Background to the crisis in Uzbekistan

On March 28 2004 in Tashkent terrorists blew up an apartment block and shot dead three policemen. The following day a suicide bomber killed herself and 18 other people at a local market. But this wave of terrorist attacks was not widely reported in the Russian press because it did not threaten the hated regime of Islam Karimov. On the contrary, it strengthened his leadership, giving him an excuse to step his persecution of anybody who crossed his path.

On March 28 2004 in Tashkent terrorists blew up an apartment block and shot dead three policemen. The following day a suicide bomber killed herself and 18 other people at a local market. On March 30 and April 1 further attacks took place, bringing the total number of victims up to 47, the last of them being a 10 year old girl who died when a block of flats was bombed. But this wave of terrorist attacks was not widely reported in the Russian press because it did not threaten the hated regime of Islam Karimov. On the contrary, it strengthened his leadership, giving him an excuse to step his persecution of anybody who crossed his path.

By contrast the local uprising that took place in the Uzbek town of Andijan on Friday has been widely covered because it did threaten to overthrow Karimov. This shows once again that only a mass movement can overthrow the government, in the given case a movement of the peasants and the poor, as well as representatives of business who have been harassed by the local government.

A brief analysis of the events surrounding the uprising demonstrates that it had nothing in common with the tactics of suicide bombings or mindless violence. All the responsibility for the bloodshed lies squarely on the regime itself. While sympathisers and members of underground terrorist groups may have been involved in the events that unfolded in Andijan, they did not play a key role. Islam Karimov in his public statements has systematically and cynically raised the spectre of Islamic extremism to justify the use of force against innocent people. However, by acting ruthlessly against any opposition Karimov is encouraging people to take desperate measures, especially in his heavy-handed approach to Moslems who want to practise their religion peacefully.

The catalyst for the uprising was the trial of a group of 23 businessmen, which began in February and was set to finish on Friday. All last week more and more people gathered around the court expressing solidarity with the businessmen. On Thursday evening the police tried to disperse the crowd and confiscate their cars. The crowd marched to the building of the road police and successfully got their cars back. Buoyed by this, they continued to the local prison, and freed the prisoners, including the 23 businessmen on trial. They then moved on to the local militia to seize its weapons, and proceeded to the local filial of the national security service. Beaten back, with the first victims falling, the crowd then took the regional administrative building.

On taking this administrative building events went beyond a spontaneous rebellion and became reminiscent of the recent revolutionary movement in Kyrgyzstan that ousted President Akaev. In both cases the impulse for the movement did not lie in the capital but in the Fergana Valley. In both cases the police disappeared and mass meetings took place. Unlike in the Kyrgyz towns of Osh and Dzhalal-Abad, where well-known politicians spoke, such as Kurmanbek Bakiev, who is now acting President and favourite to win presidential elections in July, in Andijan no leaders took responsibility for the uprising and anybody could speak from the tribune. According to Saturday’s Kommersant the speakers “complained of the grim living conditions and demanded the resignation of President Karimov and the government. Every second orator said that they are not in the slightest Wahabites or extremists, and only want dignity and to rid themselves of the ruling authorities, of whom they are sick and tired.”

A group of stewards formed out of the crowd to keep order but some buildings were nevertheless set alight, including a theatre and a cinema. During the day another unsuccessful attempt was made to storm the national security building. At the same time the authorities made their preparations to take back the town. Andijan was surrounded to stop peasants from the outskirts in the densely populated Fergana Valley from defending the town. International TV stations were cut and web-providers blocked as part of an information blockade to stop people in other cities from finding out what was happening. President Karimov flew there from Tashkent to take charge personally. At around five o’clock government forces began to re-take the town, shooting from armoured patrol cars.

In today’s edition of Kommersant there is a report of a special correspondent from Moscow who managed to get into Andijan, meeting journalists who had been forced to leave on the way. His first impression was of a deserted town, except for men with automatic rifles “both in camouflage and in civilian clothes, who hide their bodies behind tree trunks with their rifles pointed downwards, but when you approach closer than 50 metres to them they shoulder their rifle and watch you through the foresight.” Most taxi drivers refuse to take him to the town centre. One of them tells him how the day before a taxi driver agreed to give a lift to a pregnant woman and the military had shot both of them. A little later he did manage to find a taxi, but then was asked to vacate it because the driver was obliged to transport a corpse. The taxi left with the corpse’s feet sticking out of the door.

Near the burnt-down cinema and the regional administrative building is a statue of Babur, a ruler of Uzbekistan from the middle ages. The crowd gathered round fifty unidentified corpses. “The others have been taken away this morning,” he was told. “Their bodies were thrown onto about five or six trucks and driven out of the city. Hundreds of women and children were thrown into a pit – just like rubbish.”

