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Uzbekistan: President Karimov's Limited Options

President Karimov at the 14 May news conference, where he blamed Islamic radicals for the violence The recent unrest in eastern Uzbekistan removed any doubts about whether President Islam Karimov is willing to resort to deadly force to maintain power.

The bloodshed in Andijon followed months of peaceful protests over the trial of 23 businessmen accused of membership of the Islamic extremist Akramiya group and ties to the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, a charge they deny. Events turned violent when an armed group attacked the local prison and freed perhaps thousands of inmates overnight on 12-13 May, also occupying a local government building and demanding the release of the "Akramiya" defendants. Thousands then turned out to demonstrate in central Andijon on 13 May before government forces opened fire on the crowd. Estimates of the death toll vary widely, depending on the source, but even the government conceded that at least 169 people are dead. Rights groups and political opponents put the death toll as high as 750 or 1,000.

Bad Signs

The protests in Andijon represent just the latest outburst of popular dissent with the current government. A strong indication that President Karimov would use force to silence serious opposition came one week earlier. On 3 May, a small group of unarmed civilians, many of them women and children, protested in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent. Their stated goal was to draw foreign attention to their calls for a return of expropriated land, the provision of jobs, and guarantees of the rule of law. Uzbek police and security officers dispersed the group, including through the brutal use of force in front of RFE/RL correspondents. That early May clampdown convinced many in Uzbekistan that -- unlike the ousted presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, or Kyrgyzstan -- Islam Karimov will do whatever it takes to keep his grip on power.
Some observers assert that the lack of avenues for grievances or participation in political and social life pushes many young Uzbek men and women to join the ranks of radical Islamic groups; the result can be a vicious circle: increasing numbers of people attracted to such religious groups promising to deliver justice, and increasingly harsh responses by the government.

The lives of ordinary Uzbeks are extremely difficult, with high unemployment, particularly in rural areas; there are villages in the country that are virtually devoid of males, in part a result of forced migration in pursuit of wages. Local observers cite widespread corruption, accusing government officials of enriching themselves at the expense of the public.

The majority of Uzbeks try hard to make ends meet despite Uzbekistan's huge potential; it is among the largest producers of cotton and gold in the world. Meanwhile, most sectors of the economy are controlled by a small circle of people who might best be categorized into clan-like structures. The middle class has all but disappeared in Uzbekistan over the course of the past decade.

Karimov's Track Record

President Karimov has a declared commitment to facilitate political reforms. But human rights abuses in Uzbekistan are widespread, according to most independent observers. A UN investigator on torture, Theo Van Boven, concluded after a visit to Uzbekistan three years ago that torture there is systematic. The outspoken former British ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray, suggested that inmates have been boiled to death. There is no secular opposition in the country, and international observers have dismissed last December's parliamentary elections as a farce. The country's parliament remains firmly subordinate to the president. There is no truly independent media, and journalists representing Western media organizations, including RFE/RL, are frequently harassed and intimidated.

Many Western and local observers are convinced the recent strife in Andijon is a direct result of the Karimov administration's policies. They point out that the Uzbek government denies its citizens basic rights, such as the right to work, freedom of speech and assembly, and the right to seek and receive information. Some observers assert that the lack of avenues for grievances or participation in political and social life pushes many young Uzbek men and women to join the ranks of radical Islamic groups; the result can be a vicious circle: increasing numbers of people attracted to such religious groups promising to deliver justice, and increasingly harsh responses by the government. President Karimov regularly cites or implies the threat of Islamic extremism, radicalism, or terrorism to justify many of his harsh policies. The fact that Uzbekistan became a strategic partner to the United States after 11 September 2001 arguably plays into Karimov's hands; according to some human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the U.S. government has turned a blind eye to rights abuses in Uzbekistan. Some critics have accused Washington of excessive emphasis on the importance of the U.S. military base in Uzbekistan -- where Uzbeks host an air base at Hanabad near the Afghan border -- at the expense of promoting human rights there.

In A Corner?

After the recent transfer of power to the longtime opposition in Kyrgyzstan, many experts predicted a "domino effect" in the region. The perception was that some areas of the Ferghana Valley were vulnerable to unrest; observers suggested as well that such unrest could turn bloody, given President Karimov's capacity for response. Such fears became reality when Karimov ordered the use of lethal force, en masse, against apparently unarmed demonstrators. Moreover, in his speech on 14 May, Karimov signaled the possibility of further casualties when he warned the people of Andijon and the entire region that "a bullet will not choose who it shoots" in the event of conflict.

Karimov's harsh measures are arguably a sign of desperation. Indeed, Karimov appears to have few options in terms of an easy exit strategy -- if such a strategy were eventually required. Uzbek observers have argued that, in that regard, he could become a victim of his own brutal policies and a family dispute run amok. Karimov might believe that his fate would be unpredictable in the event of that he lost power, given resentment against him among Uzbeks -- and the precedent in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. He might also be reluctant to flee his country, since his older daughter Gulnara has an Interpol warrant out for her arrest based on a U.S. court's decision in a child-custody battle with the children's father, an American citizen. The combination of policy repercussions and the limits on his daughter's travel could significantly narrow Karimov's room for maneuver should he decide to pursue an exit strategy.

(Adolat Najimova is the director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.)

[For more on these events, see RFE/RL's dedicated webpage: Unrest in Uzbekistan]

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

See also:

Karimov Said To Oppose International Probe Into Crackdown

Kyrgyzstan: Aid Worker Describes Refugee Conditions

Central Asia: Are Governments Too Quick To Blame Unrest On Islamic Militants?

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

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