Tuesday 21 December 2004

The Inevitability of Change in Uzbekistan

My colleague, David Lewis, and I wrote this piece for the Financial Times on 21 December 2004. Sadly, the situation hasn't improved in the last six years, particularly after the Andijan massacre of May 2005, in which the Uzbek regime lashed out at an uprising in the eastern city, killing some 700 civilian protesters.


On December 26, the world will watch the crowning moments of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution", as the country returns to the polls and, almost certainly, elects the opposition candidate who forced a rerun of the vote amid popular protest over massive electoral fraud. On the same day, another former Soviet republic will hold an election, but few abroad will watch it, and little inside the country will change because of it. If Ukraine's electoral process has been orange, Uzbekistan's will be a lemon.

The Uzbek parliamentary elections will in effect be uncontested; the five parties participating are all staunchly pro-regime. Opposition groups could not obtain official recognition as political parties to compete and their efforts to get candidates on ballot papers as independents have been blocked by flimsy excuses. The opposition has finally called a boycott of the election. But the Uzbek public seems wholly uninterested in the elections and in parliament generally. Who can blame them? They know the body has been a rubber stamp for Islam Karimov, the Uzbek president, and will continue to be so after the poll, regardless of its impending expansion from one chamber to two.

Unlike in Ukraine, the regime in this former Soviet republic has a firm grip on dissent. Not only does the regime effectively forbid opposition parties, it has threatened and even closed down civil society groups. Independent economic activity has been crushed, with tax and customs requirements making business almost impossible for small-scale traders, the economic lifeline of Central Asians. The government has placed harsh restrictions on religious practice and education. There are no independent media - even the internet is censored - and Internews, a respected media development organisation, was recently suspended.

Those who dare resist can find themselves among the 5,500 political prisoners in the Uzbek prison system. Upon arrest, torture by law enforcement officials is not only systematic, as noted by a United Nations special rapporteur, but, as Craig Murray, the departed UK ambassador revealed, it is also used to obtain prisoner confessions that are then presented to UK and US authorities as evidence of international jihadi activity in Uzbekistan.

Terrorist violence in Uzbekistan this year has been directed partly at the state security services. The bombers may well have some loose connection to international terrorist groups, but would normally gain little support in Uzbekistan. Such is the discontent with the government, however, that there was little public outrage at attacks against the much-hated police. Uzbeks who flee government repression, often to neighbouring countries or Pakistan, are easy recruits for anyone proclaiming jihad against Mr Karimov. But in many cases the Islamist ideology is little more than a veneer; beneath the surface, it looks much more like armed revolt provoked by bad government.

In short, Uzbekistan is so unlike Ukraine it is hard to believe they were the same country just 13 years ago. Society is bolted down so tightly that when the dictatorship finally falls apart, the aftermath is highly likely to be bloody. But violence is not the only possible outcome for Uzbekistan's future. Without being overly optimistic, one can hope that some oranges simply ripen later than others. True, Mr Karimov will undoubtedly get the result he wants on Sunday; but longer term, he seems to be swimming against the tide. It will become harder and harder for him to cling to power and continue receiving US support, which is already slipping, at least on the non-military side --witness the US State Department's cancellation of Dollars 18m (Euros 13.5m) in aid in August due to Uzbekistan's poor human rights record.

Slowly, the neighbourhood is changing, too. Mr Karimov is increasingly finding himself between two movements for democratic change. Along with two democratic revolutions in the former Soviet Union over the past year, in Georgia and Ukraine, there is now an elected president next door in Afghanistan, soon to be matched by an elected parliament. The world should not wait for some vague democratic momentum to catch up with Uzbekistan, however. The country needs international support targeting the non-governmental organisations still daring to work in this hostile environment, especially in key areas such as media development, legal reform, education, health and support for private enterprise. The aim should be to boost those sectors of society not dominated by the state. Only a well-developed civil society can help Uzbekistan adapt to the inevitable changes and, by shaping new leaders and providing spaces for social mediation, reduce the possibility of violent conflict when that change comes.

David Lewis is Central Asia project director at the International Crisis Group; Andrew Stroehlein, Crisis Group's director of media, ran journalist training programmes in Uzbekistan

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