Uzbek Bloody Friday
Author: Ali Said
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 06/14/2005
With the help of leading information agencies, as well as reports by human rights activists, the world has turned its attention to Uzbekistan. The events that took place in the Uzbek city of Andijhan on Friday, May 13, 2005, placed Uzbekistan on the BBC front page. The news on Uzbekistan remained there for at least a week, informing the world on the unrest in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley. Last time Uzbekistan received such publicity was in 2001, when President Karimov decided to foster a relationship with the United States and offered Uzbek land to the Pentagon for operations in Afghanistan. Now, it seems that this relationship is falling apart due to the Andijhan events and the immediate response by the international human rights community.
The term “Andijhan events” in this piece refers to the culmination of the standoff between the civilian protesters and the authoritarian Uzbek regime, which started in February 2005 as a peaceful protest by the former in response to the repressive policies of the latter. According to independent reports, the Uzbek police and security services opened fire on the mass demonstration in Andijan on Friday, May 13, 2005. This mass protest was a result of the trial of 23 local businessmen arrested on what were believed to be trumped up charges for belonging to an Islamic radical group. To underlie the peaceful nature of the protest, which resulted from state injustice, the BBC referred to it as the most orderly protest.  Indeed, on the day the BBC reported on the thousands of people sitting calmly outside of the courthouse, nothing could predict that in 24 hours this protest would end in bloodshed. In particular, reporting on the protest on May 12, 2005, the BBC correspondent reported that
The Andijan protestors are all well-spoken, dignified and orderly. They could perhaps be described as the town’s middle class. They make a point of saying that they are not protesting against the government – they simply want justice for their relatives. And they are eager to mention other arrests in the town and of more trials they say are planned for the near future.
On the next day, Friday, May the 13th, most of the world media agencies, including the BBC, were reporting on the overnight clash between the supposed rebels and the Uzbek police and security services, which culminated in the troops firing on a non-violent protest in the afternoon of the same day. The immediate reaction of the Uzbek government was the total isolation of the state, restriction of the access to any type of media reporting on the crisis, and extradition of all journalists from the city. Furthermore, President Karimov rushed to claim that no civilians were killed by the Uzbek police and that Islamic radical movements with the link to Afghanistan (Hizb ut-Tahrir among them) were responsible for the carnage. In other words, once more the Uzbek government decided to dismiss the fact that the roots of the violence lay in its own policies torture, repressions, arbitrary arrests, violation of human rights and civil liberties, failure to introduce reforms, etc. Following the logic it has adopted since the early 1990’s, the state blamed radical Islam and claimed that it was yet another failed attempt to replace a secular constitutional regime with the Shariah-based Islamic state.
However, there is serious doubt that Islamists were behind the unrest. The preliminary analysis of the information (based on the testimonies and interviews made by those surviving from the shooting as well as on independent analysis) shows that Islam had nothing to do with the uprising. Rather, the guiding points of most of the public protests could be described as a search for the long-awaited respect for human rights and civil liberties, justice and economic reform, government accountability before the people and transparency of the decision-making process. As for the Andijan events, the information given by the protest’s participants should suffice all they were looking for is justice and economic opportunities, not Islamic caliphate as the government has been portraying it.
Recent events in Uzbekistan show that unwillingness of the government to introduce reforms was at the root of the public protests. Poor economic policies as well as the repression of dissent have been arousing people to protest against the regime. Apparently not learning from its past experience, the Uzbek regime continues oppressing its people, thus contributing to the accumulation of grievances. This year there have been several cases of protests staged by a disenchanted public whose needs have yet to be met by the state. According to Kamron Kambarov,
Since January, tension had been steadily on the rise in Jizzakh, with regional Governor Ubaidullah Yamankulov reportedly organizing gangs of toughs, dubbed “black hundreds,” to repress and intimidate protesting farmers. However, when confronted with the explosion of farmers anger on April 1, Yamankulov adopted a conciliatory course, hastily organizing a festival featuring the Uzbek national dish, plov, the Ferghana.ru website reported.
This protest staged by the farmers in the region was followed by one staged in front of the U.S. Embassy, where family-members of a farmer built tents to attract attention of the international community to the injustices brought by the current Uzbek regime. According to Daniel Kimmage, their chief demand was the return of a farm they alleged was illegally confiscated by Uzbek authorities in 2001.  Although the protest was peaceful, its participants were beaten and dispersed by the police, and those from outside of Tashkent were taken to their home regions and interrogated by the security services. This has become the Uzbek way of responding to the public unrest, and unfortunately it was backed by Russia and China.
According to the recent news reports the Russian Government rushed to back up President Karimov and both Russian Foreign and Defense Ministers claimed that there is evidence proving that Taliban remnants, as well as Chechen guerilla fighters, were involved in the Andijhan skirmish. Furthermore, participating at the recent NATO Defense Ministers meeting in Brussels, the Russian Minister Sergey Ivanov reiterated Russia’s position and dismissed any possibility of the international investigation of the Andijhan events. In other words, it seems that the Kremlin has figured out the way to make the Uzbek President lean towards Russia rather than the West.
In addition to the support given by the Russian government, the Moscow-based Polity Foundation is working to create a positive image for the Uzbek President. The Uzbek National News Agency has recently reported that the president of the foundation has been welcomed by Islam Karimov. Interestingly enough, the U.S. senators that visited Uzbekistan before the Polity were denied audience, which leads one to assume that Karimov is ready to give up on his Western perspectives. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the Andijhan massacre (so named by the Human Rights Watch report), the Uzbek President paid a visit to China, where he was given a 21-firework welcome. Similar to the Russians, the Chinese government backed up the use of violence and gave its full support to Karimov’s regime. Reflecting on that, one can only assume that the two regimes notoriously known for their own killing of civilians in Chechnya and Tiananmen Square respectively have embraced President Karimov. It is interesting that on the Russian version of the Polity Foundation website, creation of the positive image for corporations, businesses, organizations, policy-makers, and individuals is listed as one of the primary activities of the organization. This explains why the U.S. senators were not welcome who needs criticism when there is an open demand for the positive PR?
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 events, the White House (and President Bush himself) has been praising President Karimov for his decision to become a part of the coalition of the willing and offering land for a U.S. airbase. Despite the fact that by that time the Uzbek regime had been infamously known for its brutality and suppression of dissent, the U.S. geopolitical interests in the region resulted in turning a blind eye toward the Uzbek regime’s domestic policies. Not offering public critique of the regime but rather praising its efforts in the war on terror, the official Washington policy has been both reinforcing President Karimov and contributing to the accumulation of public discontent. In other words, Russia and China are following the path that has already been laid by the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, the Uzbek public has been experiencing an information blockade imposed by the state, and the national mass media has been publishing articles and opinion papers in the best tradition of the Stalinist era. Depicting the human rights activists as enemies of the state and defaming the Uzbek independent journalists, national mass media either does not bother questioning the state or is being compelled to show loyalty. This is disappointing, coming from those who call themselves journalists. The Uzbek security forces have also been fulfilling their duty before the state, trying to restore the stability that President Karimov has been pointing at, the success of his reign. As in previous times, stability in Uzbekistan is achieved by suppression of dissent and war on human rights activism. The cycle of violence does not seem to be coming to a peaceful end.
Bio: Ali Said is the psuedonym of a Cental Asian journalist.