Uzbekistan: Regional, Western Reaction To Crackdown Varies From Support To Condemnation
By Valentinas Mite
World reaction to the weekend's bloody events in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon has varied widely. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has accused a faction of Hizb ut-Tahrir -- a banned movement seeking to create an Islamic state in Central Asia -- of orchestrating the uprising. As many as 500 people may have been killed in the ensuing crackdown. Russia, Tashkent's closest ally, has sided with Karimov, while Western reaction has been somewhat muted.
Prague, 16 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov initially said the events in Uzbekistan were its "internal affair." But today, Lavrov said planned actions by Islamic extremists were behind the bloodshed and unrest in Uzbekistan.
ITAR-TASS quoted Lavrov as saying on a trip to Vienna that Russia has information indicating elements of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban were involved in preparing the Uzbek protests that led to a violent government crackdown.
Speaking a few days earlier (14 May), Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin acknowledged that social and economic factors may also have been at work.
"Of course, there is a combination of different problems in these events -- including social and economic factors," Loshchinin said. "But the Islamic factor also has played a very strong role in that region. And the combination of all those factors has led to the events that we are now faced with. Worst of all is, of course, that there are human casualties. And we denounce this sort of extremist actions. We hope that the situation will be back under control very soon."
Aleksei Makarkin is deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. He says relations between Russia and Uzbekistan present an example of a strong marriage of convenience.
He says Uzbek President Islam Karimov is trying to hold onto power using all available means, while Moscow is keen to retain its influence in the post-Soviet sphere. Russia does not want a repeat of what happened in Kyrgyzstan in March, when the regime of President Askar Akaev was toppled, and believes Karimov is the best man to maintain the status quo.
Makarkin says this is reason enough for the Kremlin to accept Uzbek explanations for what has been happening. "Karimov moves toward Russia, and [Russia] does not even think about asking him to make reforms, liberalization, democratization," he said. "[Uzbekistan] completely satisfies [Russia] as it exists now."
Makarkin says the mainstream media in Russia also appear to be siding with Karimov and are interpreting the events in Uzbekistan largely in the light of Islamic extremism. "On the whole, [Uzbek unrest] is discussed as some kind of uprising of extremists, which is supported by some foreign Islamic forces, by some foreign fundamentalist structures and so on," he said. "On the whole, this understanding is characteristic for the Russian mass media."
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, interim President Kurmanbek Bakiev on 14 May agreed that Islamic militants are responsible for the unrest in Andijon.
"This happened because of what we call the IMU, or Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and representatives of Hizb ut-Tahrir," Bakiev said. "In any case, this [violence] does not lead to a good life. I think there should be peace. I don't support the views of those who want to establish a state under management of a religious body."
Hizb ut-Tahrir denies any involvement.
Aalybek Akunov, a professor of political science at the Kyrgyz National University in Bishkek, told RFE/RL that ordinary people in Kyrgyzstan -- witness to their own revolution in March -- are following events in Andijon closely.
"[People] are united in the opinion that a change of power in Uzbekistan is only a matter of time," Akunov said. "People say that what has happened in Andijon will finally lead to a change of Karimov's regime."
Akunov says the Kyrgyz media have offered different interpretations of what's been happening in Uzbekistan, but that the majority opinion seems to be that difficult social and political conditions led to the unrest. The media are also paying a lot of attention to the issue of Uzbek refugees fleeing the violence.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry yesterday expressed the importance that Ankara places on stability in Uzbekistan. Turkey called on Uzbek government forces to deal with protesters and civilians "calmly by acting with common sense."
Meanwhile, Western reaction to the crisis has been somewhat muted.
"The Wall Street Journal" today quoted White House spokesman Scott McClellan as saying the United States is "concerned about the outbreak of violence, particularly by some members of a terrorist organization that were freed from prison."
The U.S. State Department has expressed its concern that members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government, may have been freed during the 13 May unrest.
In perhaps the harshest Western comment, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw yesterday described the situation in Uzbekistan as very serious. Straw said there has been a clear abuse of human rights by Uzbek authorities. He also said there is a lack of democracy and openness in the country.
Straw says Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan has obtained a promise from Uzbekistan's foreign minister that a trip to Andijon will be arranged in the coming days.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer today demanded that Uzbek authorities permit representatives of the Red Cross and other aid organizations to visit the Andijon area.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier called for opening a political dialogue between protesters in Andijon and the government, saying there can be no solution through violence.
Analyst David Lewis, director of the Central Asia project for the International Crisis Group, believes only Straw's reaction has been strong enough. "Only really the British government has made quite a strong statement," he said. "But otherwise the Americans have not said very much."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has called for an end to the violence and for the respect of basic human rights in the country. The OSCE's representative in Tashkent, Miroslav Jenea, has called on all parties to refrain from further use of force. He said the OSCE stands ready to help to end the conflict and investigate its causes.
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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