Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Uzbekistan: Karimov's war for the status quo.

Date: Tuesday 19 July 2005
Subj: Uzbekistan: Karimov's war for the status quo.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.

Uzbekistan is poised on the brink of disaster. President Islam Karimov is fighting a war for the status quo. The status quo however, involves government corruption and repression, resulting in poverty and absolutely misery for most of Uzbekistan's 88% Muslim population. Meanwhile, radical Islamic groups, both socialist and jihadist, entice disgruntled, disenfranchised, poverty-stricken Uzbeks with the promise that an Islamic state would provide them with justice. In the absence of any other option – there is no viable secular political opposition – Uzbek citizens are increasingly aligning themselves with radical political and militant Islamic groups which they see as their only hope as they rise up against their government. This is fast becoming a war between Islam and the status quo.

The only path likely to circumvent an Islamic revolution or a drawn-out and bloody civil war, the path of reform, is not on the agenda. While Uzbekistan's Islamic groups have demonstrated that they are prepared to use lethal force to advance their agenda, the Karimov regime has likewise demonstrated that it is prepared to use lethal force to crush dissent. (Link 1)

None of this bodes well for Uzbekistan's Christian minority who are unfortunately caught up on the edge of the whirlwind as Karimov represses all religion indiscriminately.

In 1999, the USA used its Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (which links religious liberty to trade and aid) to positive effect in Uzbekistan. Today however, Karimov's regime is finding support for its indiscriminate heavy-handed repression in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) which was formed in 2001 to enable Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan to co-ordinate activities, in particular security. The SCO has since extended observer status to India, Pakistan and Iran. So why should Karimov be concerned with Western condemnation of its lack of transparent democracy, openness, free media, human rights and religious liberty? The SCO, which one commentator describes as "a huddling of harried elites", will support Karimov as he represses religion as violently and pervasively as he sees fit.

Christians in Uzbekistan are experiencing escalating persecution due to increasing Islamic zeal and increasing government repression of religion. Forum 18 has extensive coverage of the escalating persecution of the Church in Uzbekistan.

As the totalitarian Karimov finds supportive allies in Russia and China, Uzbekistan's Christians may find that their allies, Western advocates of religious liberty, are increasingly without leverage.



Adolat Najimova, a EurasiaNet partner from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) writes, "The lives of ordinary Uzbeks are extremely difficult, with high unemployment, particularly in rural areas; there are villages in the country that are virtually devoid of males, in part a result of forced migration in pursuit of wages. Local observers cite widespread corruption, accusing government officials of enriching themselves at the expense of the public.

"The majority of Uzbeks try hard to make ends meet despite Uzbekistan's huge potential; it is among the largest producers of cotton and gold in the world. Meanwhile, most sectors of the economy are controlled by a small circle of people who might best be categorized into clan-like structures. The middle class has all but disappeared in Uzbekistan over the course of the past decade."

Najimova writes that human rights abuses are widespread, torture is systematic, and there is "no secular opposition in the country, and international observers have dismissed last December's parliamentary elections as a farce. The country's parliament remains firmly subordinate to the president. There is no truly independent media..." (Link 2)

Uzbekistan has clearly not yet lifted its roots out of the Soviet system.

The two main Islamic movements threatening the status quo in Uzbekistan are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU; which is linked to al-Qaeda and fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001) and Hizb ut-Tahrir (which blends Wahhabi theology with Leninist structures and strategy).

The IMU, which has waged considerable terror in Uzbekistan, enacted its first suicide bombings in Uzbekistan, in the capital Tashkent, in March 2004. While Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to be non-violent, its strategy does aim to culminate in Islamic revolution. Some socialist Islamists have grown impatient with Hizb ut-Tahrir and have split to follow jihadist methods.

The finer details of Uzbekistan's Islamist movements are intensely complicated and information is conflicting. But the Islamist threat is not to be underestimated. These groups aim to establish an Islamic state across Central Asia and they thrive on instability and discontent. President Karimov is within reason to fear an Islamic revolution or a IMU coup in Tashkent. However, at the same time he is doing much to accelerate the likelihood of such an event.

President Karimov refuses to acknowledge (or does not care) that his policies are fueling social anger. In the absence of any openness or liberty, there is no opportunity to discuss, let alone vent. The regime's injustices, corruption, elitism, brutality and repression are catalysts for radicalisation within the majority Muslim population.

