Despotic Karimov regime remains a tinder box. 4,200 words.

The following article looks at the recent events that led to the killing of hundreds of protesters in Uzbekistan by government troops in May. Rob Jones also examines clan and ethnic divisions in the country, divisions between the ruling elite factions, the transformation of Uzbekistan from a Stalinist-run Soviet Republic to a pro-capitalist dictatorship, Uzbekistan’s role in big powers’ struggles in Central Asia, and perspectives for opposition struggles and movements of the working class and poor.

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After the Andizhan and Pakhtabad massacres

The killing in Andizhan, Uzbekistan was nothing less than carnage. Hundreds of demonstrators were simply shot at point blank range by government troops hiding behind armour plated personnel carriers. Eye witnesses report that not only were there many women and children amongst the dead, but they also say that after the initial brutality, troops went around the victims shooting the wounded. Further massacres then took place in Pakhtabad. According to human rights groups there were over 700 killed in Andizhan and a further 200 in Pakhtabad.

Both cities are in the Fergana Valley, in which over 10 million people live, making it the most populated part of Central Asia. Not accidentally, Andizhan is less than a hundred kilometers from the city of Osh, in Kyrghizia, which only weeks ago was the centre of the so called “tulip” or “yellow” revolution, which led to the collapse of the Kyrghiz government.

The dictatorial President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, promptly justified his brutal actions in Andizhan and Pakhabad by blaming “Muslim fundamentalists” for organising an “armed uprising”. Western powers, in particular the US, initially joined this condemnation of the “fundamentalists”. But the real story is, of course, much more complicated.

Even the magazine ‘Russian Newsweek’, which is remarkably sympathetic to Karimov, reported that one of the protesters said, “We only demanded the resignation of the Mayor Sand-Ali Belasheva and jobs. Now we want Karimov to go!”

Mayor Said-Ali Belasheva was a hated figure amongst the people of Andizhan, despite considerable foreign investment in the city in the form of a joint Korean-Uzbek car factory making Daiwoo cars, which are sold widely throughout the former Soviet Union. Most of the workers in the factory, however, are either Russians or from one of the other national minorities. Uzbeks living in the region are left to scrape a living from the land. In Soviet times, the Fergana Valley was turned into the main cotton growing region, but due to the corrupt and bureaucratic way in which this was done, the valley now suffers from over-farming and pollution. Farmers and peasants, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, now find that crop yields are declining and, anyway, in the new capitalist Uzbekistan, the market for their product has collapsed.

Clan and ethnic loyalties

As in many of the former Soviet republics, clan and ethnic loyalties play a large role in society. In Uzbekistan, each of the major regions has its clan loyalties and there are frequent disagreements between the elite in the capital Tashkent and that in the Fergana Valley. The region was the scene of brutal ethnic conflicts at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties. Now, many of the population look back on those events with horror and fear that, once again, the ruling elites’ squabbles over the country’s spoils can get out of control.

In the past few months a brutal conflict erupted in Andizhan. Mayor Belasheva arrested 23 of his opponents and held them, along with hundreds of other prisoners, in the city goal. According to their lawyer, the prisoners were all successful businessmen, making confectionary, furniture, clothing and building. “They helped children’s homes through the charity ‘Baitul Mol’”, the men’s lawyers said.

The main accusation against the group is that the charity was a front for raising money for the ‘Akromist’ Islamic group, whose leader, Akrom Yuldasheva, has already spent six years in prison. The Uzbek authorities claim this group is “fundamentalist and extremist”. The prisoners were charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional authorities and forming an illegal organisation, charges which carry the death sentence.

A picket was held outside the court for several weeks before the recent horrific events. When a rumour spread that the 23 prisoners were found guilty, and sentenced in secret, the picketers moved to take more drastic action.

Although journalists and human rights are still prevented from traveling to Andizhan to carry out a thorough investigation, Newsweek Russia pieced together the following account of events based on the stories of people who fled the violence. They quoted one of the army commanders, who said that the horror began when “about 200 bandits and Islamic extremists with their relatives attacked and disarmed a police squadron by bribing the officer in charge.” They then attacked the prison, releasing several hundred of the inmates, and took the Mayor’s bodyguards hostage.

