The whole world has been rocked by the news of the slaughter in Andijan, where demonstrators were shot down in cold blood by the security forces of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. Yesterday the blood was being washed from the streets while distraught relatives were searching for bodies of loved ones in smouldering ruins, but the reverberations from these murderous volleys are still echoing.
An AFP report describes the scene after the massacre:
“Smoke billowed from a government building that burned during the night and the streets were mostly empty of people and cars. The exception was the morgue, where relatives came to look for their missing loved ones. ‘I have been looking for two days for the bodies of my brothers,’ said Bakhadyr Yergachyov, clutching his siblings’ passports. ‘They are neither at the morgue nor at the hospitals’.”
An accurate death toll from the violence is impossible to come by, as soldiers guarding the city morgue and hospitals denied entry to reporters. The military blockaded Andijan for much of the weekend and most journalists were unable to reach the scene. The government jammed foreign news broadcasts and it was also impossible to access websites. How many innocent people have been killed? A hundred? Five hundred? A thousand? No-one can say.
Despite the news blackout, there is no doubt about the scale of the massacre. AFP correspondents saw up to 60 corpses on the streets a day after the unrest. But the real figure for casualties will be far higher. According to the head of the Animokur, a local non-governmental organisation, Gulbahor Turdiyeva, five hundred bodies lay stored in one of Andijan’s schools and a further 100 were packed in a nearby construction college. There have been reports of protests being brutally put down in other Uzbek towns and of troops firing on civilians as they fled into neighbouring Kirgizstan to escape the conflict.
The bloodshed started early Friday, when weeks-long demonstrations boiled over. The people were protesting over a trial of 23 local businessmen – the biggest employers in the impoverished city of 300,000 – arrested on fabricated charges of belonging to an outlawed Islamic group. Such claims are a common trick used by Karimov to dispose of members of the opposition. Local people know that the charges were trumped up by officials, with the aim of seizing the businessmen’s property. This was only the latest in a string of reprisals over the past year against those trying to voice political and economic grievances.
On Friday morning, crowds that included armed men stormed Andijan’s jail. They knew that those arrested were facing torture and death, and were determined to release them. They released them along with some 2,000 other prisoners. Thousands of people then poured onto Andijan’s main square in what quickly turned into an anti-government rally. Clashes then flared up between the security forces and the demonstrators, in which government buildings were seized and officials taken hostage.
The regime’s response was swift and bloody. The army moved into the town to crush the revolt. Soldiers and tanks were deployed on the streets of the eastern Uzbek city. Witnesses said the soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowd. They opened fire on the people, killing an unknown number of people.
The Bolshevik revolution and Central Asia
For all its faults, the Soviet Union succeeded in dragging these peoples out of age-old backwardness. On the basis of a nationalised planned economy, it showed the potential of a region with a rich economic potential. Soviet Tashkent, which this writer visited 35 years ago as a student, was a modern city full of educated people, engineers, teachers and scientists, with a thriving industry and commerce. What a contrast that was with the terrible backwardness of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the other capitalist countries of the region!
The destruction of the Soviet Union was a retrograde step that has had negative consequences for all the peoples of Central Asia. These Republics have all the resources to guarantee a thriving and prosperous life for all. But this colossal potential will never be realised as long as they are ruled by corrupt bourgeois regimes that plunder their economies and subordinate them to foreign monopolies and imperialist states. This is not “independence” but only a new form of slavery. On this basis there can be no way forward.
The unification of the economies of Central Asia, the pooling of their resources and economic potential is an obvious necessity, but one that can never be realised under capitalism. What is necessary is a free and voluntary socialist federation. That can only be achieved when the workers and peasants of Central Asia take the power into their hands and overthrow the corrupt gangsters who rule them and exploit them. Only on this basis can the region break the chains that bind it to world imperialism and determine its own future.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was the event that showed Central Asia the way to achieve freedom and progress. The workers and peasants of Central Asia, following the example of the Russian workers, rose up against the rule of the Khans, Sirdars and mullahs and established soviet power. That was the starting point for a huge development of the productive forces, culture and civilisation throughout Central Asia. But the marvellous achievements of the Russian Revolution were betrayed and trampled underfoot by the Stalinist Bureaucracy.
