In his second inaugural address this past January, President Bush told “all who live in tyranny and hopelessness” that they could be sure the United States would not ignore their oppression. “The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them. Start on this journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side.”
What does this look like in a country like Uzbekistan? In May 2005, Uzbek government forces killed some 500 to 1,000 Uzbek citizens in Andijan, a town of 300,000 in Uzbekistan’s fertile Fergana Valley. What took place in this eastern region demonstrates the fragile balance of Uzbekistan’s domestic politics, and highlights the limited options the Bush administration has in operating at the intersection of what the president terms our “vital interests and deepest beliefs.”
The events at Andijan stem from the summer 2004 arrest of 23 Andijan businessmen for “Islamic extremism.” To date there has been no conclusive evidence linking them to terrorism. Since their jailing, however, many Uzbeks have come to view these 23 as pious businessmen who treated their employees fairly, paying them well and taking care of their families— something noteworthy in a country rife with government corruption and with an unemployment rate as high as 30 percent. For the last few months, peaceful protests have taken place in Andijan’s Babur Square seeking the release of the prisoners.
The May 13 bloodshed began early in the morning as an undetermined number of assailants in fifteen cars stormed the jail, killed several guards and released hundreds of prisoners, including the 23 businessmen. In coordinated fashion, armed men also attacked the police station and army garrison, killing unarmed men and taking hostages. (Attacks on the local offices of the National Security Service and the Ministry of Interior failed.) As they took control, they summoned friends and relatives, so that by the end of the morning Babur Square was filled. The rebels set up a public address system, over which they made speeches calling for jobs and justice.
After the government, represented by Minister of the Interior Zakir Almatov and then President Islam Karimov, pursued several hours of negotiations, government troops moved in with armored personnel vehicles. The assailants positioned themselves behind the crowd and their remaining hostages. It is not clear who fired first, but soon the troops were firing machine guns indiscriminately into the crowd and killing citizens as they fled toward the nearby border with Kyrgyzstan.
Most of the international community (with the notable exceptions of Russia and China, which openly supported the government’s crackdown) quickly criticized Karimov’s government, but did little else. Great Britain, the EU, the OSCE, NATO, the UN and the United States all stated that they were “deeply disturbed” and called for an independent investigation, but none threatened to cut aid.
Perhaps the most important critique came from John Abizaid, the commanding general of the U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for Central Asia. On May 19 Abizaid noted that the U.S. forces based in southern Uzbekistan in support of operations in Afghanistan would begin to operate on a more “limited” scale. Abizaid denied that this was a political signal, saying, “I think this is a level of violence that’s coming probably from a lot of different groups that aren’t altogether clear to me, but I would not necessarily characterize them in one way or the other. I’m trying to figure it out myself.”
The Fragile Balance
Stability in Uzbekistan is a function of three constituencies: key ministers, major clan networks, and, increasingly, the people.
For the last ten years, the two most important ministers in Tashkent have been Almatov, with his eye long on the presidency, and the head of the National Security Service (NSS), Gen. Rustam Inoyatov. They have long been rivals, balanced against each other by Karimov. In February 2005, before the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the events at Andijan, there were rumors that Karimov was about to dismiss one or both of them. Karimov is widely seen as trying to reconsolidate his power, after years of running the country into the ground. Karimov is also aware of the growing influence of his ministers and his own deteriorating health, and wants to place his daughter Gulnara in power. Accordingly, he has begun to actively create his own clan, placing people in power who are owe him their complete loyalty.
Uzbekistan’s clans are critical to Karimov’s capacity to move politically. The clans are difficult to understand, a fluid yet stable patchwork of political and familial obligation defined by geography, Uzbek patriotism and, above all, their desire for continued influence. Traditionally, Karimov has used economic factors to balance among the clans. For example, he has allowed various patronage networks to take their “cut” from the currency exchange and the production of cotton (of which Uzbekistan is the world’s fourth largest producer). The clans have been happy to acknowledge Karimov as the head of the Uzbek household.
