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Uzbekistan: A Bloody Mix Of Social Unrest And A Power Struggle?

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova --> Special forces on the streets on Andijon shortly after the bloodshed (epa) Eyewitnesses of the bloodshed in Andijon suggest, at a European Parliament roundtable, that a rivalry between ruling clans helped transform a nonreligious, pro-democracy demonstration into a bloodbath.

PRAGUE, May 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) – Just as there is uncertainty about how many people died when Uzbek forces broke up demonstrations in Andijon, there is little certainty about what exactly happened before and during the crackdown and about the nature of unrest.

This gap in knowledge was one of the reasons why, on May 11, the European Parliament marked last year's bloody events in eastern Uzbekistan with a roundtable. It was a discussion that brought together a number of people who attended the demonstrations in Andijon and witnessed the subsequent bloodshed.

"They were killing one row of protesters after another."

One of them, the journalist Galima Bukharbaeva, recalls that a convoy of armored personnel carriers (APCs)entered Andijon's central Bobur Square five hours into a massive demonstration and "without warning, the soldiers in the APCs opened fire on the crowd. I was able to escape from the square after the third attack by APCs. Those APCs did not stop. They were moving slowly on the square and shooting. They were killing one row of protesters after another."

The crackdown followed weeks of public protests against the trial of 23 local businessmen. The Uzbek government claimed that the bloodshed was the work of Islamic terrorists seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate in Uzbekistan, but that is an assertion that Bukharbaeva dismisses as bogus.

"I said -- and it is my position, I have no doubts about it -- that it was a pro-democratic uprising of the city triggered by unfair trial of well-known and influential businessmen in Andijon," she told RFE/RL.

The Violence Before The Crackdown

A military truck damaged in the unrest (ITAR-TASS)

The crackdown was not the only violence that Andijon saw in those few, ultimately fateful days. Prior to the arrival of thousands of government troops, unidentified attackers had -- on the night of May 12-13 -- seized a police station, a military garrison, and the prison in which the 23 businessmen were locked up.

These events have been seized on by the Uzbek government as evidence that it faced an insurgency in Andijon.

However, some participants at the roundtable believe the Uzbek authorities -- or one part of it -- orchestrated the violence that preceded the crackdown, Vitaly Volkov, a Central Asia program correspondent for the German news agency Deutche Welle, called the attack on the prison a "provocation."

"Information we acquired from the sources in the Uzbek SNB," the secret service, indicates that "the crowd that came to the prison was led by officers of the local SNB who used to oversee institutions such as prisons," Volkov told RFE/RL. Approached by their former supervisors, the prison guards had simply opened the prison gates.

Volkov believes the SNB then staged an assault in order to compromise the Interior Ministry. There is, he argues, a longstanding rivalry between the SNB and the Interior Ministry, whose heads represent two influential clans competing for political power in the country.

Several police officers and prison guards were sentenced to prison last year in cases heard behind closed doors. In addition, Uzbek President Islam Karimov dismissed Interior Minister Zakirjon Almatov, ostensibly on health grounds. It was Almatov who negotiated with protesters after they seized the regional administration building (hokimiyat), just before the government forces entered Bobur Square on May 13.

"When we interviewed them two days earlier...they said the special services had been trying to convince them to start violence."

Journalist Bukharbaeva concedes that some of the people who attacked the prison were probably among those who seized the administration building the next day. However, she too believes they had taken part in the initial attack at the instigation of the SNB.

"When we interviewed people in the hokimiyat on May 13, they admitted that had participated in the attack of the police station and the military garrison, had obtained weapons there, and were also present during the prison assault," she says. "They didn't tell us that they had been encouraged to do so by law-enforcement agencies. But when we interviewed them two days earlier, on May 11 -- and we have audio -- they said the special services had been trying to convince them to start violence earlier."

The Role Of Religion

Troop reinforcements being brought into Andijon a day after the bloodshed (ITAR-TASS)

Uzbek authorities claim that the attackers were Islamic terrorists trained abroad, and that they, along with the protesters, shouted Islamic slogans.

That account is, however, challenged by German freelance reporter Marcus Bensmann, who monitored the trials of the 23 businessmen and witnessed the shootings on May 13.

"I didn't see any trained mujahedin that day. And I didn't [hear] any outcry of 'Allahu Akbar' ['God is Great'] demanding an Islamic state," he said.

No independent probe has ever been held to determine what happened on the night of May 12-13. Calls for an independent report were raised once again at the roundtable by a number of prominent nongovernmental organizations, the International Crisis Group (ICG), Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Institute.

Rights activists also called on Europe to take more action, by imposing a visa ban on President Karimov and his family, the country's prosecutor-general, and justice minister and freezing the assets of top Uzbek officials.

The European Union introduced an arms embargo and last autumn barred 12 top security officials from entering its 25 member states.

"I am absolutely sure that no dialogue is possible with the current regime."

Muhammad Solih, the exiled leader of the unregistered Uzbek Erk (Freedom) democratic party, welcomed the roundtable, saying this was just the first of a series of Andijon-related events to be organized by the European Parliament and that this dialogue will help define Europe's future position toward Karimov's regime.

Erk party leader Muhammad Solih speaking to RFE/RL at the Brussels event (RFE/RL)

"I am absolutely sure that no dialogue is possible with the current regime," Solih said. "So what can be done? Pressure should be strengthened."

"It is Karimov who has isolated Uzbekistan," Solih said. "Despite everything, the European Parliament is saying it wants a dialogue."

Uzbek Embassy officials were invited to the event and were included on the list of speakers, alongside eyewitnesses, human rights groups, European officials, and members of the Uzbek opposition. However, no Uzbek officials showed up.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Shukhrat Babajanov contributed to this report from Brussels)

Andijon Anniversary Conference

Violence in Andijon, Uzbekistan, on May 14, 2005 (epa)

TALKING ABOUT ANDIJON: On May 9, 2006, RFE/RL, the National Endowment for Democracy, and U.S.-based human rights organizations cohosted a conference on the May 2005 events in Andijon and their aftermath in Uzbekistan and throughout the region. The first panel featured Andijon eyewitness GALIMA BUKHARBAEVA, National Endowment for Democracy Fellow NOZIMA KAMALOVA, RFE/RL Central Asia analyst DANIEL KIMMAGE, and others. The second panel featured presentations by U.S. Senator JOHN MCCAIN and U.S. Congressman CHRISTOPHER SMITH, who used the forum to announce they had introduced legislation calling for sanctions and other measures against the government of President Islam Karimov.


Listen to the Andijon conference.
Part One (70 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media
Part Two (60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media
The Uzbek government's response:
Real Audio Windows Media

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


For an annotated timeline of the Andijon events and their repercussions, click here.