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Uzbekistan: Repression Has Helped Radicalize Opposition

A year ago today, explosions ripped through the heart of the Uzbek capital Tashkent, killing or wounding scores of people and damaging several government buildings. Adolat Najimova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service spoke with a British Uzbek specialist who believes the government's repressive reaction to the bombings has helped radicalize the nation's opposition. Here is Najimova's report:

Prague, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Sixteen people were killed and more than 100 injured in the explosions in central Tashkent last year. But the damage to government buildings was nothing compared to the damage to the notion of Uzbekistan's political stability, which President Islam Karimov has often used to justify repressive policies toward the nation's religious and secular opposition.

Annette Bohr is an Uzbek specialist in the Post-Soviet States' Program at Britain's Cambridge University. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Bohr said that the Uzbek government has used the bombings to crack down even more aggressively on both religious and secular opposition groups:

"Both local Uzbek and international human rights groups believe that thousands have been arrested and detained."

But Bohr said there is very little evidence to confirm the government's notion that the bombings were organized and carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. She points to what she believes are numerous inconsistencies in the government's version of events. Among them are attempts to label secular opposition movements as Islamic fundamentalists and the assumption that scattered individuals arrested by security forces were part of a unified opposition movement. Bohr commented: "The pockets of opposition that did exist were localized and drastically lacking in resources. So its highly unlikely that they could have carried out such a coordinated attack."

Bohr also said that there are some other theories that focus on the possible involvement in the bombings of the Uzbek government itself:

"This might seem far-fetched at the outset, [but] in fact when one really thinks about it, there are reasons why this scenario [of government involvement] could in fact be true. Indeed, the regime has skillfully used the incident to justify an extraordinarily harsh crackdown. In my opinion, however, the regime has lost more than it has gained. Its credibility as a guardian of state stability has been jeopardized domestically and internationally."

Bohr added that the Tashkent government's suppression of religious and secular opposition groups after the bombing has served to radicalize some of them. To an extent, she said, the repression may have triggered last summer's events in the Batken area of southern Kyrgyzstan. In August, a militant Islamic group calling itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan moved into the area and took some 12 people, including four Japanese geologists, as hostages. Bohr said:

"Since the beginning of 1999, there have been highly visible signs that certain segments of Uzbekistan's Islamic opposition have abandoned moderate, non-violent tactics in favor of more radical strategies to achieve their aims. And I think the preliminary evidence indicates that by approaching Islam as an inherently dangerous phenomenon, which can be rooted out by force, President Islam Karimov has laid the foundation for Islam's further radicalization."

Bohr noted that she and other Western experts on Central Asia have in the past warned that the removal of moderate religious and secular opposition and the denial of their legitimate expression can give rise to more radical dissenting voices. She called the Batken insurgency the most serious violent opposition yet to Uzbek government policies, and added:

"Experience elsewhere, including in Tajikistan, has shown that Islamic actors are more effectively neutralized when brought into the legitimate political process rather than treated as enemies of the state."

Last month, President Karimov appealed to Uzbeks living abroad -- including opposition members and those working for foreign broadcasting organizations -- to return home. But Bohr doubts the appeal was honest. She says that in the past, the Uzbek president has made similar statements:

"There were numerous instances in which he (Karimov) told the leadership of Birlik, [a major opposition party], in particular that he would be happy to register the organization. Yet, despite repeated attempts, this never happened, of course. There is simply not enough guarantees. Obviously, [Karimov] can do whatever he wants with the opposition once they arrive [in Uzbekistan]. We would be rather foolish to take him at face value when making this invitation."

After last month's presidential election -- which, by official count, he won with 92 percent of the vote -- Karimov has taken a more conciliatory tone toward the opposition. But so far, the tone has not been matched with more democratic treatment.