As the situation slowly develops…

by Nathan Hamm on 5/17/2005 · 16 comments

Kyrgyzstan has opened a refugee camp in the Jalalabad region. Nomad has a report from the ground. IRIN talked to some of the refugees.

“We heard on the radio and TV that President [Islam] Karimov had come to Andijan and we gathered on the main square to tell him about all our problems but the president did not talk to us. We got bullets instead,” Shahodit Miftahiddinova, an elderly woman, told IRIN, shivering as she recalled the bloody events of four days ago.

Someone recently commented, asking why so many people showed up on Friday. That’s why, apparently.

The death toll appears to be much higher than was previously believed. Nigora Khidoyatova of the Free Peasants party says that at least 745 are dead (check out this old comment–if anything it’s a reminder to take all these opposition leaders with a grain of salt). A military source told the BBC that the number killed is above 500. Andy speculates on one reason why the government might be hiding information.

Meanwhile, the Free Peasants also held a protest in front of US embassy. I don’t have much to say on that except that it’s silly of them to think that would protect them (the protest in front of the embasy a few weeks ago was broken up violently) and I really have to wonder why Khidoyatova isn’t trying to develop the My Sunny Uzbekistan brand. Maybe that commenter was right…

Anyhow, considering how my days have gone lately, I probably missed things. I probably missed plenty of great posts (though I am holding some analytical ones aside for another post). I know that there plenty of stuff at Scraps of Moscow that everyone should be reading because the Russian-language press flat-out knows the area better and has a level of detail and types of analysis that is nearly impossible to find in the western press.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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sharifabad May 17, 2005 at 11:49 pm

Nathan, it is obvious that the real battle is not between Karimov and the opposition – Karmimov has already pretty much lost with the Andijan upheaval.

The real battle is between the secular democratic opposition and the Islamists (Hut, IMU, and soft-Islamists) opposition.

Unfortunately the Andijan event was a coup by the Islamists and have put them into a commanding lead over the secular opposition. The secular opposition have lost the initiative and now may have to give up their leadership position.

The Islamists are very few in numbers and can only leverage themselves through arms. What they need is martyrs and people getting killed in order to attract a large following and propel themselves into a commanding or leadership position.

This is what happened in Andijan. This was an internal battle among the opposition, and unfortunately the seculars took the bait (IMO) and they lost out. And this happened under the watchful eyes of the US.

You will now see the seculars further fragmenting. Parts will fall for the ruse and join the Islamists as the lesser of two evils and repeat Iran 1979. The more conscious part will try to act independent of the Islamists and they will have an uphill struggle and any further violence will make them look like idiots.

The US should had never let Andijan to happen. These Realists with their Realpolitik in the CIA and State have GOOFED humongously. Uzbakestan could be lost for good, and that is 50% of the C.A. population and the strategic center.

Chris May 18, 2005 at 12:30 am

So what is the strategy for Kara-suu? Isn’t it still under “independent” government? Is this a wild card in the works?

Matt W. May 18, 2005 at 2:48 am

Wow, Sharifabad, that’s pretty interesting logic. See earlier posts of 1-2 days ago on the nature of the uprising (this was discussed by many contributors in-depth, but the consensus seemed to be that Islamism was not the major factor in this, despite what the government and some Islamist organizations want people to believe)– anyway I’m all for hearing someone argue that this was Islamists but please offer something to back it up. I’d be interested to hear your reasoning on this.

Also, “Andijan… was an internal battle among the opposition, and unfortunately the seculars took the bait (IMO) and they lost out. And this happened under the watchful eyes of the US.” That’s a pretty ridiculous thing to say, seeing as it was government forces that did a lot of the killing, and all the events centered around government buildings, nobody disputes that. Watchful eyes of the US? Nobody knows anything about what happened.

Also, did anyone figure out whether these were MVD forces or military? And besides the prison, the place they attacked supposedly to get weapons, was that an MVD depot or also military?

Lyndon May 18, 2005 at 3:03 am

Sharifabad, you lost me with your first sentence: “…it is obvious that the real battle is not between Karimov and the opposition – Karmimov has already pretty much lost with the Andijan upheaval.”

First, not too many things about these events are really “obvious,” except that a tragedy has occurred and at the very least (by official Uzbek admission) 169 people are dead.