Nowhere was that betrayal of Leninism more scandalous than in the national question. In place of Lenin’s internationalism, and the spirit of fraternal equality between the Soviet Republics, Stalin and his heirs introduced Great Russian chauvinism and sowed the seeds of distrust, envy and hostility between the nationalities. The poisoned fruit of Stalinism was the break-up of the Soviet Union and the wars that ensued between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in Moldova, Georgia, and, most terrible of all, in Chechnya.
The peoples of the former Soviet Republics have paid a heavy price for the betrayals of Stalinism and the capitalist counterrevolution that they gave rise to. In every one of the Central Asian Republics there were local Stalinist bureaucracies that imitated the behaviour of the new Tsars in Moscow. These little Stalins showed their real colours after the break-up of the USSR when they immediately went over to capitalism. They all set up dictatorial regimes that combined the most repulsive features of capitalism and Stalinism. They all sold out to imperialism, while playing off Moscow against Washington.
The ex-Stalinist Karimov was absolutely typical of this breed. He had been the local “Communist” Party chief, has kept himself in power through rigged elections and brute force. This is a government that is waging war on its own people. But there has been a reaction, which has become increasingly militant. There has been a wave of bombings, riots, and spontaneous protests in the former Soviet republic. The Uzbek authorities allege that Islamic terrorists are behind it all. In reality, the recent protests reflect a general mood of opposition and the discontent of a population reduced to misery and subjected to a reign of terror under a corrupt dictatorship.
“Popular discontent has been growing in Uzbekistan for a long time, mainly caused by unsolved deep social problems,” says Viktor Korgun, a specialist with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. “The Fergana Valley is a knot of problems: it has the highest population density, severe water shortages, the highest level of unemployment, and some growth of Islamic extremism. People there feel themselves in a desperate situation.” (Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 2005)
George Bush’s Hypocrisy
Last week in Tbilisi, capital of ex-Soviet Georgia, President George W. Bush triumphantly declared before a cheering crowd: “Now, across the Caucasus, in Central Asia and in the broader Middle East, we see the same desire for liberty burning in the hearts of young people. [...] They are demanding their freedom – and they will have it. [...] Freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth.”
A few days later the troops of the brutal dictator Islam Karimov were slaughtering hundreds of people. George Bush has a lot to say about regime change in Iraq and democracy in the Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus, but has maintained a deafening silence about the regime of terror of his good friend President Karimov. These events expose the complete hypocrisy of Washington’s “democratic” demagogy.
Why the friendly interest in Uzbekistan? The break-up of the Soviet Union has left Uzbekistan an impoverished Central Asian nation. But from the standpoint of Washington it has several interesting features, not least its location. To begin with, it is conveniently situated on Afghanistan’s northern border. Karimov has been a key ally in Washington’s “war on terror” ever since the eleventh of September, when he allowed America to use Uzbekistan’s airbases to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The USA has a huge base in at Karshi-Khanabad, near the long border with Afghanistan, from which its warplanes can reach over vast expanses of Central Asia. It has backed the bloody Karimov dictatorship with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid – most of it military. It is true that, embarrassed by the revelations of Karimov’s vicious repression, Washington cut some military and economic aid last year. But the USA stands accused of sending suspected “terrorists” to Uzbekistan, for interrogation, i.e., torture.
George W. Bush knows his friends
This is a corrupt and despotic regime that has filled the nation’s prisons with political prisoners, many of whom have been subjected to the most bestial forms of torture. This has had the effect of driving many to support the very Islamic groups the regime attacks. Human rights groups have regularly accused Karimov’s government with using systematic torture in prisons and police stations. But the United States has maintained a diplomatic silence.
