Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan: The repression that follows repression

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by Anvar Karimov

Even though Karimov is silencing his critics, a new Uzbek opposition group has emerged. Or is Karimov using it to divide and rule the opposition?

A month after hundreds of men, women and children were massacred on Andijan's main square, getting into the city is only a little easier than it was in the days after the killings. Andijan remains ringed off from the rest of Uzbekistan and the journey into the city is interrupted by numerous, heavily armored checkpoints. The center of this city of over 400,000 is quiet, with soldiers the most conspicuous sign of life near the square where most of the victims died. Finding evidence of the violence is becoming harder. Buildings are being repaired, and their bullet-pocked facades refaced. And so, in late May, President Islam Karimov was able to claim to visiting ambassadors that there had in fact only been limited violence in Andijan.

Ascertaining the full scale of the violence and the number of deaths on 13 May is impossible. The government puts the number of dead at 173; independent sources say as many as 1,000 were killed. Most calculations exclude an early report that hundreds died in the nearby city of Pakhtabad, an assertion that remains uncorroborated. And getting information from individuals is almost impossible.

One man who did speak up, a 50-year-old gravedigger named Juraboy, was found stabbed to death on 28 May, the day after he had revealed to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty the existence of a previously unknown graveyard on the outskirts of Andijan. Two bodies had apparently been placed in each of scores of graves.

Unofficial Islamic groups, who have borne the brunt of Karimov's harsh rule, have come under fresh pressure. In addition, those most willing to find out and publicize information about the Andijan killings -- journalists, human-rights activists, and political opponents -- have all come under pressure. Journalists have been warned they should worry about the safety of their families and themselves, and others have been forced out of Andijan. One campaigning journalist -- Tulkin Karaev -- has been arrested.

The police have rounded up some of the most prominent human-rights activists, including Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, head of the Appelliatsia group in Andijan. In the days after the killings, Zainabitdinov gave some of the most widely quoted eye-witness accounts of the machine-gun fire and of corpses being trucked away from the site. Zainabitdinov, who called government's actions a "genocide," was charged with slander on 21 May.

Three local human-rights defenders (Mizaffarmizo Iskhakov, Dilmurod Muhiddinov, and Musojon Bobojonov) have been arrested, as well as a member of the Uzbek branch of the International Human Rights Society (Muhammadqodir Otakhonov). A trip by members of the Ezgulik human-rights group to Tashkent on 29 May ended with 17 of them being expelled from the capital.

Political opponents have also been targets of the crackdown. In early June, three members of the local branch of the Birlik party (Akbarjon Oripov, Nurmukhammad Azizov, and Rustam Isakov) were arrested.

There have also been instances of violence. Several members of the Andijan branch of Ezgulik were reportedly beaten up as they tried to interview witnesses. And, in Tashkent, Sotvoldi Abdullaev, a 68-year-old member of the International Human Rights Society, was beaten and left unconscious on 30 May on his way to an opposition protest.

The government has also been taking measures in other potential hotspots. In the Samarkand province, a human-rights activist and representative of a farmers party, Norboy Kholjigitov, was seized by police. That brought hundreds of farmers out in protest. Earlier, Kholiqnazar Ganiev, chairman of the local branches of both Ezgulik and Birlik, had been sentenced to 15 days in prison. As in a number of other cases, Ganiev had been missing for several days before he was located by his family.

In the province of Jizzakh, site of major protests before the Andijan massacre, activists have been hauled into police stations or have been harangued by crowds shouting slogans such as "Down with traitors!" and "Rights defenders, clear out of Uzbekistan." The governor of the region, Ubaydulla Yamankulov, has exiled one activist, Mamarajab Nazarov, from Jizzakh, a fate that other activists fear may befall them.

In Namagan, site of violent unrest in 1997, a local activist, Sobitkhon Ustaboev, was arrested on 22 May.

But, outside Andijan, it is Tashkent that Karimov appears to be cracking down most. According to Surat Ikramov, chairman of Initiative Group of Independent Human rights defenders of Uzbekistan, dozens of human-rights defenders and political activists have been detained or placed under house arrest.

While the crackdown has been extensive enough to cow the population, it has been less sweeping than after previous unrest. The violence in Namangan in 1997 was reportedly followed by the arrest of thousands of people. Similar sweeps were carried out after bombings in Tashkent in 1999 and a spate of explosions in 2004.

Andijan, it seems, marks a change in Karimov's approach: this crackdown appears to be more targeted than in the past and focused not just on religious opponents to his regime, but also explicitly on political critics.

The same tough justice may be meted out on them. Disturbingly, one of those arrested in the province of Andijan -- Musojon Bobojonov -- have been charged under clauses previously applied only to alleged Islamist extremists. A long prison sentence seems possible.

SUNNY UZBEKISTAN?