Second, I have not seen anyone writing from Uzbekistan even hint that “Karimov has already…lost” as a result of these events. To the contrary, I have seen people opine that this will cause him to crack down on the opposition even more.

I don’t really know the country and the background as well as others commenting here, but I don’t think I’m the only one who is not clear on what you think Karimov has “lost.” His people’s support? Doesn’t seem to have been a major concern for him. It’s not as though he can be voted out of office. A firm grip on power? Unless there are other uprisings or unrest happening that we don’t know about, he seems to still be in control.

He has lost some standing in his relationships with the US and other Western nations, but you seem to be talking about Uzbek domestic politics, so that can’t be what you mean. I’m left scratching my head.

david May 18, 2005 at 3:15 am

Journalists who were there when the shooting broke out claimed they were internal MVD troops, which would make sense – they have APCs, but there were also reports of tanks, which I’m not sure they use. Likely it was a mixture, and I’m not sure journalists could necessarily distinguish in the chaos. Maybe someone who knows could check by the uniforms. The garrison I understood was military – there were reports of conscripts running away and hiding in town. If it was military, bit of a blow for the image of ‘reformist’ MOD minister Gulyamov.

sharifabad May 18, 2005 at 3:23 am

Matt, Uzbek society is Muslim and poor. Islamism is natural for such society. Although it is true that Uzbek’s are not as fanatically inclined such as the Arabs of Iraq or Suadi Arabia – but look at Chechniya. Supposedly a Soviet province and non-Islamist during the Soviet era. Now it breeds the most fanatic of militants and suiciders.

What you have to realize is that you only need a small percentage of people with guns and RPGs to intimidate and rule the opposition movement, and control the dialectic. Uzbekistan has such a history and is now ripe for it. There is no such thing as popular “secular” opposition in modern Islamic society. Islam is where the ideologically inclined go nowadays. Communism is dead and in Islamic society this is the only ideological game in town.

IMU and HuT have been active for a decade or more now. They have trained cadres outside and in the mountains and now will be swarming to the Fergana area to capitalize on the massacre.

It is not a coincidence that the major businessmen in Andijan are active Islamists and mixed religion with their workshops, trading companies and production units.

The security forces did the killing. But who turned it from a peaceful demonstration where people were listening to speeches for hours, to a riot that took policemen as hostage and shot and killed some soldiers and policemen? Peaceful secular opposition people just do not do such things. The part of the protesters that did this was armed and ideological. The silent majority, already facing jihadi indoctrination is now going to favor these militants who are willing to sacrifice themselves for Islam and punish the killers, over the secular opposition who are inclined towards US and Europe, but have not delivered.

I am not saying US is responsible for Andijan. I am saying US “realpolitiks” have been absent mindedly supporting Karimov and not pressing at all for reforms – and this has allowed Karimov to take it to this point that he can massacre 500 – 700 and shoot them in the back, only to create more martyrs and potential martyrs for a virulent ideology. US should have seen this happening.

Islam thrives on violence. In Iran the Islamists burnt 350 people in a locked Cinema just in order to blame it on the Shah, and it worked. Nobody questioned Islam (and ultimately Allah can only question). It swelled their ranks. Violence is not in the favor of the peaceful and the democrat.

sharifabad May 18, 2005 at 3:29 am

Excellent article by Ariel Cohen.

To avoid the political expansion of radical Islam, it is important Uzbekistan’s people have hope and that the country open to modernization. But the time left for Uzbekistan to change course may be running out. Decisive action is needed now (by the US and EU)

david May 18, 2005 at 3:51 am

I’m sorry, but its not a good article. I particularly like the sentence “Public evidence of his group’s [Akramiya] terrorist activities is sparse”. Public evidence of the Heritage Foundations’ terrorist activities is also ‘sparse’, possibly because neither heritage nor akramiya are terrorist organisations.

Cohen has long argued for a soft US line on Karimov, so I suppose he falls into the Schwartz (o sorry we got it all wrong) camp.

