Alijon Ikromov hunches his shoulders and draws his donated sweater about himself more tightly as the wind whips a gust of cold rain across the Karadarya River between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In a cramped, muddy camp just on the Kyrgyz side of the border, he no longer looks like the successful businessman he once was. Last year, as the deputy director of a successful construction-supplies company in Andijon, Uzbekistan, Ikromov had won accolades from the local government for its role in improving the local economy.
Then came his arrest last summer by Uzbekistan's police following allegations of funding an extremist group. Now, Ikromov (not his real name), who was sprung from prison during the recent uprising in Andijon, shares this hastily built refugee camp with more than 500 of his fellow townspeople, all of whom fled the May 13 massacre, when security forces fired on unarmed demonstrators, killing hundreds, including women and children.
The uprising in eastern Uzbekistan and its bloody suppression seem to have taken the international community by surprise. They should not have. For years, the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov has been brutally suppressing Uzbek citizens and pushing them to the brink. The warning signs have been many, and they have consistently been ignored.
A clear sign of how fragile the situation in Uzbekistan had become came in November 2004, when efforts by Uzbek tax authorities to enforce punitive tax regulations on bazaar traders touched off rioting throughout the country. For many Uzbeks, particularly those in rural areas, bazaars represent the only source of income; the alternatives are to work as virtual slaves on the country's vast cotton plantations, or to face often brutal exploitation as migrant workers in Russia or Kazakhstan. Stifling the bazaar economy would leave thousands facing starvation.
Since the November disturbances, Uzbeks throughout the country have shown an increasing willingness to take to the streets to challenge the policies of corrupt, sometimes despotic local administrators. Demonstrations broke out throughout the winter of 2004 and the spring of 2005, and though generally smaller than the November riots, they occasionally turned violent. One example came in March 2005, when a respected farmer and human-rights activist, Egamnazar Shoimonov, was severely beaten by thugs believed to be acting on the orders of local authorities in the province of Jizzakh. Shoimonov's beatings touched off rioting, with crowds storming a local police station.
The lessons should have been clear: the patience of the Uzbek population with continuing poverty and repression was running out. Yet the international community continued to downplay the significance of the events, dismissing them as mere local phenomena.
It was in this volatile atmosphere that the trial of 23 local entrepreneurs on charges of "extremism" began in Andijon. And again, though these trials were accompanied by huge, albeit peaceful, demonstrations of friends, colleagues and relatives of the accused, they seem to have garnered scant attention from the international community, until they turned violent.
Initially, many seemed to blithely accept the Uzbek government's assertion that those responsible for the Andijon violence were Islamic extremists. Yet in Karimov's Uzbekistan, accusations of "extremism" often serve as a smokescreen to mask egregious human rights abuses and to justify the slow pace of economic and political reform.
Likewise, when a local farmer and businessman, Bakhtiyor Rahimov, led an uprising in the town of Karasu on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border following the crackdown in Andijon, many Western media sources latched on to his vague declarations of establishing an Islamic system of governance, ignoring the fundamental issue behind the Karasu uprising: the restoration of normal trade relations between bazaars on either side of the border. Karasu once hosted one of Central Asia's largest bazaars, until two years ago, when Uzbek authorities blew up their half of the bridge spanning the Shakhrikhan River, which divided the two countries - a move devastating to the local economy. Once the insurgents took over the city, far from imposing some kind of Taleban-like Islamic regime, their only action was to rebuild the demolished half of the bridge.
Even when Uzbek forces retook the town on May 19 - peacefully, reports say, although gunfire could be heard from the Kyrgyz side - the border remained open, with traders streaming across from both sides. Even after the bloody suppression of the Andijon uprising, the authorities seemed to realize that the danger for them had not passed, and that further attempts to stifle the cross-border trade could only lead to further trouble.
Indeed, the possibility for a deeper and more deadly conflict remains high, because the underlying causes behind the Andijon events - frustration, even rage, at the lack of political and economic freedoms in Uzbekistan - are still there. The international community must now demand not only an independent investigation of the Andijon massacre but also, in the interest of stemming the growing risk of further violence, real reform in the country. These demands will come too late for the victims of the slaughter in Andijon, but the time has come for the international community to fundamentally reconsider its relations with the Karimov regime.
Back in the refugee camp, with the rain picking up and under the watchful eyes of heavily armed Kyrgyz border guards, Ikromov sums it up: "What kind of future can there be when the government is making enemies of its own people?"
Michael Hall is Central Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group (www.crisisgroup.org). He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.