is the region’s most militarily capable and populous country, and large Uzbek minorities live in neighbouring states. As it approaches the tenth anniversary of its independence, however, internal and external pressures threaten to crack the nation’s thin veneer of stability. While the government has been quick to blame outside forces for its woes and indeed to exaggerate the impact of these forces, it is clear that the most important factor driving the mounting instability is Uzbekistan’s failure to embrace real political or economic reform.

Evidence continues to mount that Uzbekistan’s “unique state-construction model” is falling apart. The last two years have witnessed bombings in the capital, Tashkent (February 1999) and armed incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (summer 1999 and 2000). However, the growing potential for civil unrest is driven by the twin prongs of severe political repression and economic despair, as protests this year in Tashkent, Andijan and Jizzakh over crop seizures and the detention of political prisoners make clear.

During the early stages of independence, many observers attributed Uzbekistan’s relative socio-economic and political stability to President Islam Karimov’s authoritarian policies. Despite the country’s often abysmal human rights record, and over the protests of human rights organisations and increasingly repressed opposition groups, most international financial assistance (including security aid) has continued to flow. Ironically, in looking past the Uzbekistan government’s frequent abuses out of concerns regarding Islamist radicalism in the region, the international community has inadvertently helped create exactly the conditions that it has always feared the most. Growing political repression and poverty now provide a fertile breeding ground for violence, instability and increasingly active Islamist extremist groups. The authoritarian approach has at best postponed, but not defused, a looming economic and political crisis.

It requires relatively enormous financial, human and other resources for the government of Uzbekistan to maintain authoritarian rule and keep control over competing internal factions based on regionalism, ethnicity, and patronage networks. The establishment of near absolute power by the executive branch has only been achieved though a brutal crackdown on moderate voices and through power-sharing arrangements with leftover Soviet-era bureaucrats in the “power” ministries. Tashkent’s authoritarian domestic approach has sparked a political crisis marked by mismanagement, the emergence of a strong Islamist opposition, broad economic dislocation, endemic corruption, growing dissatisfaction with the government, poor relations with neighbours and continuing regional turmoil.

A consolidation of anti-government forces is likely over time and raises concerns about the succession of power in Uzbekistan whenever Karimov’s rule ends. With no meaningful civil society and alternative political figures and groups operating underground in a highly secretive fashion, the potential for a bloody civil conflict in the struggle to replace the current leadership is real. If Uzbekistan implodes in violence, the reverberations will be felt across all of Central Asia, and pose security implications for Europe, China, Russia, the Middle East and the United States. The only way to defuse this unfolding crisis is to strengthen democracy and liberalise Uzbekistan’s still highly centralised economy. Since it is obvious the Karimov government will not make any moves toward reform without both substantial internal and external pressure, governments friendly to Uzbekistan need to rethink their current policy approach. The opportunity for avoiding conflict in the region may soon be gone.

Osh/Brussels, 21 August 2001

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