Inevitably, the state-dominated media has been called in to help the regime. The foreign media are routinely attacked in the state-run media in an attempt to persuade Uzbeks to ignore their reports. In any case, Uzbeks' access to international news coverage remains limited. During and after the massacre, broadcasts by foreign media were interrupted; access to the cable services of the BBC, CNN and Russian television remains patchy, with news broadcasts still occasionally being replaced by entertainment programs.

State television reports from the Ferghana Valley, where Andijan lies, convey the impression that life goes on as normal. Even in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, Uzbek state television showed pictures of crowded bazaars in the Ferghana Valley, with voiceovers talking about happiness, prosperity, and progress in the region, one of the poorest in the country. State television has also aired at least one report showcasing the progress of foreign-funded projects, as if to indicate that the international community is unfazed by the events at Andijan. However, in at least one instance -- a Swiss-funded water project -- international involvement in the project had been suspended immediately the killings in Andijan.

The unrest, when mentioned, is depicted as the work of "bandits," as Karimov has called the protestors. Karimov himself provided a template for state reporters by publishing a book, just two weeks after the massacre, that he entitled ***The Uzbek Will Never Be Dependent on Anyone***. Directly and by proxy, the authorities have sent the message that they would be willing to do the same again: state television has, for instance, broadcast interviews in which soldiers say that they were defending the Motherland (read: Karimov) and that they would be willing to do so again.

Such coverage glosses over not just the events in Andijan, but also some of the root causes of the widespread antipathy felt towards Karimov, problems such as poverty and restrictive economic policies. Karimov has done nothing in the past month to change those policies. He has, though, made some moves seemingly designed to nip potential protests in the bud: In some areas, state employees and pensioners suddenly received months of wage and pension arrears.

THE EMERGENCE OF SUNSHINE UZBEKISTAN

Despite such efforts to head off political protest, a new potential political challenge to Karimov has emerged. In late April, just weeks before the massacre, a new opposition group emerged, going by the name Sunshine Uzbekistan. Shortly after the killings in Andijan, it elected as leader one of Uzbekistan's richest men, Sanjar Umarov.

So far, Umarov has played his cards carefully, calling for the dissolution of parliament and the resignation of the government but not demanding that Karimov stand down. At the same time, internet articles have been suggesting that Umarov could emerge as a potential successor to Karimov, who is said to be ill. Other names have also been touted, chiefly Rustam Inoyatov, head of National Security Service, and Zokir Almatov, the interior minister. Both are being portrayed as Karimov's "gray cardinals," the powers behind Karimov's throne.

That depiction has struck a chord with some Uzbeks, who recall that Almatov and Inoyatov are the only men to have survived Karimov's repeated reshuffles. Neither was moved after the bombings in 2004 and the killings in Andijan, events that would probably have led to the sacking of other ministers. However, after years of harsh rule by Karimov, many believe it is implausible that the president is controlled by Inoyatov and Almatov. Some wonder whether the speculation about a successor to Karimov is being stoked by the government itself, in an attempt to deflect criticism away from the president.

Similar skepticism surrounds the emergence of Umarov, previously a relatively unknown figure, as an opposition leader. At a time when opposition activists were being arrested, Umarov's Sunshine Uzbekistan was allowed to hold a party congress and a leader of the group was able to travel abroad to a conference in Kyiv. Umarov, a physicist by training, has made his millions in businesses -- cotton, energy, and telecommunications -- dominated by the state. A press release by Sunshine Uzbekistan declares that Umarov's businesses plan to invest $1 billion into the country. Investments of such size have only ever been made with government guarantees. Some in the opposition therefore believe that Umarov is Karimov's man and is being used to divert support from real opposition groups. If so, it could prove a shrewd tactic since Umarov comes from Tashkent; none of the top-level figures in the opposition come from Tashkent.

If Umarov is Karimov's man, it may also be that he is one of a number of men who could be groomed to take over from Karimov. One argument in his favor is that he might appeal to Uzbekistan's chief ally in the West, the United States: Umarov is active in the oil industry, he founded a U.S.-Uzbek joint telecommunications venture, and he has based much of his family in the United States.

The United States has been noticeably restrained in its comments about the killings in Andijan, a reticence again apparent last week at a NATO meeting. According to a report in the Washington Post, European defense ministers had wanted to issue a call for an international investigation into the events in Andijan, but that initiative was thwarted by the United States.

The speculation about Umarov as a possible successor is driven by the logic that Karimov may be looking for an exit strategy, in which he would, in some years' time, hand over power in exchange for immunity, an arrangement that Russia's President Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin are said to have reached.

Such a divide-and-rule tactic would also meld easily with Karimov's broader strategy of covering up the evidence from Andijan and stifling the political opposition. So far, there has been little sign of fresh unrest. There is, though, little doubt that the killings have dealt a significant blow to the public's trust in the president, even though their unhappiness is at the moment kept private.

Anvar Karimov is a Tashkent-based journalist.

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