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Starting Anew in Uzbekistan
Starting Anew in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan: The Andijon Uprising

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I. Overview

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

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Starting Anew in Uzbekistan

Originally published in The Interpreter

Outside powers may be relieved that the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's president since 1991, has been followed by a seemingly smooth, orderly transition, rather than creating a political vacuum filled by competing contenders.

Yet political transitions of any kind are a scarce commodity in Central Asia. The changing of the guard in Uzbekistan's stagnant autocracy provides a rare chance for international actors to recalibrate their relations with Tashkent. At this sensitive time, the outside world needs to make incremental adjustments to counter the widely expected return to the status quo, and to steer a cautious path towards change Uzbekistan's fossilised domestic and foreign policies.

The only other transfer of power in Central Asia's authoritarian states (outside of Kyrgyzstan, which has followed a more pluralistic trajectory) has been in neighbouring Turkmenistan, with a ruling party-run transition in 2007 that has changed nothing in the country's oppressive authoritarianism.

In Uzbekistan, in true Soviet style, the will of Karimov was signified soon after his 2 September death by the selection of Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the funeral organiser. As one well-placed Uzbek remarked: 'Whoever buries rules next'.

Barely a week passed until Mirziyoyev was selected as interim president. Mirziyoyev's 8 September address to the nation signalled the continuation of the status quo over any significant change in the country's trajectory. Mirziyoyev is now gearing up to assume full presidential power in the upcoming December election, which will likely be a ceremonial confirmation of his uncontested position.

Karimov's parting gift to Mirziyoyev was a highly authoritarian state, the most visible traits of which were forced labour, mass arrests, widespread repression and torture. Mirziyoyev's strong position within the political elite, buttressed by the support of senior Uzbek clansmen and his close ties to the Russian oligarchy, make it unlikely that he will spurn his inheritance.

The ruling elite will sooner or later need to address the pressure points that are causing grievances among the population.

In a country that has outlawed the study of political science, it is perhaps unsurprising that liberal democracy has not flourished in 25 years of independence. Indeed, hundreds of thousands are forced to spend three months every Autumn picking cotton, the country's main agricultural product.

But it is not just exploitation and the lack of accountable governance that troubles Uzbekistan. The wider population is in desperate need of effective economic and social policies to improve standards of living. Pensioners and public sector workers wait months for pensions and salaries. Over the years, as many as 1.75 million Uzbeks have felt no other choice but to uproot themselves and find work in Russia. Informers for the state security apparatus are omnipresent. People live in fear that they may be overheard. Discontent finds no expression through civil society or in the political space.

But the ruling elite will sooner or later need to address the pressure points that are causing grievances among the population. Now is the chance to signal change, by seeking to address socio-economic issues, releasing political prisoners and taking measures to curb pervasive corruption within the police and judicial system.

Like all Central Asia's five post-Soviet states, Uzbekistan has been plagued by poorly developed institutions, authoritarian rule and a stunted struggle for real democracy. In recent years, Washington and its European partners have flirted with sanctions to punish human rights abuses. But at the same time, they have baulked at alienating a core Central Asian power whose shared border with Afghanistan has been as a backdoor into the fight against the Taliban.

The U.S. needs a new policy that links defence and security cooperation to better governance, since the old blank slate neither won Tashkent's friendship nor advanced the cause of human rights in Uzbekistan. In 2015 Uzbekistan received 300 armoured vehicles from US contingency stocks in Afghanistan, but in August of that year, Tashkent declined to join the Americans' anti-Islamic State coalition. At the same time, the security apparatus becomes more intransigent with every boost to its arsenal.

Since Uzbekistan's main partners in Russia and China have little interest in seeing an injection of liberalisation into the region, it is up to the U.S. and the EU to play a more active role.

Tensions over energy and water with neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan jeopardise the whole region's security. The new rulers in Tashkent should rethink the old policy of mono-agriculture, which makes them not just dependent on a cotton industry that uses outdated irrigation and aging infrastructure, but also on a predictable flow of water from its mountainous neighbours. Occasional skirmishes over water sources show that the region must find a better basis for cooperation than threats of upstream dams and even war.

Since Uzbekistan's main partners in Russia and China have little interest in seeing an injection of liberalisation into the region, it is up to the U.S. and the EU to play a more active role. For example, their ability to offer technical improvements in the farming, energy and water sectors can help decrease Uzbekistan's reliance on and frictions with neighbours. But there should be a quid pro quo that Tashkent opens up too.

Any such Western diplomatic initiative, however, should be quietly conceived and executed. Heavy-handed designation of Uzbekistan as either all strategic friend or human rights foe has had its day, and the new president should be given an opportunity to move forward.


Project Director, Central Asia
Program Director, Europe & Central Asia