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Uzbekistan: Analysts Discuss Rare Newspaper Interview With President

President Karimov (file photo) The Russian daily newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" recently published an interview with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The interview published on 14 January was the first Karimov had given to a Russian newspaper in two years and it provided some insight into the man who has led Uzbekistan since independence from Moscow in 1991. RFE/RL spoke with experts in the East and the West about the interview, which comes amid rising discontent in Uzbekistan and a growing threat of extremism.

Prague, 21 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Among Uzbek President Islam Karimov's most interesting remarks regarded political upheavals such as the "orange" and "rose" revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, respectively.

He said Uzbek "citizens themselves will not want" such drastic changes.

Lena Jonson teaches about Central Asia at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm and is also the author of several books on the region, including the recently released "Vladimir Putin and Central Asia, the Shaping of Russian Foreign Policy." She tells RFE/RL she was not convinced by Karimov's portrayal of the situation in Uzbekistan.
"We can't say that in Uzbekistan there won't be social explosions. This is unavoidable. It will be the path of agony and the destruction of statehood."

"He paints a picture that everything is more or less fine in the country and developing along a democratic road," she said. "However, if you read the article carefully, I think that his answers are quite revealing -- that he is really concerned about the domestic developments in the country."

In his interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Karimov said that while he doesn't think a "color" revolution is possible in Uzbekistan, he did not categorically rule it out.

Still, some agree that the moment for political change does not appear to be ripe in Uzbekistan. Kamoliddin Rabimov (a pseudonym) is a political analyst in Uzbekistan: "The opposition in Ukraine and Georgia is represented in parliament, in the government and in the media, the main requirements for democracy. Opposition as a political institution does not exist in Uzbekistan and it would be wrong to believe it would happen anytime soon. At the time when governments are worried about a Georgian or Ukrainian syndrome, it's very unrealistic to believe any opposition would be registered [in Uzbekistan]."

But Uzbek sociologist and political analyst Bahodyr Musayev says that just because a peaceful change in political power is very unlikely at the moment does not mean that all is well in Uzbekistan: "[President Karimov] is not in command of the reality of the situation and it shows when he says that in Uzbekistan we don't have any potential for domestic protest. Here, in the first place, there's no reform. Secondly, even on the most superficial levels one cannot see any signs of the existence of economic freedom; there's a crisis in industry; the people live in extreme poverty and they are headed for absolute impoverishment. Many of us are poor in Uzbekistan. There's a well-known saying that a person can endure pain -- but not to the point when the knife hits the bone."

In contrasting the situation in Uzbekistan with events in Ukraine and Georgia, Karimov said "there can be nothing worse than the relations between a deaf and a mute." Karimov seemed to imply that -- unlike the old regimes in Kyiv and Tbilisi -- Tashkent is aware of the failure of economic reforms, the impoverishment of its people, and their growing discontent.

Karimov's comment caught the attention of Gregory Gleason, who teaches Central Asian studies at the University of New Mexico in the United States: "I was struck by that expression 'the deaf and the mute' because the government in Uzbekistan has not been able to maintain an honest and continuing dialogue with the public."

Gleason says the Uzbek government's failure to appreciate the plight of its people and its continued repression of opposition groups and opinions is breeding its own problems.

Swedish scholar Jonson agrees: "We know that since the 1990s, the opposition inside Uzbekistan has taken on a more religious expression due to the repression of the authorities, while no legal, normal opposition has been allowed."

This "religious expression" can be seen in outlawed groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has twice tried to move into Uzbekistan with the intention of overthrowing the government.

More recently, the government has accused groups such as Hezb-ut Tahrir or Tablighi Jamoat of carrying out terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan.

In the interview, Karimov cast blame for these groups on his neighbors. Karimov criticized Kazakh security for helping to organize bombings last July in Tashkent, saying: "Allegedly because Kazakhstan honors freedom of conscience and all other democratic norms and that is why these radicals do not have anything to say [or do] against Kazakhstan."

But according to Jonson, "The roots of the problem are in Uzbekistan, since many of those people [the extremists] are Uzbeks and they are concerned mainly about what is happening in Uzbekistan."

Gleason also says the failure to allow a secular opposition has helped spark religious radicalism. He adds this lack of a legitimate opposition is likely to lead to a problem of succession once the 66-year-old Karimov's rule ends.

Musayev, the sociologist, says some future social upheaval seems unavoidable: "We can't say that in Uzbekistan there won't be social explosions. This is unavoidable. It will be the path of agony and the destruction of statehood."

The largest riot in Uzbekistan's 13-year history as an independent country occurred last November. Thousands of merchants protested new taxes and regulations. And an angry crowd overturned police cars and beat up police officers.

In his interview, Karimov said the nation is headed in the right direction. He concluded his reforms would make Uzbekistan "a state that answers all demands of the 21st century, a state where dictatorship will be impossible."

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

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