Uzbeks, rendered passive by millennia of conquests and dictators, have only recently begun to express their will by protesting tax hikes, corruption in the government, and the illegal jailing of their friends and family. They have also begun to join extremist groups. The April 2004 terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan, homegrown with outside support, were the first significant indication of the people’s increasing frustration. In November 2004, 6,000 people in Kokand protested tax hikes on border trade, which sparked protests throughout Uzbekistan. And now Andijan.
There are three possible scenarios for Uzbekistan’s near- term future. The first is that the status quo continues. The state might take Tajikistan’s path and simply decay away, the government rendered impotent through corruption, drug trafficking, etc. Or, the clans might build enough consensus to replace Karimov with a mutually agreed-upon candidate. Although unlikely, a change of presidents without a regime change is possible.
The second scenario is that the government recognizes Andijan as the wake-up call that it is. The Karimov government and the clans would, if only out of self- interest, take the necessary steps to implement real economic reform, thereby alleviating Uzbeks’ main concerns: the lack of jobs and the prevalence of corruption. There are certainly Uzbek leaders who understand the need for this kind of change, but implementing it would take extraordinary leadership, such as perhaps only Karimov could provide. Because economic reforms generally make living conditions worse initially, any reforms would likely fuel protests. The reforms might not survive the instability they create.
The third possibility is civil war. Andijan might be repeated throughout the country in spontaneous expressions of frustration. If these demonstrations were coordinated, possibly by extremists, they would be almost impossible for the government to put down. It required the presence of both the president and the interior minister to restore order in Andijan, and they cannot be everywhere at once.
Of course, depending on how the ministers and the clans perceive Karimov’s control, someone might make a power move. For example, Almatov could well declare himself president, especially since Inoyatov is supporting Karimov. It could be a civil war within a civil war, with NSS troops fighting interior ministry troops.
The United States’ Limited Options
Uzbeks acknowledge that the U.S.-Uzbek “strategic partnership” forged in March 2002 has been an effective way to balance Russia and China. They appreciate this geopolitical leverage, but the government did not expect the U.S. to use it to actively promote human rights behind the scenes. The blush is now off the bloom. President Karimov recently revived his “strategic partnership” with Russia and spent the last week of May in China.
No matter what happens, U.S. options are limited, for the U.S. will little influence in the near term. Still, many Uzbeks are inclined toward America and want to see Uzbekistan become a responsible member of the international community. The U.S. should actively pursue a comprehensive plan with the country that addresses the fundamental issues of jobs and justice while harnessing the government’s self- interest. The U.S. should work with Tashkent to develop a sequenced economic reform plan and provide a significant economic package immediately—one with transparent oversight—to help them through this. If Beijing and Hanoi can produce jobs for their people even as they maintain political control, we should expect no less from Tashkent.
Concurrently, the U.S. should encourage the Uzbek government to address the justice issue. The events at Andijan need to be investigated, the 2003 plan of the UN Rapporteur for Torture must be implemented, all prisons should be visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the May 1998 “religious freedom” law—the most repressive in the former Soviet Union—revised.
Religious freedom is the ultimate counterterrorism strategy. If people are allowed to choose a faith freely and brought to appreciate that they cannot use violence to overthrow the government, then they will disavow extremism for what it is.
Uzbekistan is not yet the home of radical Islam, but it has the potential to become one. By introducing economic and religious freedom reforms, its government can send a strong signal to the Uzbek people that it is taking responsibility for the conditions that now exist. Real economic reform would also encourage foreign direct investment. Washington may need to conduct a comprehensive review of its engagement strategy for Central Asia and the role our military plays in it. As with Europe and Korea over the last fifty years, our military can be the leading and transformative edge over the next fifty years through practical and symbolic presence.
Will Andijan prove President Bush’s second inaugural to be just another speech, or can the United States establish a new pattern for U.S. foreign policy as it engages Asia’s heartland? If our goal is the advancement of freedom and justice by promoting rule-of-law societies, then we must work with the region’s leaders to sustain a vision that is congruent with its culture. We must also develop a long-term strategy for creating a stable and economically vibrant region that achieves this vision. It is not only the right thing to do in Uzbekistan, it is in our own self-interest.