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Uzbekistan: A Factor For Instability In Fragile Central Asia

  • Breffni O'Rourke --> Could there be more crackdowns like Andijon? (epa) Uzbekistan has been at the center of international concern for almost a year, since the government of President Islam Karimov staged a crackdown on May 13, 2005, on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijon, in which possibly several hundreds of people died. Many in Central Asia believe the high level of tension in Uzbekistan could spread instability throughout the region.

PRAGUE, March 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan shares common borders with the other four Central Asian republics plus Afghanistan, and is thus well-placed to impact the other countries in this volatile region.

And regional analysts say it is having an impact. Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) specialist Annette Bohr cautions against being alarmist, but adds, "There is already political, social, and economic fallout from the situation in Uzbekistan which is affecting its neighbors."

For instance, Kyrgyzstan has had to cope with refugees fleeing the crackdown on dissent by the Uzbek regime of President Islam Karimov. Resolving the conflicting demands about whether to return refugees -- as demanded by Uzbekistan -- or send them on to other countries, has taxed Kyrgyzstan at a time of political confusion following the overthrow of President Askar Akaev.

Bohr says that for its part, Kazakhstan is trying to regulate the flow of Uzbek immigrants arriving to work illegally in low-paid jobs. In January and February, Kazakhstan deported some 50 illegal Uzbek immigrants. And she notes violent incidents and loss of life along the Kazakh-Uzbek border because of smuggling from the Uzbek side.

And Tajikistan, still trying to recover from its civil war, is vulnerable to pressures of all sorts.

'Epicenter' Of Instability

Another RIIA analyst, Yury Federov, says Uzbekistan appears to be a pivotal point for events in the whole region. "Internal developments in Uzbekistan are really worrisome; the ruling regime keeps itself in power through repression, and many people in Uzbekistan believe that repression in the final end cannot save the current regime from the crash, which may lead, in turn, to a general destabilization of the situation in the country and in the neighboring region," he says.

Federov says that in the event of any trouble, the densely populated Ferghana Valley, which runs through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, could be the "epicenter" of instability.

Fellow RIIA specialist James Nixey agrees that trouble could rapidly spread across the loosely controlled frontiers of the valley. "Where the Ferghana Valley is concerned, the borders are much more porous there, they are not well protected, they are not well guarded, and therefore the movement of extremists is much easier than through official border channels," he says.

Nixey sees Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan as having stronger governments, and therefore being less vulnerable to unfolding events in Uzbekistan.

Russia As Stabilizing Force

So what can be done to ease the possible threat to regional stability? The West, at any rate, has a decreasing influence on events in Uzbekistan since relations descended to frigid levels after criticism from the United States and the European Union of the Andijon events.

But analyst Nixey says that as Western influence wanes, that of Russia over its former satellite of Uzbekistan tends to increase, and therefore Washington and the EU states could use forums like the Group of Eight leading industrial countries to persuade Moscow to pressure the Uzbeks towards moderation.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is making a play for regional leadership and that means becoming more involved with Uzbekistan. President Nursultan Nazarbaev made his first official visit to Tashkent on March 19, and the two countries agreed to undertake joint stabilization measures in the economic, political, and security fields.

"Nazarbaev does, of course, want to portray himself as the regional power; it is all part of his grander plan," Nixey comments. "He has been recently reelected, he's in a strong position, it is not in his interest to have the rest of Central Asia destabilized anyway so, although one could look for underhand motives, in fact there is a pragmatic and very realistic motive for Nazarbaev, whereby he is interested in regional security for his own sake."

Those comments come in the wake of an article in "The International Herald Tribune" by the chairman of the board of the International Crisis Group, Chris Patten. Patten, a former EU external affairs commissioner, calls the Uzbek government one of the world's "most repressive regimes."

As the democratic world has only limited leverage over Uzbekistan, Patten advocates a long-term strategy designed to help the Uzbek people by strengthening civil society. He calls for support for independent media within that country, plus broadcasting beamed-in from abroad.

He says Uzbek neighbors Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan should get foreign assistance to strengthen their borders and, at the same time, to prepare in advance for possible refugee flows from Uzbekistan.
Aftermath Of Andijon

A dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of the events in Andijon, Uzbekistan, in May 2005 and their continuing repercussions.


An annotated timeline of the Andijon events and their repercussions.