Friday, 12 May 2006

We Must Prepare for the Coming Crisis in Uzbekistan

This comment piece originally appeared in the Financial Times on 12 May 2006.

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A year has passed since government troops fired on thousands of protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan and, despite expressions of concern from western governments, little has been done to try to change the behaviour of the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov.

Tashkent has successfully blocked moves for an independent investigation of the Andijan massacre – despite earlier calls from the US, UK and European Union for an inquiry. Rejecting claims by human rights groups that more than 700 people died in the city on May 13 2005, the Uzbek government has adhered to its official death toll of 187 and blamed Islamic extremists for the violence. It is becoming awkward for western governments that espouse human rights and have a strong interest in regional stability in central Asia – particularly as Afghanistan, the focus of a big international reconstruction effort, is next door.

In the past year, apart from helping transport a few hundred Uzbek refugees from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to Romania, the US and the EU have done little. The US at one point hoped, perhaps, to keep its airbase at Karshi-Khanabad in southern Uzbekistan, but Mr Karimov served notice on the base last July regardless. The EU announced a visa ban on top Uzbek officials in October, and Tony Blair, UK prime minister, this week said he would look at strengthening the ban. But Germany, which also leases a base in Uzbekistan, broke the ban the day it was announced by allowing the Uzbek interior minister, a key figure behind the Andijan massacre, to receive medical treatment in Hannover.

Meanwhile, Uzbek security forces have continued to intimidate countless survivors and their families. Show trials have put scores of people in Uzbek prisons, where the United Nations describes torture as “systematic”. The regime has especially targeted journalists, charging some with involvement in an elaborate international conspiracy to discredit the regime.

Several years ago, in a journalism training session in Tashkent, I remember a top Uzbek lawyer explaining the system to the class: “What you have to understand about Uzbekistan is that there is no reliable concept of legal and illegal here. Karimov is the only law.” Andijan and its aftermath proved that beyond doubt. The students in that class, some of whom reported the Andijan events, are mostly now in exile, in hiding or in prison.

Admittedly, the outside world has few levers over such a regime. Strengthening the EU arms embargo and visa ban on Uzbek officials, as Mr Blair has suggested, would be welcome, especially if it includes Mr Karimov himself, a glaring omission from the original list. Such diplomatic pressure may, however, be too late to prevent upheaval. As with other brutal yet brittle regimes facing an increasingly hostile population with less and less to lose, its end is as inevitable as it will be turbulent. But the international community can try to moderate any future breakdown. It is in its interest to do so: a complete collapse of Uzbekistan would put at risk the world’s huge investment in neighbouring Afghanistan, and a failed state in the heart of Asia would be a godsend to drug traffickers and religious extremists.

The international emphasis should be on long-term measures aimed at maintaining the few signs of independent activity within the country and on preparing the region to cope with any crisis. First, this means supporting civil society and funding educational opportunities in the expectation of future change to a more reasonable government. Given the scale of the country’s problems, those who succeed Mr Karimov will need to be as knowledgeable and well-prepared as possible.

This must include expanding freedom of information projects reporting to and about Uzbekistan, which has become an information black hole since the crackdown on journalists after Andijan, and looking favourably on asylum applications that may result from their work. Funds should also go to projects to prepare the region for turmoil. For example, Uzbekistan’s neighbours are not ready to cope with the refugee flows that could ensue from another massacre or rebellion. Aid for crisis planning means pre-positioning resources to handle refugee flows, improving policing and border security and increasing aid to ministries responsible for emergency situations. Of course, none of this will prevent the coming crisis in Uzbekistan but it could help soften the blow.


The writer, media director of the International Crisis Group, previously ran journalist training programmes in Uzbekistan

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