(Leaving aside, for now, the claim that these were ‘fundamentalists’, this version contradicts Karimov’s, who claims that the arms came from Kyrghizia as part of a co-ordinated attempt to overthrow him).

The crowd then swelled, as other people from the city joined in, who, again according to the army commander, were “tortured by poverty”. The crowds then seized and hanged the judge responsible for trying the twenty three prisoners.

The first phase of the brutal massacre then took place as the army began its indiscriminate fire on the crowd. Here a student from Tashkent takes over the story: “They were firing using heavy artillery from armoured personnel carriers. I was only there by accident, out of interest. By that time there were already about ten thousand people, all shouting at the city mayor and demanding jobs. But the riot police also started firing without restraint and those people that could fled into the surrounding courtyards”.

Other witnesses say that people were shouting out “Freedom!” as they were shot down. After about ten minutes, the original protesters fired back and tried to use Molotov cocktails against the army vehicles. A group ran into the Mayor’s Offices.

The lawyer for those originally arrested reported that he got a phone call from those in the Mayor’s Office to say they had been offered a corridor of safety out of the centre by none other than President Karimov himself. But, as they left the Mayor’s office they were then fired upon again and all brutally killed. Fighting lasted all night and residents say that there were bodies all over the city. One group did escape and managed to reach the city of Karasa, on the Kyrghiz, border, where they, together with other people fleeing the fighting, managed to cross.

One of the religious leaders from Karasa used the opportunity of the turmoil to call people on to the streets and declared that Karasa was to be the capital of a new ‘Islamic Republic of Fergana’. The crowd seized the city administration buildings. But five days later, thousands of troops entered the city and retook it, thankfully without further casualties.

Now the mood is a mixture of anger at what happened and fear that once international attention dies down there will be a further wave of repression as Karimov and his local henchmen take revenge on those that damaged his international standing.

That people can be driven to such desperate measures is a condemnation of the society that exists today in Uzbekistan, as well as a condemnation of those imperialist powers that supported and fostered Karimov over the past few years, and particularly since 9/11.

From hard-line bureaucrat to brutal capitalist ruler

Islam Karimov was a hard-line bureaucrat in Soviet times. One of the earliest scandals that shook the Soviet system, when Gorbachev introduced Perestroika and Glasnost, was that of the Uzbek cotton harvest. Satellite photographs exposed how the Uzbek bureaucracy was hugely falsifying cotton harvests to gain more money from the state centre. Although at the time, Karimov was a leading member of the Uzbek Communist Party, he managed to escape the purge of 50,000 lower ranking bureaucrats so that by 1991, when the Soviet Union was breaking up, he was elected President of the country. He fully supported the hard-line coup in August 1991, stating that if the coup won, the rivers would flow with milk but if it failed blood would flow on the streets.

But the coup failed. Karimov quickly did an about turn and by the end of 1991 declared Uzbekistan an independent republic. Karimov then revealed himself as a die-hard nationalist. He tore down statues of Marx and Lenin and replaced them with Tamerlane, whose Turkish Mongol army is said to have slaughtered 17 million people in building a Fourteenth Century empire stretching across China and India, and as far as Egypt. Supposedly Tamerlane shot human heads from cannons and built pyramids of skulls to frighten local populations. Of course, Kamirov can no longer use cannons but he did once infamously announce, “Islamists should be shot through the head”. The official state ideology today teaches that Tamerlane was a ‘humanist’ who did much good. The Director of the newly-opened Tamerlane Museum stated, “Do you know any strong leader who was not cruel? Has there been anyone in history who ruled a great empire without bloodshed?”

According to Karimov’s official biography, he was elected President in 1991, and again in 2002, through “alternative” elections, where there is a ‘choice’ between candidates. The truth is that although there was a second candidate in 1991, who managed to gain 9% of the vote, he was then arrested and imprisoned. In 1995, there was no election but a referendum to confirm Karimov as president for a further 5 years. In 2000, the “alternative” candidate came from a pro-Karimov party. On election day, its candidate announced that he himself had voted for Karimov! In 2002, a further referendum was held to extend the period between elections to 7 years. Any other institutions, such as local authorities, exist only at the whim of Karimov.