Russia’s record is not much better than that of the USA. Fearful of radical Islamism as its war in Chechnya drags on into its 11th year, Moscow has also supported Karimov. Russia regards the Karimov regime as one of the very few post-Soviet leaders that remains its ally. President Vladimir Putin spoke with Karimov on Saturday to convey “serious concern” about the dangers of instability and Islamic resurgence in Central Asia. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation was provoked by extremist groups similar to Afghanistan’s Taliban.
The authorities claimed that the defendants were leaders of a shadowy Islamic group called Akramia, named for local Muslim activist, Akram Yuldashev, who has been languishing in jail for years. Prosecutors charged that Akramia is a member of Huzb-ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic party based in London that calls for a worldwide Muslim caliphate. Hizb-ut-Tahrir was blamed for several deadly bombings in Tashkent last year, though the group denies any connection and says it renounces violence. On its website, it rejected allegations that it organized the uprising as “another futile attempt by a weak and ailing regime” to evade blame for its own failings.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which covered the trial, said the defendants denied all charges, including the very existence of Akramia. ”We were tormented morally and physically,” IWPR quoted defendant Abdulbois Ibrahimov as saying in court last week. “Now we are charged with belonging to Akramia. Surely it’s clear that Akramia is just a myth.”
“Experts say evidence against those charged with religious extremism is often flimsy and sometimes fabricated. ‘Sometimes they arrest people who have little to do with Islamic ideas, maybe because they were not supportive enough of the regime,’ says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Moscow.” (The Christian Science Monitor)
The Economist (16 May) comments:
“In 1999, bombs in the capital, Tashkent, killed at least 12 people. Last year, troops stormed a suspected militant hideout, killing up to 23 people. Islamist radicals are indeed active in the country, especially in the Fergana Valley – the volatile region in which Andizhan is situated. But not all the unrest can be blamed on them. Last year, there were big protests over draconian new laws to regulate market traders. In March, hundreds of farmers whose land had been confiscated stormed government buildings in Jizzakh province. Earlier this month, another group of farmers who had lost their land, from Kashkadarya province, set up a “tent city” near the American embassy in Tashkent.
“While playing up the Islamist threat, Mr Karimov has ignored the fact that much of the country’s unrest is due to poor living standards. The government says its confiscation of farm land is justified by the farmers’ failure to pay their debts. But this is due to the regime’s agriculture policies, under which farmers have to buy all their supplies from the state and receive well below market prices for their produce. Economic conditions across the country seem to have deteriorated to the extent that people are now willing to risk defying the notoriously brutal Uzbek security services.”
Parallels with 1905
Playing on the fears of Islamic extremism, at a press conference, Karimov, as usual, blamed the violence on Islamic militants. “No one ordered security forces to fire at [the protesters],” he said. But “to accept [the demonstrators'] terms would mean that we are setting the precedent that no other country in the world would accept.” But despite this bluff, Karimov’s authority is clearly starting to crack under the weight of the mass protests. The Andijan massacre may have played a similar role to the events of Bloody Sunday in tsarist Russia in January 1905.
The upheavals in Andizhan and elsewhere in the Fergana Valley come only a matter of weeks after the insurrection in Kirgizstan, following that country’s rigged parliamentary elections, which forced the resignation of President Askar Akaev. He was the third long-serving leader of a former Soviet state to be forced out by “people power” in 18 months, following the uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the events in Kirgizstan’s revolution received little coverage in Uzbekistan’s state-controlled media, which attributed the protests in the neighbouring country to “criminal elements”.
On the face of it, the masses stand no chance when faced with a powerful and repressive state apparatus. But that is not the case. When a regime is in a state of crisis, undermined by inner rottenness and faced with a mass insurrectionary movement, it can collapse far more quickly than what seems possible. A corrupt and hated regime cannot maintain itself in power indefinitely on the basis of repression alone. On the contrary, every act of repression only serves to infuriate the masses who have lost their fear, and drive them to new levels of direct action, including armed struggle.
