RFE/RL: What were the circumstances of your most recent trip to Uzbekistan: how long were you there? Who did you talk to?
Janusz Bugajski: My four-day trip to Tashkent centered on a landmark conference organized by Freedom House to examine the links between human rights and national security. Participants included Uzbek government officials, U.S. Embassy representatives, foreign NGOs, and local human rights campaigners. I gave a presentation at the conference and chaired the first of two panels. The proceedings provided a useful opportunity to talk to senior officials, especially from the Uzbek Interior and Foreign ministries, about the threats faced by the country and the most effective ways to handle them.
RFE/RL: What is the "word on the street" about the violence: was it a form of protest? Revenge for imprisoned relatives? An attempt to spark an uprising? A provocation by the security forces?
Bugajski: There are several versions circulating on the causes of the recent violence and, as in much of the former communist world, conspiracy theories abound. A direct and organized provocation by the security forces seems least likely as there are few if any volunteers willing to commit suicide for the regime. Most probably, it was a case of radical Islamic cells operating across borders and preying on local frustrations among some desperate or susceptible citizens. Nonetheless, one should not completely discount the possibility of security-service involvement similar to the Russian scenario in which agents were either bribed or may have assisted the terrorists for propaganda purposes.
RFE/RL: How would you describe people's general attitude toward the attackers?
Bugajski: I did not have much opportunity to talk to many members of the general public. However, the pro-Western democrats I spent time with believe that although the group involved in the terrorist outrages was small it may be a warning signal to the regime that without liberalization and respect for human rights, the crackdown on moderate Islam will simply encourage radical Islam.
RFE/RL: Do people feel that Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might have been involved? Are there any rumors of other groups?
Bugajski: The Islamic Movement may have provided the ideological fuel but it has been organizationally and logistically weakened since the war in Afghanistan and has lost much of its leadership. Clearly, a certain degree of planning and coordination was involved in the attacks and there must have been some local assistance. However, it would be futile to speculate as to the source of the attacks at this point without more detailed and credible intelligence.
RFE/RL: How are official media covering the events? How much information are they providing?
Bugajski: According to the state media, the bombings were organized by radical Islamic followers to destabilize Uzbekistan. Much of the material shown was propagandistic rather than factual or analytical. Most other information sources covering the events were banned and those that official agencies did not manage to block were labeled as destructive. The lack of information created a news vacuum and this spurred some panic and hysteria, as the general public did not know what was happening and how to react.
RFE/RL: What Russian media are available? Newspapers? Television stations?
Bugajski: Russian TV is available in cities and towns but less so in rural areas where about 60 percent of the population lives. Several major Russian newspapers are very popular in Uzbekistan, especially in the larger towns.
RFE/RL: Where are people getting information: Russian media? Internet?
Bugajski: Most of the population obtains its information through Uzbek TV and various printed outlets. At the same time, Russian TV plays an important role. Only 2 percent of the population has access to Internet and other electronic sources and there is no independent central media in the country. In addition, rumor is still one of the biggest sources of domestic "information."
RFE/RL: Is it possible to access such sites as fergana.ru and tribune.uz from within Uzbekistan? Do some or all providers block access?
Bugajski: Evidently, it was possible to access fergana.ru and tribune.uz, but some Internet providers blocked these sites.
RFE/RL: Are heightened security precautions in evidence? How many people have been arrested in the wake of the violence?
Bugajski: Security is evidently more stringent in Tashkent and other big cities than it was before the violence, especially in public locations such as airports, railway stations, and hotels, while spot checks of cars are commonplace. It is difficult to estimate or verify the number of arrests although human rights campaigners believe that several dozen people may have been taken into custody. However, despite expectations to the contrary the security services have not made mass arbitrary arrests and have not staged a comprehensive crackdown on dissidents and human rights campaigners. This may also indicate that the attacks were not stage-managed by the government.
RFE/RL: Is any additional information available about the suicide bombers and/or others?
Bugajski: I did not obtain concrete information about the identity of the suicide bombers and their "fellow travelers." Some information has emerged in the media and it seems the bombers were zealous "born-again" Muslims who probably received some foreign instruction, financing, and training.
RFE/RL: Is there a sense that there will be further incidents?
Bugajski: The sense is that Uzbekistan is not immune from further attacks regardless as to whether the regime is repressive or liberalizing. However, the limited opportunities for political and organizational pluralism and the restrictions on private enterprise are more likely to encourage radicalism and will provide a breeding ground for terrorism. If the government displayed a firm commitment to democratization and capitalism then its domestic and international legitimacy would likely increase and the pretexts for terrorism would diminish. Nevertheless, as the strategic center of postcommunist Central Asia and a key ally of the United States in the counterterrorism campaign, Uzbekistan will remain a prominent target for Muslim militants and other interested parties.
(This interview appeared in the 3 May issue of the "RFE/RL Central Asia Report." Click here
to read the full report.)