Asia News and Analysis
Sunday, May 15, 2005 12:40 PM
Tough regime finds unlikely allies By Steven Eke
Protests outside an Andijan court had been mounting all week
Just over a year ago, Uzbekistan saw violent attacks on police, shootouts and a harsh security clampdown.
Many observers thought those events would prompt a rethink by Western governments, especially the US, which had built a close relationship with what is undeniably a cruel, authoritarian regime.
In the period since then, little has changed in Uzbekistan. The political opposition is still not tolerated, the media are not free.
A British ambassador was removed for speaking out against the use by the West of intelligence obtained by torture. Human rights groups patiently record and document ongoing abuses.
Uzbeks living abroad return from trips to their homeland gloomy, speaking of cowed and frightened people living on the edge of a political and economic abyss.
The Uzbek government has made one thing clear – it will act harshly and use whatever force necessary to prevent any direct, serious threat to its stability.
Perhaps it was shocked into a realisation of its vulnerability by the chaotic events in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
Although initially touted as the latest pro-democracy “coloured revolution” to hit the former Soviet Union, the uprising in Kyrgyzstan has done little to improve living conditions or the sense of hopelessness that pervades the region.
The US military presence may well have acquired a permanent character. President Bush has never publicly criticised Uzbekistan’s denial of freedom to its citizens.
Media clampdown stifles news
Russia’s approach is not terribly different. Moscow has had a mixed relationship with Tashkent, but the line from Russian diplomats appears to be that secular rule at any cost is better than the threat from Islamists.
Russia asserts that it has a historic right to a say in an otherwise poorly-defined “sphere of influence”. Recently, this has taken on an almost paranoid tone about “anti-Russian plots” being played out across the territory of the former Soviet Union.
It seems unlikely that President Karimov’s regime faces the prospect of being swept away by popular unrest. It may be that change will only come from outside.
But the powers that could influence Uzbekistan’s development tolerate the status quo, for their own, very different reasons.
The cost of that is ever-increasing repression, unalleviated poverty and ultimately, the likelihood of violent unrest.