The killings perpetrated by the security forces last Friday have not served to put the lid back on. Once they are roused to action, the masses begin to feel their strength. They learn swiftly in action. They draw conclusions and prepare to take the struggle to a higher level. After the massacre, protesters are increasingly focusing their discontent on the president himself, and demanding his resignation, instead of blaming local officials. “This is the fault of the president,” Nadyr, a worker at the Andijan market, told AFP Sunday. “It is he who has reduced us to this situation and it was he who ordered the killing of the innocents.”.
A tense calm returned to Uzbekistan on Sunday, but it is the calm before a new storm. No new state of equilibrium has been reached, and none is in sight. On the contrary, there must now be serious doubts about Karimov’s ability to maintain his grip on power. The seriousness of the situation can be gauged from the fact that on Saturday Karimov admitted for the first time that there is corruption in government, and a lot of social problems. That is a clear sign that his regime is in trouble.
It is probable that splits will open up within the regime itself, particularly if vested interests in the political hierarchy start doubting Mr Karimov’s ability to guarantee their power and privileges. The splits at the top in turn encourage the rebellion from below, which in turn tends to disintegrate the cohesion of the army, the police and the state, preparing for an overthrow.
Jack Frost “discovers” human rights
This is what determines the attitude of western governments that in the past supported him and were prepared to turn a blind eye to his crimes. They are beginning slyly to put some distance between themselves and a regime that has begun to stink in the nostrils of world public opinion and, even worse, shows no signs of being able to prop itself up. Behind the scenes the western paragons of “democracy” are rushing around looking for a substitute who can defend their interests and prevent the revolution from getting “out of hand”. This is reflected in a more “critical” attitude towards the butcher of Tashkent on the part of some western leaders. They are acting on the basis of the old saying: “what do you do when you see a man falling? Give him a push!”
The government of London, which was blind, deaf and dumb concerning the numerous human rights violations in Uzbekistan, has suddenly found its voice. For the first time, Britain criticized the violence as “a clear abuse of human rights.” Foreign secretary Jack Straw called on the government of Tashkent to show “greater transparency” (whatever that might mean) and more careful handling of protesters.
Probably London has been shaken by the courageous and outspoken statements of Craig Murray, the former British ambassador in Tashkent, who was removed from his post in October because of his strong criticism of Karimov. Murray has consistently denounced the brutality of Karimov’s regime and the complicity of the USA and Britain in propping it up. The former ambassador to the Central Asian country was quoted Sunday as saying London and Washington shared blame for the violence because of their support for the Uzbek regime. London, at least, has decided that it is an appropriate moment to “get out from under”. But Washington shows no such inclination.
”The Americans and British wouldn’t do anything to help democracy in Uzbekistan,” Craig Murray told the Independent on Sunday newspaper. On the BBC programme World at One on Monday, Craig Murray blamed the West for the present bloodshed: “It is a case of too little, too late. It was the West’s refusal to take a strong line on Karimov that encouraged him to put down opposition in such a bloody manner.”
After Friday’s bloodbath, US spokespersons called on both the government and the demonstrators to “show restraint”. This is like a man witnessing a wolf savaging a lamb preaching to the wolf and the lamb to show restraint. The lamb might reasonably object that, since it, and not the wolf, was being devoured, the appeal was rather one-sided. Such hypocritical appeals, which place the victim on the same level as the aggressor, in practice serve the interests of the latter against the former.
Murray asks some very pertinent questions, such as: why does the West not call for free elections in Uzbekistan? The former ambassador argues that if the people of Uzbekistan had the possibility of expressing discontent through the ballot box they would not need to take to the streets. But the advocates of democracy in the Bush administration who are always beating the drum for elections in Iraq are not so keen to see elections in some other countries.
