Uzbekistan's Window of Opportunity

The massacre of peaceful demonstrators in the city of Andijan, Uzbekistan on the 13th of May is a tragedy without end. No closure is possible: for the bereaved, who are still denied the truth of their loved ones' deaths; for the survivors, many of whom have fled across the border into Kyrgyzstan; for the Uzbek people as a whole, repressed and confined by a government that refuses to tell them what happened; and the democratic members of the international community, unable to establish normal relations with a state operating by rules of violence and lies.

With each passing day it becomes more difficult to reach the truth about the brutal Andijan killings. There are still no exact, reliable figures of how many people died and exactly what happened. The Uzbek government in Tashkent has rejected multiple requests for an independent investigation; support from its strong Russian and Chinese neighbours has even emboldened it to accuse western governments of inciting revolts against Islam Karimov's regime.

The "attempt to overthrow the constitutional regime" -- embodied in article 159 of Uzbekistan's criminal code -- is used as the prime legal weapon against Uzbek dissidents; they are routinely also charged with "extremist, terrorist activities" or with membership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or Hizb-u-Tahrir opposition groups.

The Uzbek government regards being a dissident as evidence of the intention to overthrow the government, install a Taliban-like theocracy, and breed terrorism. The circle around Islam Karimov -- helped by western-educated children of the ruling elite and expensive PR companies -- portrays any opposition as Islamist. As a result, perhaps 6-7,000 people (according to United States state department or Human Rights Watch figures) are in jail in Uzbekistan for being dangerous subversives, extremists, terrorists and Islamists.

An argument based on a choice between Karimov and the Taliban can count on more than Russia's and China's support. The excuses offered by some analysts after Andijan -- that Karimov "needed to use force to clamp down on terrorists" -- echo persistent views of influential westerners like Henry Kissinger, who in 2002 praised Karimov for "his great contribution to the struggle with international terrorism".

Karimov was at the time also an honoured guest at George W Bush's White House. His visit was organised by members of the Bukharan Jewish community, most of whom had long ago left the collapsed economy of their ancient city for Israel and the United States. Rafael Nektalov, a native of Samarkand who edits the Bukharian Times, confirmed to me that Bukhara's Jews stand firmly with Karimov. When I asked him if he considered killing 173 civilians (the figure the Uzbek government admits to) a crime, he said the numbers do not matter: Andijan was done in the name of "greater stability."

Who are the Uzbek opposition?

Those who think like Rafael Nektalov believe Karimov's claim that the only alternative to his regime is fundamentalist Islamic rule. The enemies named by the Uzbek regime in connection with the Andijan uprising -- the IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir -- do not offer clear evidence to support this argument. The IMU in the early 1990s did carry out armed attacks on the government, but later merged with the Taliban and shared the latter's defeat and dispersal in November 2001.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir have never been convincingly associated with military action. Its London headquarters deny any participation in the Andijan uprising, and told me that they advocate creating an Islamic caliphate solely by peaceful means.

Members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir arrested in Uzbekistan are almost always charged under article 159 and tried in groups. They are routinely accused of distributing flyers (written in Arabic) calling for a central Asian caliphate while in possession of bullets (very rarely actual guns). The clumsiness of many such charges is apparent: Ismail Odilov, a human-rights activist, reported a case where the police planted leaflets and a bullet on a blind man.

It is likely that severe economic hardship and high unemployment in Uzbekistan may have radicalised some young men and persuaded them to accept money to distribute leaflets. But to argue that Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan has any real political following is stretching things too far. They seem to lack any political strategy for establishing a caliphate, and behave more like a Christian sect expecting the second coming than a coherent organisation.

It is unclear whether the Uzbek government believes its own propaganda about Hizb-ut-Tahrir; but the movement's underground status gives Karimov's tame media the freedom to accuse at will, and tarnish every dissident voice in Uzbekistan in the process.

Islamists and secularists

In any case, after seventy years of Soviet rule the people of Uzbekistan are thoroughly secular in their daily lives. Men drink vodka, women only start wearing headscarves when they marry, and few young people attend mosques. True, many Uzbeks revere imams and the holy Qur'an (even if they cannot read it. But there is no evidence to suggest that, given a real choice, they would follow the "Islamists" and their agenda against a secular democratic alternative.

Meanwhile, the secular opposition that developed in the post-Soviet era has been gradually marginalised by Karimov's severe repression, tolerated by the "democratic" west. Its main opposition party is Erk (Freedom), whose leader Muhammad Solih has lived in exile for thirteen years since he lost the staged 1992 election.

A few diehard members of Erk, Birlik (Unity) and Ozod Dehkonlar (Free Farmers) are routinely harassed, beaten, imprisoned or kept under house arrest. With no free media it is difficult for them to communicate with people or engage in public debate.

To fill the space where public dialogue should be, the government has created fictive "opposition" parties with legal registration, five of whom have won parliament seats. The "anti-Karimov" candidate in the most recent presidential "election" exposed the farce himself by announcing on his exit from the polling station that he had voted for ... Islam Karimov.

When I met him recently, Muhammad Solih was still defiant and hopeful; he retains some of the charisma that made him appear a possible leader of a democratic Uzbekistan in the early 1990s. After Andijan, a coalition of the genuine opposition parties in Uzbekistan elected him to represent them. He told me that Erk is still strong enough to oppose the Uzbek government:

"Our members continue to press for freedom, even when they and their families face harsh treatment from the Karimov regime. But who is to say whether Hizb-ut-Tahrir or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is stronger than us? They are underground. They have no political programme that would find followers in Uzbekistan. The Hizb-ut-Tahrir programme is a pan-Arabic doctrine -- a caliphate with the sharia as a way of life and the Arabic language as a lingua franca."
Another source of Solih's confidence is the post-Andijan chill between Tashkent and Washington, as the US administration begins to realise the real nature of its Uzbek ally. Solih himself has been granted a US visa after a decade-long refusal, and has used the opportunity to tour the country, talking to think-tanks, meeting with US senators and some government officials. On all occasions he has urged the US administration to support democratic forces inside Uzbekistan.

The United States and Uzbekistan

Muhammad Solih's request might prove difficult to implement, for US policy is split -- between the Pentagon (which wants to continue the US's extensive military cooperation with Uzbekistan) and the state department (which is aware of the contradiction between promoting "democracy" in the Muslim world and supporting Karimov).

The Karimov regime has its own cards to play. It has long cultivated Moscow and Beijing even as it posed as the US's firmest ally in the region. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes Russia and China as well as Uzbekistan and two other central Asian states, has issued a statement demanding the US set a deadline for withdrawal of its troops from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek foreign ministry has indicated that the Karshi-Khanabad base, which US forces use to support operations and supply humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, was intended only for anti-Taliban combat operations. "Any other prospects for a United States military presence in Uzbekistan were not considered by the Uzbek side'', a ministry statement said.

The delicacy of the US's strategic position in central Asia as it pursues its "war on terror" is intensified by renewed fighting in Afghanistan and evidence that the pivotal state of Uzbekistan cannot be bent to its will.

But Islam Karimov's political future is even more difficult. His economic policies are a disaster, offering his people no long-term future; his domestic strategy may lead to the creation of the very Islamist phantom that his cynical imagination has conjured; there is evidence that dissent is growing, most importantly inside the regime itself. In this post-Andijan flux, the Uzbek people deserve to be offered the option of a democratic secular government committed to their freedom and prosperity.

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