What exactly is an Akramiya member? Is it a highly trained radical guerilla, with a back yard full of guns and explosives? No, it is one of a group of men who get together and eat endless amounts of plov every thursday evening, and complain about how the police came round and stole stuff from their business again. One of them once read a book by some guy called yuldashev, where he said you should forget all these Arabic political utopias, and concentrate on Islam in your community life, and get together to do business in a more or less Islamic kind of way. And so they sort of discuss this guy’s ideas, in between complaining about the tax police and where you get the best rice for plov and so on. A couple of them have friends who once went to some Hizb meetings and ended up in prison. They’re not happy about that either, not least because the police keep coming round asking for bribes to get them released.

Progressive democrats, well, not really – don’t even ask about women’s rights. But if you let them get on with their business and enjoy their plov, and stop arresting their nephews on trumped up charges, everyone might just live happily ever after.

sharifabad May 18, 2005 at 3:52 am

Lyndon – I think it is pretty well accepted among most observers (see Ariel Cohen above) that Karimov is well on his way down the slippery slope of oblivion. He can only survive through violence and the more people he kills, the more potential martyrs he will recruit for the Islamists, by a factor of 10. This is a viscious circle that he cannot escape. Soon you will find his own army and police forces becoming reluctant participants. The only way to save his neck is to turn Uzbekistan into another Chechniya with direct Russian involvement. Russia does not have this stomach.

No amount of blood bath can intimidate an Islamist dogmatic movement. If necessary, the Islamists will kill their own people, like car bomb government offices, marketplaces (and blame it on the government), or attack the 10% Russian minority, if that helps their cause.

Karimov has a choice between slow attrition and ultimate death vs. instituting massive reforms and opening up society (at his own cost and the cost of his ruling clique) and allowing political participation. Even in this second case, Uzbekistan will get a soft-Islamist government – but at least the spread of militant Islamism can be checked.

Question is does the US have this heart, and can it convince the Russia and China? Putin may actually prefer to see a radical Islamic Republic, as the 10% Russians in Uzbekistan will be repressed by such a state, and this may stir up motherland Russian nationalism which will work in his favor, in the same manner that he has used Chechniya for his own ends.

sharifabad May 18, 2005 at 4:20 am

KORASUV, Uzbekistan — The leader of a group of rebels claiming to control this Uzbek border town said Wednesday that he and his supporters intend to build an Islamic state and were ready to fight if government troops attempt to crush their revolt.

“We will be building an Islamic state here in accordance with the Quran,” Bakhtiyor Rakhimov told The Associated Press while leaning down from the back of a horse.

So now we have evidence of a Taliban state in the first town liberated by the Islamists.

David, history of Islamic movements have proven such naive optimism as wrong. Look at the role of the Bazar in funding and then istalling the theocratic state in Iran. 50,000 intellectuals, students, and Kurds were thereafter massacred by these “polo eating” bazaris in 1980. Not to mention a war that killed 2 million.

Ariel Cohen is now saying US should take its gloves off and force Karimov to back off and reform. Therefore he must have changed his mind due to the Andijan event.

sharifabad May 18, 2005 at 4:39 am

David: “Progressive democrats, well, not really – don’t even ask about women’s rights. But if you let them get on with their business and enjoy their plov, and stop arresting their nephews on trumped up charges, everyone might just live happily ever after. “

It can’t be any farther away from the historical truth. During the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the Bazaris who financially supported the revolution and also supplied and organized the revolutionary youths were all rewarded by top plum governmental jobs and contracts. State enterprises were given to these people at next to none cost. They are now the richest and most influential people in Iran.

Billions of dollars is at stake here David, not to mention power, fame, and perks. The sons and son-in-laws of the top Bazaris inherited the highest levels of government and security services in Iran.

To say that the Bazaris will not fill and monopolize the political, security, and economic vacuum that will develop with the fall of Karimov is exceedingly naive and irresponsible. What you are saying is Islamist propaganda which I as a Muslim am very familiar with. It presupposes that “good and pious” people are not interested in rulership – even if they believe that Islamic government is good for their people.

Show me one person who will turn down a position of power and riches when he is offered one.

Matt W. May 18, 2005 at 4:48 am


Though David’s comments are more than adequate I just wanted to add a little more. You seem to confuse “Muslim” or “Islamic” with “Islamist”. Just to be clear, someone can be politically secular-minded, but still be a Muslim, even a fairly devout one. An Islamist is someone who advocates theocracy. Yes, society here is Muslim and poor– I think everyone here participating is aware of that and there is no need to remind anybody– this does not, however, mean that Islamism is “natural” here, and so ipso facto, any uprising is an uprising in favor of political Islam. Is Islam one of several moral lenses which people use to examine goverment actions they dislike and criticize them? Yes. Does that mean that these people are radicals for political Islam? No.