Washington enthusiastically greeted the revolts in post-Soviet Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, but has reacted cautiously to events in Uzbekistan. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: “We have had concerns about human rights in Uzbekistan, but we are concerned about the outbreak of violence, particularly by some members of a terrorist group that were freed from prison.” (My emphasis, AW)
Why does Mr. McClellan automatically assume that the prisoners were indeed “members of a terrorist group”? Because it provides a very convenient excuse for Washington to justify its continued support for Karimov. Far from desiring regime change in Tashkent, US imperialism wants to prop up the dictatorship that so considerately continues to allow it to make use of its territory and air space. The fate of 24 million Uzbeks is only so much small change in this new edition of the Great Game.
After 11 September Washington heaped praise on the Tashkent dictatorship for its backing of the US invasion of Afghanistan. They ignored all the crimes of the regime. The appeals to “democracy” therefore have an entirely relative character. Whether George W Bush stands opposed to a dictator depends entirely on whether the dictator in question is a friend of the USA or not. Cynical calculation, not love of democracy, is what governs the policies of the White House.
Turmoil in Central Asia
The real reasons for the mass discontent are to be found, not in the intrigues of religious fanatics but in the objective conditions facing this nation of 26 million people. Living standards collapsed after the fall of the USSR. Millions have been reduced to extreme poverty. Unemployment has rocketed. In addition to this there is the international context. The general world instability has spread to Central Asia, where it is unsettling one regime after another. The popular revolt in March in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan is having a domino effect that can lead to the overthrow of all the regimes of Central Asia.
The insurrectionary movements in Uzbekistan are clearly inspired by the revolutionary movements in Kyrgyzstan. Andijan is just 24 miles from the Kyrgyz town of Osh, where the revolution that overthrew President Askar Akayev began.
But whereas Washington gave cautious (and unenthusiastic) support to the changes in Kyrgyzstan, it will not be at all happy about a regime change in Uzbekistan, which it sees as a threat to its vital strategic interests in Central Asia. However, its interference has itself served to unleash a wave of instability and prepare new explosions, the results of which are incalculable.
As I write these lines, hundreds of Uzbeks are reported to be fleeing from the fighting, trying to cross the border into Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan’s eastern neighbour reopened its border Sunday and set up a refugee camp that had already taken in some 900 Uzbeks fleeing unrest in their country. Some of those entering the refugee camps are wounded, bearing witness to the ferocity of the repression. But the struggle is not over. It has only just begun. The massacre at Andijan will have caused a wave of revulsion in Uzbekistan and the neighbouring republics. After a temporary lull, there will be new explosions that will shake the whole region.
If a revolutionary party and leadership existed the conditions would be present to transform the revolutionary movement of the masses into a classical proletarian revolution. Unfortunately, in the absence of the subjective factor, there is a danger that the leadership of the movement will fall into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists and the movement can be led into a blind alley. Vitaly Naumkin warns: “If the regime crumbles, it’s quite possible that Islamist elements will come to the fore in Uzbekistan. No one can imagine a liberal democracy of the Western type emerging there.”
If this happens, the blame will fall squarely on the shoulders of Karimov and his backers in Washington. For years the threat from Islamist extremism in Uzbekistan has been greatly exaggerated to justify the actions of the Tashkent. Every time there is repression, Karimov accuses the opposition of being Islamic extremists. In the end, this will play into the hands of these very people.
In the absence of a revolutionary party and leadership, power may pass to a supporter of the current regime, some general or gangster chosen from among the country’s dominant clans. If so, there will be no real change, just a reshuffle at the top and a redistribution among the elite of the spoils of power. This would do nothing to alleviate the growing economic and social problems of a population that has been roused out of its apathy and is increasingly willing to challenge those in authority. No real stability is possible on this basis. New crises, upheavals and struggles would be on the order of the day.