Uzbek leader learns from fate of other autocrats

The details of the violent unrest simmering in Uzbekistan are unclear. But more than enough information has emerged to show President Islam Karimov is determined to retain power.

By permitting his troops to open fire on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andizhan, Mr Karimov has become the first leader of a former Soviet republic in recent years to suppress public protests with such ruthless use of lethal force. Human rights activists estimate that 500 or more people may have been killed in the violence that erupted on Friday when anti-government rebels stormed the town jail and freed prisoners.

Those deaths show the authoritarian leader has no intention of becoming the latest victim of the political protests that have swept the former Soviet Union in the last 18 months. Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and Aslan Akayev of Kyrgyzstan all lost power after deciding not to deploy troops against demonstrators.

For Mr Karimov, the ousting of Mr Akayev in March was particularly ominous as it proved a pattern of protests developed in Europe could spread to the less sophisticated populations of central Asia. At the weekend he accused the rebels of wanting to repeat the Kyrgyz revolt. He blamed Islamic militants for stirring up trouble and vowed to defend Uzbekistan's “secular path of development”.

Mr Karimov has long experience of ruling Uzbekistan, the most populous country in central Asia, with 26m people. Like most other ex-Soviet central Asian leaders, he came to power as a Communist party chief before the USSR's collapse. Unlike Mr Akayev and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, who both allowed limited economic and political freedom, Mr Karimov has preserved a strong state backed by a ruthless secret service, the SNB. Amnesty International says the country has 6,000 political prisoners. Only Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-declared Turkmen president for life, is more dictatorial.

With the secular opposition suppressed, Tashkent's main concern has long been Islamism, which is more active in Uzbekistan than elsewhere in ex-Soviet central Asia. Even in Soviet times, Uzbeks were considerably more religious than their neighbours. Today, some politically active Muslims simply refuse to co-operate with the authorities; others support the non-violent Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned extremist group that wants an Islamic state; and a few back the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an armed group allied to al-Qaeda.

The IMU, which had bases in Afghanistan, suffered heavy losses in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001-02, but splinter groups have since returned to Uzbekistan.

The Islamists have been particularly active in Adizhan and other towns in the Ferghana valley, a frontier territory shared with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and populated by a volatile mix of Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks.

For Mr Karimov the Islamist presence is both a security threat and a political blessing, By playing up the threat, he has allied himself with Russia and the US in the global anti-terrorism war. Washington, which has an air base in Uzbekistan, has given considerable economic aid. Yevgeny Kozhokin , director of the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, says: “The fall of Karimov is not in the interests of Russia, the US or Europe. If the Uzbek regime fails, it is likely that another Islamic republic will appear.”

However, Mr Karimov's reluctance to liberalise his country has kept the economy in shackles, with severe restrictions on trade, investment and access to foreign currency. Gross domestic product jumped in 2004 by 7.5 per cent, but only after years of stagnation. Uzbeks are among the poorest former Soviet people, reliant on subsistence farming and cotton production. Marta Brill Olcott, a central Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the US think tank, says poverty, not religion, is at the root of the recent unrest.

James Nixey, an analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, says Mr Karimov can probably survive the current unrest, especially as there are no elections until a presidential poll in 2007. Ms Olcott says economic dissatisfaction is widespread, so events in Adizhan could be repeated elsewhere. She says Mr Karimov can probably suppress unrest “in one, two or even three cities. But he won't be able to do in 10 cities simultaneously.”

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