Reporter Adolat Najimova told EurasiaNet, "Some observers assert that the lack of avenues for grievances or participation in political and social life pushes many young Uzbek men and women to join the ranks of radical Islamic groups; the result can be a vicious circle: increasing numbers of people attracted to such religious groups promising to deliver justice, and increasingly harsh responses by the government." (Link 2)

Only reform, in particular openness and economic reform that eases social pain, offers any hope that civil war or Islamic revolution can be prevented in Uzbekistan. It is widely believed that that the genuine pro-Western reforms implemented in Kyrgyzstan after the "Tulip Revolution" (24 March 2005) will circumvent the Islamist threat there.

But unlike Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan was ripe for "revolution" (regime change). As Christopher Walker writes in a EurasiaNet Commentary (14 July 2005), "Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in many ways represent the region's 'low hanging fruit' for political change. Each featured a comparatively open political environment, in which opposition parties could build popular support and agitate against the respective governments. In comparison, other states in the region -- most notably Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which have stifled all forms of domestic dissent -- present far stiffer challenges for those seeking change." (Link 3)

This is why the situation in Uzbekistan is so diabolical. Uzbeks are highly agitated by increasing totalitarianism, repression and entrenched corruption, and by the lack of justice, human rights, freedoms, employment, information and well being. Uzbeks are desperate for change, but there is no viable secular opposition, only radical Islamists who are actively winning hearts and escalating their efforts.

Tanya Malcolm, a Central Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group, and Ganijon Kholmatov, an independent political analyst based in Osh (Kyrgyzstan) both told RFE/RL that escalating authoritarianism is fueling the extremism in Central Asia. Kholmatov believes a lessening of religious restrictions, and an opening up of public debate has lessened the appeal of banned, extremist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan. (Link 4)

Unfortunately, while Karimov needs to implement economic reforms in Uzbekistan urgently to circumvent civil war or Islamic revolution, it appears he is determined to wage his war for the status quo. Karimov is bolstered by the fact that he has found Russia's President Vladamir Putin and China's President Hu Jintao (both using similar methods to fight the same war in their own nations) to be strong allies.

And Russia and China are bolstered by having the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan as an ally. As NATO has expanded to incorporate the Baltic states, and as the US has set up bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to fight the "War on Terror", Russia has become encircled. Russia and China are both unhappy about Washington's presence in their backyard. There will probably be some quid pro quo here – Russian and Chinese support for Karimov's authoritarian, human rights-abusing regime in exchange for Uzbek pressure to remove US bases and influence from Central Asia. And Uzbekistan does not need to fear that a US withdrawal from the region might leave a power vacuum for Islamists; Uzbekistan will appeal to the Shangai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) for support or assistance in dealing with any problem stemming from religion.

Most analysts believe that Karimov cannot win this war, as the protests will eventually get beyond the scope of government control. Chris Seiple writes for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, "If these demonstrations [as in Andijan, 12-13 May] were coordinated, possibly by extremists, they would be almost impossible for the government to put down. It required the presence of both the president and the interior minister to restore order in Andijan, and they cannot be everywhere at once." (Link 5)

The question is, how far will Russia or China go to preserve the status quo in Uzbekistan?

Uzbekistan is poised on the brink of disaster. A worst case scenario could have the Ferghana Valley looking like Chechnya. The stage is set for Christians in Uzbekistan to be facing an increasingly difficult season. We must pray for the Church, and pray for God to intervene and keep Uzbekistan from going over the edge.

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) 'I don't know why they opened fire. They killed the unarmed citizens of Andijan'
Rustam Iskhakov in Andijan, Uzbekistan, 16 May 2005

EURASIA INSIGHT. By Adolat Najimova, 21 May 2005 http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/pp052105.shtml

Christopher Walker 14 July 2005, A EurasiaNet Commentary

4) Kyrgyzstan: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal, Internal Divisions
By Gulnoza Saidazimova, Prague, 27 April 2005 (RFE/RL)

by Chris Seiple, 1 June 2005

Uzbekistan: Is The Country Headed For Regime Change?
By Jeffrey Donovan, RFE/RL, 30 June 2005