In your comment 7 on Appeals and Protest (previous thread), I think you are hasty to discount clan interests as a motivating factor. No, people didn’t go to listen to speeches about clan interests, but let’s face it, if there is an influential clan aspect to this, nobody would be speaking about the interests of narrow political clans anyway– they’d tune in to what’s really annoying people and talk about that.

There was an organized side to this just as there was a popular side to this. Someone organized the raid and prison break. Groups that would have enough of an interest to make this their focus (rather than seizing, say, the hokimiyat, which isn’t by any means guarded that well) would be 1) political clans; 2) Islamists. Due to the recent changes in Andijon local politics that I wrote about earlier, and the fact that there were a lot of very powerful losers with immediate family members and close friends in jail (this includes, but is not limited to so-called “Akramists”– see my earlier comments) and the fact that political Islam did not seem to be high on the organizers’ agenda, I’m inclined to see the clan explanation as the most likely. Protests could have been begun as a diversion or a show of power (though I’m sure the scale that they reached shocked the organizers). I think this was, first and foremost, a way to get specific people out of jail and to let the regime know that the old Andijon elite will not go quietly.

It will be interesting in coming months to see how the Obidovs are treated, what happens to Hamkorbank, and to follow a few of the other families who lost big in the last half year. If they get concessions or are repressed, this may be telling.

Lyndon May 18, 2005 at 6:29 am

Sharifabad, I don’t have time today to read up on what “most observers” are really saying, but I can tell you right away that you are not going to convince me of a general trend in the convenrional wisdom by citing Ariel Cohen in the Washington Times. As someone who has followed the political situation in Russia for years, I have read lots of Cohen’s writing. IMHO, he often seems to have reached his conclusions based on politics before examining the facts, and for that reason I find him no more credible to me than I find the Washington Times on a daily basis, which is to say, not very. I know this observation is nowhere near as substantive vis a vis the details on the ground as some of the other ones on this post, but I just wanted to make that point.

I do agree that Karimov is going to incur a big downside from what happened in Andijan in terms of his support from the US and the West, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest Russia is going to back away from their friendship with him. And although Russia almost certainly wouldn’t introduce troops, the combination of Russian support in other forms with redoubled repressive efforts on the part of Uzbek authorities would seem to be enough to keep him in power for the foreseeable future, barring further widespread unrest.

But that’s enough of my relatively uninformed comment about this – let’s hear more from people who are in-country and/or more familiar with the domestic forces involved.

david May 18, 2005 at 7:03 am

Sharifabad – you seem to have misinterpreted everything I was saying – sure there’s a real chance of Islamism gaining hold as a mobilizing force if this conflict continues, and sure bazaar traders could be a key element, which is why Karimov’s decision to clamp down on them was such a mistake. But that is very different from saying that this is an Islamist-inspired uprising, which has the aim of creating an Islamic state. All I am saying is that if the state leaves business alone, and gets on with the business of running an effective state, much of this support for Islamism will also fade.

Anyway, I sense we have an argument between people who’ve been to Uzbekistan and people who haven’t, and it is a little too broadbrush for my liking. But instead of saying its democrats versus Islamists (both categories to my mind are pretty small minorities in Uzbekistan) perhaps we shoudl be looking at the broader clan/regional structures. There has always been the rough idea of a Fergana/Tashkent axis against the so-called Samarkandis (although all these labels need to be swallowed with a cup of salt) and the Andijan events need to be put in the context of a bigger power struggle at the top among these regional clans, and also cross-clan financial groupings. The recent arrest of Tashkent mayor Rustam Shoabdurahmonov, a one-time adviser to Tashkent ‘godfather’ Timur Alimov, can be seen in this context.

So, if you like murky clan conspiracies, the Tashkent clan could use popular discontent in Fergana to reassert its position vis-a-vis the Samarkandis, and put its own figures back in power. In the parlance of the Iranian diaspora, I suppose this is liberals (er… Russian-speaking Tashkent SNB officers) joining up with Islamists (those conservative Fergana types) to topple the regime. But I just don’t think the labels fit well in the Uzbek context.

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