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Uzbekistan: Is Karimov Stronger Or Weaker After Crackdown?

President Karimov (file photo) People are still burying their dead in Uzbekistan after a bloody crackdown on protesters last week in the eastern town of Andijon. The violence shocked the country and the world, but for now it doesn't seem to be affecting Uzbek President Islam Karimov's hold on power. However, some analysts say the crackdown could have consequences in the long run for the authoritarian leader. [For more on these events, see RFE/RL's dedicated webpage: Unrest in Uzbekistan --> /specials/uzbek_unrest/ ]

Prague, 18 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- What affect will the bloody crackdown in Andijon have on Uzbek President Islam Karimov?

Analysts say that while it may strengthen his grip on power for now, Karimov could grow weaker as he becomes more hated at home and isolated abroad.

Nigora Hidoyatova, leader of Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants), an unregistered opposition party, says the government is seeking to keep the country scared and compliant.

"The government aims to scare everyone," Hidoyatova said. "But the moment comes when all people consciously and unconsciously stop being scared and start to confront [the government]."

Violence broke out in Andijon on 13 May, when an armed group attacked a prison to free hundreds of inmates. Several thousand people later gathered around a seized building in the city center to protest against the government. The Uzbek government said 169 people died after troops fired on protesters, who authorities say were organized by Islamic militants. But witnesses say the actual death toll was much higher with at least 500 killed.
One analysts says that what happened in Andijon is not a sign of the regime's strength but an indication of its weakness.

RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Andrei Babitskii is in Uzbekistan. He notes that unlike former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, Karimov has given a clear signal that he is prepared to kill in order to stay in power. "I think that using such measures Karimov might prolong his rule -- but not for ever," Babitskii said.

But Babitskii says that while the tough measures in Andijon calmed down the protests, they could have longer-term consequences for the regime. "I think it [the crackdown] has weakened Karimov's regime in the sense that, as I think, many people in Andijon understand now that all explanations [about the numbers of those killed] are false," he said. "People on the street here hate Karimov and I think that these attitudes are spreading. Actually the situation for Karimov in Uzbekistan is very dangerous, not to say terrible, and social upheaval can be triggered by any event."

Babitskii added that the events in Andijon might push the opposition to be more active.

Alex Vatanka, a regional expert and the editor of Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments, also told RFE/RL that what happened in Andijon is not a sign of the regime's strength but an indication of its weakness.

"I could not say it is a sign of strength, I mean. I know the Russian press often refers to this as the Asian way of dealing with opposition. However you want to classify it, this is a sign of desperation and he [Karimov] probably anticipated this," Vatanka said.

Analysts say the events might change Western attitudes toward the regime in Uzbekistan, which the United States considers an ally in the war on terror. But Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL that he is concerned that Washington might prefer to see Karimov remain in power as a useful ally.

"I think, unfortunately, Islam Karimov will succeed in convincing the international community -- not by genuine intellectual conviction, but quite simply because it is in the interest of the United States to pretend to believe all this rubbish, in that Karimov is a vital ally in the war on terror, and that all the trouble is caused by Islamic extremists," Murray said.

The United States has strongly condemned what happened in Andijon.

On 17 May, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Uzbekistan had the right to fight terrorism. But she added that Washington has pushed Karimov to improve its human rights record and urged it to be open about events in Andijon.

Analyst Vatanka, meantime, says the West cannot keep its eyes shut to the killings. "If we take some of these statements by Associated Press, Reuters, and so on, not to mention IWPR [Institute for War and Peace Reporting], about 500 people dead, roughly. If that's true, this is going to be one of the largest state-sponsored killings of protesters since 1989 in China," Vatanka said.

Other experts, such as Murray, fear that Karimov will again resort to violence in the future in a bid to cling to power.

Meanwhile, calm has yet to return to Uzbekistan. Today, some 1,000 protesters gathered in the border town of Karasu to protest Kyrgyzstan's decision to close its border to Uzbeks fleeing the violence.

(Gulnoza Saidazimova contributed to this report.)

Click here for a gallery of images from the violence in eastern Uzbekistan on 13-14 May.

See also:

What Really Happened On Bloody Friday?

Where Does Crisis Go From Here?

Protesters Charge Officials With Using Extremism Charges To Target Entrepreneurs

Analysis: Economic Concerns Primary In Andijon

Background: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal, Internal Divisions

Interview: Opposition Leader Tells RFE/RL About 'Farmers' Revolution'