The correspondent is told that 1,000 or maybe more were killed, with 700 corpses on the square and a couple of hundred more on Chulpan Street, where they were told they could leave the square peacefully and were then killed along with their hostages: policemen, a magistrate and some tax inspectors numbering 20 in all. The corpses, still unidentified, were buried in the lawn in front of the regional administrative building and in the square within 24 hours, according to local customs.

The situation in Andijan now is of a dead city, with people afraid to go out, with reports on the internet of the movement spreading to other towns in the Fergana Valley. People in Andijan are taking stock of what has suddenly struck like a bolt from the blue. But the lull, if you can call it this, cannot last. The President has utterly destroyed his standing. And now he must wait for the people to take their revenge.

His position is not at all stable. He reckoned on nipping future opposition movements in the bud by removing their leaders but this repressive policy has backfired, turning those prepared to back a strong leader for the sake of stability into his enemies. In the Uzbek area of the Fergana Valley leaders are not necessary to organise the crowd just as in Kyrgyzstan the leaders played no leading role. They and their compromising words of restraint were simply by-passed by the people in storming the Presidential building. And a key point from events in Bishkek is that it was precisely people who were supposed to be loyal to the President that played the most active role in the final act of the revolutionary upsurge. Like Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan is composed of many different ethnic groups, with a large Russian minority in the capital, and no doubt 15 years of living without hope for a better future will leave its mark in the loyalties of the masses, who are predominantly proletarian in Tashkent, unlike in the Fergana Valley.

The fact that the initial catalyst for the uprising was the trial of businessmen on charges of extremism requires some comment. According to their lawyer, under the previous regional administration they were businessmen interested in making a profit rather than getting caught up in politics. Their religious authority, Akrom Yuldash, who has been in prison on charges of terrorism since 1999, was also a prominent local businessman, whose teachings support making a fortune here and now. Their lawyer argues they were charged by the new head of the region with extremism because this allows for the confiscation of their property. Also, if the supporters of “Akromiya” as they are called were really extremists they would not have appealed to President Putin to intervene and act as a mediator between them and Karimov. Moreover, the representative in London of the fundamentalist terrorist group that Akrom Yuldash used to be a member of has stated that they have no links with what is happening in Andijan.

Apart from such considerations the very course of events testifies to the fact that the uprising was not instigated by terrorists or extremists. The number of dead in terrorist attacks last year was 47 because they were carried out by a small group of fanatics. The number of dead in Andijan is many times greater because it was a mass movement. Such a movement does not need terrorist tactics to achieve its aims. And if such a movement was organised by terrorists it would not have needed to storm a militia to seize weapons. They would have already been armed and prepared and would not have been slaughtered by the special forces.

The argument that the uprising was all the work of terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda (which the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan certainly is) is convenient for the government. It explains the crisis of power not as a result of their own policies but as the result of interference from outside. The fact that the demonstrators could initially take over their town so easily demonstrates how weak the government is, that the police as in Kyrgyzstan are not prepared to defend the regime. The government cannot rely on its special forces alone to maintain itself.

When a regime is weak, external imperialist powers have a lot of leverage to influence domestic politics, as we have seen in Georgia and the Ukraine, both on the part of Russia and America. Paradoxically, in the case of Uzbekistan, the weakened regime of Karimov looks set to be propped up by the US and Russia, which both have military bases in the country, rather than toppled. All these powers prefer a tyrant to an Islamic fundamentalist regime.

At the moment the working class lacks organisation and leadership. This is the result of decades of Stalinism as well as the Stalinist methods of Karimov, who in the last days of the USSR was the leader of the Republic’s Communist Party. Unless the working class can pose an alternative the present movement will be de-railed. Karimov may be able to ride out the storm in the short-term but in the meantime his actions can only serve to strengthen the Islamic fundamentalists.

But neither defeat nor the victory of fundamentalists is inevitable. In Uzbekistan as in other Central Asian republics the authorities have tried to take down statues of Lenin but have refrained from doing so on account of the mood of the population. People remember that the revolution in 1917 ushered in tremendous gains in the economic and cultural level of the region, despite the crimes of Stalinism. A return to the traditions of 1917 is entirely possible. If the spark for this does not exist in Uzbekistan now it can be created in other countries in Asia and internationally, setting an example for the people of Uzbekistan and all the Central Asian republics to follow. What is certain is that there is not one stable regime in the whole of the former Soviet Union. The only way out of the nightmare that capitalism has unleashed is a return to the ideas of Lenin and the unity of the working class in struggle.