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Uzbekistan: Is The Country Headed For Regime Change?

Uzbek President Islam Karimov Following the unrest in the Uzbek city of Andijon last month, there is growing speculation about the future of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. And this week, a major essay in the British journal “Jane’s Intelligence Review” argues that “Uzbekistan is now spiraling irretrievably towards violent regime change.” Such an upheaval, the piece says, could leave in its bloody wake a “failed state” with continued violence driven by “an ugly cocktail of ethnicity, revenge, disparities of wealth, clan interests, organized crime, foreign interference, and religious extremism.”

Prague, 30 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Is the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov heading toward a violent end?

Given the Uzbek leader’s tight grip on power, such a prediction would seem to be bold, if not downright brash.

Yet that is precisely what the essay this week in “Jane’s” -- along with some Western analysts -- is predicting following last month’s unrest in Andijon.

Filip Noubel is the Central Asia program director for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He spoke with RFE/RL today, a day after Karimov was in Moscow to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There is a lot of warning going on in Andijon: people are still being arrested, relatives of victims, a lot of journalists and human rights activists have been harassed. So obviously, the regime is not looking at any kind of compromise. And Karimov’s trip to Moscow and Putin’s declarations are a clear indication that it’s not going toward any form of compromise. On the other hand, the people of Uzbekistan do not want to put up with this system any more. So really the only alternative is actually very strong confrontation,” Noubel said.

During his Moscow visit, Karimov said the Andijon unrest was planned and financed from abroad. Putin backed that position.

The unsigned “Jane’s” essay rejects the idea that the events in Andijon were planned abroad or involved Islamic militants. It says the events were the climax of months of pent-up frustrations and nationwide protests. “There is probably nothing beyond socio-economic conditions that connects the various manifestations of instability,” the piece says.

It goes on to state that “it is likely that the country is now beyond a point where the government can control unrest using violence, although this will not stop it trying.”

Karimov’s regime currently has unchallenged control of the country’s security forces, which include an extensive intelligence service. Opposition groups have yet to produce a unifying leader and are divided between parties advocating peaceful change and armed militant groups.

Analysts such as Noubel interviewed by RFE/RL largely agreed that Uzbekistan is fast approaching a major crisis. But not all of them appeared to agree that Karimov’s regime is necessarily heading toward a violent end.
“It is likely that the country is now beyond a point where the government can control unrest using violence, although this will not stop it trying.”

Alain Deletroz is vice president of the International Crisis Group, an organization that works on conflict prevention. In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Deletroz rejected the idea that the unrest in Uzbekistan has anything to do with plots from abroad.

Deletroz said a possible way for Karimov to avoid further bloodshed and retain power as well is to allow modest economic and political reforms.

“What the U.S. and the Russians can do and should do is push Mr Karimov into a corner and tell him, ‘Now, if you want collaboration with us, you have to implement a few reforms.’ I don’t believe that [someone from abroad can decide] about coming in and taking power. You can do that only if you are ready to put your army in the country, which the United States has done in Iraq, and you see that the result is not that brilliant,” Deletroz said.

Still, some analysts say reforms might not unseat Karimov so much as help him retain power.

Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia expert with Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made that point this way in a recent interview with RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service.

“If he has economic reform, and some degree of political opening, then I think the West will reverse its position and he will manage to retain power and could well avert cataclysm. The question you’re really asking is what will happen if he’s isolated and if he does not have economic reform in any way and if there are more popular protests. Well, then, at a certain point, force will become less viable as an option, but it’s very hard to say at what point that becomes true,” Olcott said.

Deletroz, meanwhile, suggests that Karimov could find a way out of his predicament by copying former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who unexpectedly announced Putin to be his successor at the end of 1999.

“One of the ways out would be if Mr. Karimov at some point would try to prepare a successor for himself, a little bit the way Yeltsin has done in Russia -- a younger man with a better understanding of the century in which we are all living, the 21st century, and a better understanding of where the heavyweights are,” Deletroz said.

Deletroz adds that there are people in the Uzbek government and bureaucracy who could run the country, if given the chance.

Noubel, who spoke with RFE/RL from his base in Bishkek, says one other way change might occur is through a rebellion of senior officials.

“I think the entire question -- but of course it’s a very secret world, quite dark, very divided among clans and personal ambitions -- is whether there will be enough people around Karimov who will say, ‘We don’t want to be associated with Karimov any more. If the regime changes, we have to think about the future, then maybe we should think about an alliance and maybe reach out to some outside opposition.’ That’s sort of a more optimistic possibility,” Noubel said.

But even if that happens, the essay in “Jane’s” predicts that powerful Uzbek elites are likely to press any new leader to stop reforms that negatively impact their interests.

In that case, the piece concludes, “It will be difficult for Uzbekistan to avoid becoming a failed state.”

(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Azerbaijani services contributed to this report.)

See also:

Rights Agency Hears Calls For More Pressure On Karimov