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Uzbekistan: Islamic Militants Mar Independence Day

Uzbekistan today marks the ninth anniversary of its independence with a celebration tainted by knowledge that groups of armed Islamic militants are roaming in the country's eastern regions. Adolat Najimova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service speaks with a U.S. Central Asian expert about the country's problems.

Prague, 1 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan is celebrating the ninth anniversary of its independence today (Friday), but for the second year in a row insurgencies by Islamic militants are marring the celebrations.

During the past month, the organization calling itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, has made several incursions into the territory of both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Fighting in both countries has been even bloodier than similar incidents a year ago.

John Schoeberlein is a director of Central Asian Studies at Harvard University in Boston and director of the Central Asia Project of the International Crisis Group. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service this week, Schoeberlein spoke about the progress Uzbekistan has made in recent years as well as what the country should do to attain greater stability and security.

"Uzbekistan has managed to maintain more stability -- in some senses -- than many of its neighbors. There has been much less economic turmoil [there,] partly because there has been much less economic reforms. This has resulted in a relatively stable development in many areas of the economy. But it also resulted in deterioration of the life and living standards of certain segments of the population and increasing tensions in various areas." Schoeberlein thinks that the country's biggest problem now is the spread of Islamic radicalism and the potential support it might receive both in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. He says that, if the great majority of Uzbeks still appear to support the government, dissenting voices are nevertheless on the rise.

Many analysts of Central Asian affairs -- as well, of course, as the country's opposition parties -- say that it is the Uzbek government's harsh policy toward religious groups that has made even relatively moderate Muslims join the ranks of the extremists. Shoeberlein thinks there are several reasons behind the increasing support for radical Islamic groups in Uzbekistan. "Among those people who do support the radical movements there, I think [there are] two main factors. One is the economic situation, and the other is the political situation [--with] the economic situation being very difficult for many people in the rural areas. [As for the] political situation: there are two factors which contribute to this. One is the lack of any possibility for political expression other than through those specific parties which are sanctioned by the government. And on the other hand there had been a severe crackdown on many Islamic groups." Schoeberlein says that among these Islamic groups there are undoubtedly people who are engaged in subversive activities. But at the same time, he says, the groups also include people who have no connection with radical movements.

Schoeberlein recently visited Central Asia and had a chance to evaluate the situation on the ground. Asked whether the Islamic militant insurgency could undermine peace and stability in the region, Schoeberlein responded:

"[The insurgents' actions] certainly constitute a threat to stability in the sense that the image of security that existed until recently in such countries as Kyrgyzstan -- but especially in Uzbekistan -- has been shattered. It's clear now that there are forces which are going to be very difficult for the government to contend with." As for the capacity of IMU militants to win significant victories, Schoeberlein believes that -- at least in the short term -- the movement will not be able to do so. He says the IMU still does not have wide support among the Uzbek population.

The IMU's proclaimed goals are the overthrow of the government of President Islam Karimov and the establishment of a khalifate, or Islamic state, within Uzbekistan's borders. In a recent telephone interview with RFE/RL, IMU spokesman Muhammad Umar said that during the past nine years the movement had exhausted all possible peaceful means of achieving its goals and has now moved to military means. Schoeberlein believes an end to Islamic militancy in Uzbekistan can only come through greater democratic and economic reforms. He says that as long as there are few channels for democratic expression and political participation, the militants risk getting greater support among the people. And he warns that the failure to pursue economic reforms -- which could lead to more foreign investment -- will make the country's situation even worse.

Schoeberlein says it is possible that eventually -- but, he stresses, not soon -- the Uzbek Government and the IMU will work out their differences at a negotiating table. He cites a similar experience in neighboring Tajikstan.

"[In] Tajikistan, we have a case where the political realists came to the conclusion that it [was] necessary to have a dialogue between opposition and government [to end the country's civil war]. In that case also, there was severe disagreement between the government and opposition. In the case of Uzbekistan, I think the likelihood of such negotiations over the short term is extremely low."

Schoeberlein stresses his view that the Uzbek government needs to be more realistic about the substantial grievances that the IMU is expressing. He says Tashkent also needs to use a similarly realistic approach in dealing with its Central Asian neighbors.