Socio-political unrest in Central Asia

The socio-political unrest is on the rise in the region of central Asia. And saga continues in Uzbekistan too. The trouble in Uzbekistan seems to be spreading, for the protest in Andijan. Many innocent people have been died in the game of dirty politics and blame game of Islamic fundamentalists. Right now, media (print & electronic) is under control of the government. The Uzbekistan government has imposed a complete news blackout, a number of journalists have been arrested, and the international media has been banned from entering Andijan. The recent widespread unrest in Uzbekistan is supposed to be worst violence since it became independent in 1991, on the break-up of the Soviet Union. Since then, Mr. Karimov, the President, had been the local Communist Party chief, has kept him in power through rigged elections and occasional shows of brute force. He has also sought backing from America and its allies by posing as a bulwark against Islamist militancy in the region. After the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Islam Karimov allowed America to use Uzbekistan’s airbases to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Nonconformist groups and independent sources have put the death toll number as high as 700. Soldiers in Uzbekistan are reported to have fired on a crowd, killing perhaps hundreds of people, to suppress a uprising against the government of President Islam Karimov. It seems he will stop at nothing to avoid becoming the next authoritarian leader of a former Soviet state to be toppled by a popular uprising. Government troops were ruthless in crushing the dissidents. Hundreds of bodies had been laid out in the streets. There have been reports of protests being brutally put down in other Uzbek towns and cities and of troops firing on civilians as they fled into neighbouring Kirgizstan to escape the conflict. According to latest reports incidents of gunfire is still going on and on in the country.

Some local experts and government official are of the opinion Hizbul Tahrir, a banned Islamic fundamentalist group responsible for that socio-political unrest in the country. The unrest, which has been building up for some months, seems to have been triggered by the trials of 23 local businessmen in Andizhan. The men are accused of belonging to Akramiya, another illegal armed group, which is a splinter from Hizb ut-Tahrir. However, locals people and human right activists believe, officials with the aim of seizing the businessmen’s property, trumped up the charges. The businessmen’s supporters deny that those on trial had anything to do with the Hizb, and took to the streets. The government decided to crush the dissidents, some of whom were armed and had attacked a prison to free their supporters. But the use of force by the security forces was excessive. Unfortunately, Mr. Karimov runs Uzbekistan as a police state. All opposition is ruthlessly suppressed, torture of political dissidents is routine, there are regular disappearances, and Amnesty International and rights groups have accused the government of human rights violations. To win the sympathy of the US and western countries the Uzbek government labels all dissidents as Islamic fundamentalists. For that reason, America, which has a base in Uzbekistan, has criticized the government in a very low key and advised both the dissidents and the security forces to exercise restraint.

While playing up the Islamist threat, Mr Karimov has ignored the fact that much of the country’s socio-political unrest is due to poor living standards. The average monthly income for an Uzbek is about US$30, the salary drawn by a top official is also below $100. Equally so, Karimov never placed lids on social mobility. Uzbekistan’s growth rate of 6-7% in recent years has been appreciable, though it might be low given the huge backlog of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The government says its confiscation of farmland 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. Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous country, but poverty is rampant, and Mr. Karimov, who has been at the helm since before the break-up of the Soviet Union, has done nothing to give his people a better life. He has ruled like a despot. Elections are stage-managed and the opposition has no representation in parliament. Last year, the government introduced a bicameral legislature, but no opposition party was allowed to register for elections to the 100-man lower house. As for the 100-man upper house, it consists of nominated members. This has driven the opposition underground. Last year, there was a series of suicide bombings that led to at least 50 dead.

Uzbekistan’s protesters would seem to stand little chance against Mr Karimov’s security forces, who have shown they will stop at nothing to crush dissent. Furthermore, no popular, reformist figure like Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili or Ukraine’s Victor Yushchenko has yet emerged for the Uzbek opposition to rally around. Nevertheless, the anti-government protests in Georgia, Ukraine and then Kirgizstan all eventually prevailed, despite initial expectations that regime change was unlikely. In the capital, Tashkent, several rights activists and opposition politicians laid flowers at a monument to commemorate the victims of violence in Andijan.

In a surprising move the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged the President of Uzbekistan to adopt political reforms to head off future unrest after a wave of protests and a bloody military crackdown.