Uzbekistan: One Year After. The lessons we should learn from the massacre

por Stephen Schwartz, 30 de junio de 2006

Last weekend marked the first anniversary of the horrific events at Andijan in Uzbekistan, a market town in the Ferghana Valley near the border with Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia. There, a year ago, a protest by local folk against the antidemocratic policies of Uzbek ruler Islam Karimov--a classic post-Communist who remains a totalitarian in his methods--was met with bloody repression. The armed forces of the Uzbek state killed hundreds of people, chasing and slaying those who fled from the massacre.

In the aftermath, the Uzbek authorities argued that the victims were Muslim extremists, followers of the Wahhabi cult financed by Saudi Arabia, and associates of a marginal radical-Islamist movement called Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT). As a close observer of the Uzbek scene, I was convinced then, and remain convinced now, that such claims are mere spin being used by the dictatorship to justify its atrocities.

When West reproached Karimov for this terrible act, he responded by evicting U.S. military forces from bases that had been established, it had always been said, with no strings attached.

Marking the anniversary over the weekend, Karimov was welcomed at a resort on the Black Sea, by the world leader with whom he really feels the most in common: Vladimir Putin. This was a signal to the West that the strategy of justifying Karimov's tyranny by defaming those it kills as Islamist terrorists has failed; Karimov has opted to align with Moscow.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the Uzbek crisis. An alliance with the Uzbeks made sense after September 11, 2001, when the United States needed a base in Central Asia to use for military action against Afghanistan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al Qaeda ally. War sometimes makes for uneasy common efforts.

But the Taliban were essentially defeated in Afghanistan (notwithstanding their capacity to continue low-level terror) and the IMU was wiped out.

Uzbekistan possesses a great history in general Islamic thought, having produced a number of important theologians, including Imam Bukhari and Imam Maturidi, the latter known for his views on natural religion and the importance of reason in belief. As a moderate Muslim state, with significant Jewish and Christian minorities, potential for 'Silk Road' tourism, and other assets, Uzbekistan has enormous pluralist, democratic potential. As a brutal dictatorship exaggerating threats and ruthlessly killing dissenters, it will be nothing more than a Central Asian Belarus--an international pariah.

The U.S. government has made it clear that the global fight for democracy cannot be waged on the basis of double standards. We cannot call for transparency in Belarus and Iran and allow the denial of human rights in Uzbekistan.

It is also important to put Hizb-ut-Tahrir into perspective. HuT is a repellent group with anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and otherwise Islamofascist views. But HuT it is not a serious threat either inside or outside of Uzbekistan and has not engaged in suicide terror or similarly violent acts. It is not associated with al Qaeda and cannot even be compared with the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas. Rather, HuT resembles the obscure leftist talking-shops that flourished under the wings of the Stalinist Communists in Spain and other European countries before Communism collapsed. The type of group that handed out leaflets filled with revolutionary rhetoric, but never gained a significant constituency. Karimov needs the specter of HuT as an excuse to maintain power; the group has no other significance in the post-Soviet context.

The events at Andijan a year ago had nothing to do with Islam, radical or otherwise, and least of all with HuT. The local merchants had begun to grow rich on trade with Kyrgyzstan and China, and were encouraged to reach for their rights after the fall of the Kyrgyz regime in the 'Tulip Revolution' only weeks beforehand. They were angry about the imposition of new taxes and Stalin-model restrictions on private trade. They paid for their entrepreneurial spirit in their own blood.

In Uzbekistan, the United States and its allies should side with the oppressed, not the oppressors. The first anniversary of Andijan should be an occasion to warn Karimov that the West will assist the Uzbek people in fostering civil society institutions based on religious, economic, and political freedom.