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Uzbeks Have Little Middle Ground Left

Observers say repression is driving the growth of Islamic radicalism and the people's anger, and that another uprising is all but guaranteed.

June 01, 2005|David Holley and Sergei L. Loiko | Times Staff Writers

ANDIJON, Uzbekistan — Extraordinary events were unfolding in Babur Square.

Relatives and friends of a group of imprisoned local businessmen had staged a violent jailbreak that morning. Then, after handing out Kalashnikov rifles to the freed inmates, including hardened criminals, they took over a government building near the downtown plaza.

Rather than fleeing the potential danger, thousands of residents streamed into the square to show support for the escaped prisoners and air their grievances under President Islam Karimov, the authoritarian ruler of this nation of 26 million.

"It was like a gulp of freedom in Karimov's scorching desert," said Lachinbek Tursunkhojayev, a local economist. "People spoke about all the problems so important to them, the economy, politics, Karimov, about the poverty that was driving them mad. I was there. I listened to every word. People wanted freedom and they wanted democracy."

But the rebellion in Andijon was stained with blood from its opening moments -- and it had taken on a president who has long shown ferocity to his political enemies.

The events of that day, which ended with a brutal government crackdown against armed militants and unarmed civilians, illustrate how little middle ground is left in Uzbekistan. Critics say political and religious repression has created fertile soil for the growth of Islamic radicalism and bottled-up popular anger that could easily erupt into more violence.

Uzbekistan may yet see the kind of revolution that has toppled other leaders in the former Soviet bloc.

The Andijon uprising was no Orange Revolution, the name given to last year's peaceful rebellion in Ukraine, which was led by a former prime minister who could claim to be the legitimate winner of a presidential election. And it was no Rose Revolution, led by a U.S.-educated former justice minister who in 2003 brought Georgia's power structure tumbling down by leading a mass charge into parliament, carrying a single long-stemmed rose.

It wasn't even like the March upheaval in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which began just across the border from here and ended with a former prime minister coming to power.

The Andijon revolt was a localized explosion of rage, led by little-known individuals with no nationwide support.

But it came against a background of broad discontent.

"If Karimov doesn't change his ways -- and it appears that he thinks it is safe for him to rely on iron-handed rule -- then within the next three years there could be another popular uprising," Tursunkhojayev said. "It could begin as an act of spontaneous desperation again, but on a more massive scale."

Alexandra Tikhonova, 33, who sells used goods 160 miles away in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, fears the outcome of such an uprising.

"The poor people in the provinces are very angry and desperate," she said. "They will follow anybody -- Islamists, Talibs, whatever -- only to have some chance to change the situation. I'm afraid that hard-line Islamic militants may unseat Karimov. And their rule will be even worse.... I feel like we are in a trap between the tiger and the crocodile."

Eastern Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley, which is home to Andijon, is known as a hotbed of Islamic fervor. Much of former Soviet Central Asia is nominally Muslim, but people take their faith seriously here.

Kokhramon Zaripov, 54, who works as a driver in the city of Fergana, said life in the valley had deteriorated since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Back in Soviet times, this was a green town, full of life and joy," he said. "People knew what was in store for them in the future. Nobody went hungry."

The best jobs in Fergana are at an oil refinery and a cotton oil plant, but to get hired, an applicant must pay a bribe equal to about two years' wages, Zaripov said.

"If you complain about the system, they say: 'Oh, you are not happy. You must be a Wahhabi [a fundamentalist] or a member of [the banned underground religious group] Hizb ut-Tahrir.' You can go to prison forever if you make waves."

New York-based Human Rights Watch and other rights groups estimate that about 6,000 people are imprisoned in Uzbekistan as political dissidents or for nonviolent activity such as praying at unregistered mosques, holding religious meetings in homes and reading or distributing banned religious literature.

Karimov, a former communist who has run Uzbekistan since 1989, characterizes his government's imprisonment of alleged religious extremists as part of a battle against terrorism and an effort to preserve the country's secular society.

Even Tikhonova, the Tashkent trader who fears Islamic rule, criticized the president for not taking steps to build a democratic system.

"Karimov does not understand that he needs to give people more freedom," she said. "He keeps on pressing harder and harder."

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