His rule has been particularly brutal even by Central Asian standards. As in the other former Soviet Republics, the former oppressive apparatus of the Stalinist system was maintained – the KGB was simply renamed the ‘State Security Police’. Outside of the cities, the regime relies on a feudal structure to police the population. Each village has a senior figure, a so-called “white beard”, who is paid by the state and is expected to maintain order and inform on any ‘dissident behaviour’.

Many published reports show the systematic repression of opposition figures in Uzbekistan. One of the latest, produced by ‘Human Rights Watch’, claims, “The scale and brutality of the operations against independent Muslims make it clear that these are part of a concerted and tightly-orchestrated campaign of religious persecution."

The report highlighted one case, that of 62 year old Fatima Mukhadirova. She was imprisoned on charges of “religious extremism” for the protesting against the August 2002 death of her son in prison after he was boiled alive during torture.

There are over 6,000 political prisoners currently held and the use of brutal torture (the pulling of finger nails, suffocation using plastic bags, electric shocks, and submerging in boiling water) is widespread.

Islamic extremism?

What, however, is not always understood is that the Karimov regime uses the catch-all description “religious or Islamic extremism” to include almost any opponent – be that religious or political. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of prisoners currently held have not been connected to the ‘Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’, which is an armed organisation that has actively fought in Afghanistan and claimed responsibility for bombings in Tashkent, in February 1999. Most prisoners appear to be linked to the ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir’ group, which condemns the use of violence in the name of Islam and aims to establish an Islamic regime in Uzbekistan by means of what in the West would be called “winning hearts and minds”. The Akromist group in Andizhan is a local variation of Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose main aim is to create an “Islamic environment” by setting up small businesses to help members of the group to find work. Criticism of Kamirov by the group is banned by its leader on the grounds that the President must have been appointed by Allah!

There are indications that the Hizb ut-Tahrir group has significant roots throughout the country. One commentator reported that a leader of the group claimed to have people within the higher echelons of the army, the intelligence services, and even amongst Karimov’s own inner circle. If this is true it would serve to confirm the version of events that was based on behind the scenes support being given to the Andishan uprising by a section of the regime itself, which is worried that the recent ‘rose/orange/tulip’ revolutions would spread further into Uzbekistan. These factions, therefore, were trying to ally themselves with the possible future rulers.

It is, of course, not reasonable to expect the US regime to understand the fine difference between the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir. But the Bush administration does somersaults to justify its open support for the “anti-terrorist” policies of the Karimov dictatorship, particularly after Karimov became the first post-Soviet leader to assist the US in Afghanistan when he granted permission to use the Karshi-Khanabad airbase to launch ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ – the invasion of Afghanistan.

A 2004 statement issued by the US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, said: “The group that most effectively employs ‘Islam’ to achieve political ends is Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT), a transnational political party founded by a Palestinian in 1952. HT seeks to re-establish the caliphate, or Islamic rule, throughout the world. Like other Islamist movements, HT’s goal is to overthrow secular regimes around the world. Unlike many others, however, HT hopes to achieve this goal peacefully.”

The report’s author continues: “While Islamic Jihad, another exported group from the Middle East, took responsibility for the spring attacks in Uzbekistan, and terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) target Uzbekistan, I think HT, which is not considered a terrorist organization, is an even more dangerous long-term threat, as it is the elementary school for the ideological training of many other groups. While HT’s denials of its involvement in the spring attacks are probably true, the identity of those who gave the orders is irrelevant since HT—intentionally or unintentionally—creates the ideological foundation for violence. In short, HT and the Islamic militants fighting in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iraq have different tasks to complete, but are moving toward the same objective”.

