May 17, 2005

Uzbekistan Riots

I've been trying to catch up on my Uzbekistan reading, but yikes, hard to just wade right into a region and figure out what's going on. A few things about the recent violence in the eastern part of the country, though,—in which, reportedly, 500 protestors have been killed by the government. First, as far as I can tell, the revolt in Andijan has only a fair amount to do with Islamic extremism, and a lot to do with the fact that Uzbeks are basically poor as dirt and fed up. President Islam Karimov—of "boil the dissidents!" fame—has badly mismanaged Uzbekistan's economy, as Robert Templer of ICG has described:
The concentration of wealth and power in an ever-smaller number of hands close to the president, combined with increasing repression and a weakening economy, is fueling widespread discontent that could turn violent. Visiting officials who lecture Karimov on his economic failures are firmly reminded that his education was in the dismal science. Indeed, during Soviet times, he worked at the Uzbek branch of Gosplan, the central planning agency, where he shuffled goods from one unproductive factory to another while skimming a cut. That's still how he sees economic management.

Last year, he effectively closed down Uzbekistan's bazaars, the wholesale markets that are the center of commerce, in an attempt, many believe, to enrich members of the government trying to control wholesale trade. He has had the government buy back, at their original price, businesses that were privatized years ago. Many businesses that are then taken over by families of politicians.
The Jamestown Foundation, meanwhile, gives an overview of recent events. The so-called "rebels," supposedly including Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahir, seem to have fled to neighboring Kyrgystan, where the southern region of the country isn't under government control. "Thus," says Jamestown, "southern Kyrgyzstan could become the center of armed resistance to the Karimov regime." But the uprising wouldn't have such wide popular support if Karimov's regime wasn't so brutal, and economic conditions weren't so miserable. That seems to be the crucial factor. Also, Nathan Hamm notes that Uzbeks want change, yes, but they're also worried about chaos and violence—he quotes one protestor saying, "All I know is that if change in Uzbekistan is possible only through violence and blood—then I don't want that kind of change." Horrible.

I have no idea whether or not the United States is going to let Karimov continue on with his little crackdown on the "rebels." Russian President Putin is backing Karimov to the hilt, worrying about "the danger of destabilization." Meanwhile, praktike catches the State Department condemning the recent violence and urging Karimov to open up Uzbekistan's political system. But we're in something of a bind here: as this report points out, the United States has an important air base in the country, and Uzbekistan is a "crucial" ally in the war on terror. More substantively, in Robert Kaplan's much-derided new Atlantic article, he claims the U.S. worries that if we disengage from Uzbekistan, China will swoop in and gain influence—killing any hope for reform there. That sounds like a reasonable concern. Still, Karimov benefits from his relationship with the United States, and it seems we ought to have some leverage over him to push for reform, though that's always easier said than done.

By way of suggestions, Ariel Cohen of Heritage writes that the U.S., Russia, China, and others ought to prod Karimov into negotiating with the secular, moderate opposition parties in the country—the Erk and Birlik parties—to bring about stability. Meanwhile, a year ago, Fiona Hill of Brookings argued that Karimov's method of "stabilizing" the country was only going to produce more and more social upheaval. Well, she was right about that, though she also doesn't have any easy answers for fixing the country:
Unfortunately, even sensible solutions to Uzbekistan's problems are now difficult to implement. Although the United States can exert some leverage on Uzbekistan's government, which sees the U.S. military presence and American security assistance as a source of legitimacy, pushing the government to liberalize suddenly could be disastrous. The pressure has to come off gradually to prevent an explosion that would have negative consequences for the whole of Central Asia.

The U.S. government must, however, push the Uzbek government to put the safety valves back in place and allow its population to let off some steam. Stopping torture and arbitrary detentions would be of the first order, along with re-opening key border crossings, allowing freedom of movement in the Fergana Valley, facilitating private trade, and reinvigorating the bazaars. If something is not done, and soon, there will be more physical and political explosions in Uzbekistan...
MORE: For those who really want to get into details, Dan Darling has a backgrounder on Uzbekistan, focusing on Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the militant Islamist group. Incidentally, there are reports that HuT is inciting the Koran-in-toilet riots in Afghanistan, but who knows.
-- Brad Plumer 3:43 AM || ||