This twisted logic is used not only to justify the US’s new found friendship with Karimov but is behind the US’s own use of Karimov’s torture chambers in its “war” against Islam. Craig Murray, former British Ambassador in Tashkent, recently alleged that the Americans flew non-Uzbek-related detainees from Afghanistan specifically to be questioned under torture. He claims that he asked his deputy in Tashkent to raise the issue with the CIA Head of Station, who replied that information was obtained under torture. When the same question was raised with the British Foreign Office, they replied, according to Murray, with the phrase “It would be irresponsible to ignore useful evidence in the war against terror”. Not surprisingly, Murray was sacked as Ambassador!

These claims help to give the lie to the idea that the US-led alliance is fighting to establish ‘democracy’ throughout the world and particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even some of the US’s own supporters find it hard to swallow Bush’s support for Karimov. They complain that Bush and Condalizza Rice are far more outspoken about the lack of democracy in, for example, Belarus, where the systematic use of torture does not exist.

Oil and gas

Only part of the reason for this friendly US approach towards Uzbekistan is the willingness of Karimov to allow the superpower to use its airbase. Relations between the two countries are linked, of course, to oil and gas. Uzbekistan has 74% of all the condensed gas, 31% of all the oil, 40% of all the natural gas, and 55% of all the coal deposits to be found in Central Asia. It is one of the top ten gas producers in the world and the fifth largest gold mining producer. Apart from the cotton industry, the country also has a large car plant and, in Tashkent, an aircraft factory that was once an integral part of Soviet airline manufacturing.

Many right wing commentators have characterized the Karimov regime as anti-free market and even ludicrously “Bolshevik” or “communist”. However, from the first day of Uzbekistan’s independence, the government declared its commitment to “support the consistent and gradual implementation of market principles subject to economic and social conditions.” The first stage of “reforms” in the early nineties was intended to create the framework for a functioning market economy, based on the “liberty and equality of all forms of ownership and the liberty of entrepreneurship”.

Unlike its neighbour, Kyrghizia, however, Uzbekistan did not follow the all-out, neo-liberal route to the restoration of capitalism but maintained a large degree of state regulation. Academics argue about the benefits of both approaches and while it is true that the Uzbek economy did not collapse quite as far as that of Kyrghizia in the 1990s, the restoration of capitalism in Uzbekistan still meant a catastrophic decline of the economy and, therefore, of living standards. Even according to official statistics, a third of the population lives on less than one dollar a day. Up to 30% of the population is unemployed. One international organisation estimated that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head in Uzbekistan is $260 a year or $21 a month. But this is an average figure. Many families in rural areas get no more than $10 a month.

One of the terrible social consequences is the blight of child labour, in a country where 40% of the population is under 17 years old. Children and women are the backbone of the labour force in the cotton industry. The government even admits that every year it mobilises 50,000 children to gather the harvest. As a result, international companies, in particular, British American Tobacco, which has a large joint enterprise with the Karimov government, are coming under pressure from human rights organisations to pull out of the country.

At the same time, a layer of Uzbek society is doing very well. Take Karimov’s daughter. According to Craig Murray, she owns half of the telephone system, which was recently sold for $400 million, and she has a large stake in the country’s gas fields and in Coco-Cola Uzbekistan. According to reports, she has also established a “travel agency”, which organises the trafficking of tens of thousands of impoverished Uzbek women to Dubai to work as prostitutes.

And yet, international institutions, such as the IMF, are “pleased” at the country’s economic results. The IMF’s 2004 report praised Uzbekistan’s economic progress. The Karimov government, it said, had reached a “turning point”, with a GDP growth of 7%, and a 30% growth in gold and foreign currency reserves.

The IMF had pulled out of Uzbekistan in 2001 in protest at the government’s refusal to make the som currency convertible. But it was forced to return in 2002 by the US, after Karimov became a “strategic partner” in the so-called “war against terror”. Even as early as the mid-nineties, the former US President, Bill Clinton, cultivated Karimov as a “friend”. By 1999, Uzbek ‘special forces’ were trained by US Green Berets. In 2001, a seven year lease for the Khanabad military base was signed. This base is not so much for intervening in Afghanistan, as is usually portrayed by the Western press, but is mainly used to help to establish a US military presence across the whole of Central Asia, to protect US oil and gas interests.

Due to international outrage, the US sometimes pays lip service to the human rights “problems” in Uzbekistan, and even announced it was cutting aid by $18 million, last year. But the White House still finances the Uzbek law enforcement services - for example, by $79 million, in 2002, alone. In addition, to the approximately half million dollars spent training Uzbek troops and border guards each year, the US has also sold $4 million worth of weapons to the Karimov regime over the past three years.

China too, not surprisingly, has major interests in the region. The Chinese government moved quickly to support the repressive measures taken by Karimov recently, which they say are essential to prevent the spreading influence of “separatists, extremists and Islamists”. Just a few days after the massacre, Karimov visited Beijing, to witness a $600 million joint investment deal between the Chinese and Uzbek Petroleum corporations.

In the early stages of their protests, the people of Andizhan had some hope that Russia would intervene to help them. But these helps were quickly dashed. The main analytical article about the Uzbek events which appeared on the official Kremlin website begins “You can accuse Islam Karimov as much as you like of forming an authoritarian regime but it must be pointed out that because of his regime he has succeeded in controlling the republic since the early 1990’s for almost a decade and a half and prevented a civil war which would have been much worse than the recent events in Andizhan”.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Russian Foreign Ministry quickly expressed its wish that the dispute be solved by whatever means necessary, and called the Uzbek regime “soft”.

This approach contradicts that of Vladimir Putin when he is addressing the wider public and, in particular, a Western audience. Here he speaks of “the economic development of the former Soviet states and in strengthening their international authority." He talks of Russia’s “civilizing mission in Eurasia”. But the reality is that the Putin regime is studying closely the lessons of the recent events in Kyrghizia and Uzbekistan and, if they believe that Karimov has managed to restore control in Andizhan, they could well be encouraged to use such tactics against future protest movements in Russia.

Using repression, it is possible that Karimov will be able to hang on to power at least temporarily. There are now reports that the arrests feared by the opposition have started in Tashkent. But, as events at the start of the nineties in Eastern Europe showed, the more brutal the repression used by regimes, the more determined people are to struggle.

But with the lack of a developed workers’ movement in the Uzbekistan, and with no left forces with even semi-mass support in the country, the danger is that the eventual overthrow of Karimov will degenerate into a battle between different clans and warlords. This could be, in many ways, similar to the events that led to the outbreak of bloody civil war in neighbouring Tadjikistan, in the early nineties.

It is urgent, therefore, that any left activists there may be in Uzbekistan develop a programme capable of influencing events. Working people need mass independent working class organisations that can lead the struggle for the overthrow of the Karimov regime and that fight for a workers’ government that genuinely represents the interests of urban and rural workers and the poor.

Such organisations must put no trust in either any capitalist politicians or new found “democratic” “friends” from the US and EU. At the same time, socialists should strive to unite workers, peasants and youth of all nationalities in a workers’ party that would fight for:

  • End state repression. Justice for the victims and relatives of the Pakhtabad and Andizhan massacres Close the regime’s prisons and torture centres
  • A mass struggle to end the Karimov regime
  • An end to privatisation of industry and land
  • Wages and pensions to be immediately increased to meet living needs
  • A programme of financial support for small scale farmers and cotton growers – for factories, markets and farms to be controlled and managed by those who work in them
  • The cancellation of international debts
  • The nationalisation of industry, banks and natural resources, such as the gold mines and oil pipelines, controlled and managed by democratically elected committees of workers and poor peasants
  • Equal rights for all nationalities
  • The mass media to be under social control, with access granted to all groups and sections in proportion to their weight in society
  • The closure of the US and Russian military bases in the country. No foreign bases
  • Annulment of agreements with all international organisations, such as NATO, the World Bank, IMF, the Shanghai Group and the CIS. For international agreements to be only on the basis of the interests of the working people of the region
  • The abolition of the institution of President. For the establishment of a constituent assembly, made up of democratically elected representatives of working people of all nationalities, on a proportional basis, to decide how the country will be run
  • The formation of a genuine workers’ and poor peasants’ government, with bold socialist policies

Committee for a workers' International publications

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