Yeltsin v. Karimov: Different World Responses

by Laurence on 6/1/2005 · 12 comments

In responding to the Andijan prison uprising, Karimov may have been taking a page from Boris Yeltsin’s playbook, in my opinion. Personally, I’m a Yeltsin supporter, and glad he violently crushed the Communists who wanted to restore the Soviet Union in 1993.

I am pretty sure that some those loudly condemning Karimov right now for using force in Andijon might have supported Yeltsin’s similar violent attack on Moscow’s White House. Unlike Karimov, he used even more force, even fired on the White House from tanks. But, like Karimov, he faced fanatical forces wanting to drag his country back in time to a far worse place. In 1993, Communists called the event a massacre. But Yeltsin retained support of world leaders, despite his use of violence and the many dead in the streets (unofficial estimates reached into the thousands, official numbers were much lower, as in Uzbekistan).

No Western leader called for an international investigation into the Moscow events of 1993. None demanded Yeltsin quit. In fact, President Clinton declared: “It is clear that the opposition forces started the conflict and that President Yeltsin had no alternative but to try and restore order…” You can read the whole story here:Yeltsin’s Troops Rout Rebels, Reclaim Parliament Building.

After Andijan, Karimov might have believed he would be greeted as Yeltsin, a savior of his country from forces of extremism. If so, Karimov may have miscalculated…

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Jacob June 1, 2005 at 7:05 am

I think there are two important things at play here. Firstly, people are sceptical about the suggestion that Karimov is the only alternative to the Talibanisation of Uzbekistan. Around the time of the attempted coup, the international climate was still very much dominated by cold war imperatives. Secondly, Russia went on to hold elections in 95/96 whereas the prospects for democratisation in Uzbekistan are fairly weak.

I supported Yeltsin’s use of the army to defeat the coup but I think you have to acknowledge that he was defending one thing against another (democracy and communism) whereas its not clear that Karimov is saving anything worth saving.

upyernoz June 1, 2005 at 8:47 am

it’s also not clear that karimov was facing “fanatical forces” last month that justified such a violent response.

Nathan June 1, 2005 at 8:52 am

It was much clearer what happened in Moscow in 1993 though. If Karimov would let the media in (though I know you think they’re shills) at the very least, there wouldn’t be much reason to call for an investigation. Burt Herman had a story that all but said that the high death tolls given out by activists, opposition politicians, and the like were BS. He’s probably right, but it’s hard for someone like me to convince people of this when it’s so damned hard for others to go in and duplicate that reporting. On this and a number of other points, it’s rather hard to filter out the accurate information because the government wants no information out.

david_walther June 1, 2005 at 11:34 am

I don’t know how you can possibly compare lateral coup attempt (1993 was lead by members of the government, you’ll recall) that got put down (and was a real threat to the existence of the government and the welfare of the people) with firing on unarmed demonstrators!

Listen, I know we all have our political sides and our political stake in this (though I am still trying hard to figure out what the hell it is for some of you, you’re personal stake in this i mean) but comparing firing on unarmed demonstrators with high calibre machine guns from armored vehicles and putting down a genuine political coup is disgusting.

You know, I realize it’s not very fair to say this, and a little bit childish, but Laurence, if you love Islam Karimov and his policies so much, why don’t you come here and live in his country?? Your continual defense of this bloody tyrant who is hated by most of his people just struck me as being a little strange and naive before Andijon, but now it’s frankly becoming macabre and a little disgusting for me. I know that you have a right to your own opinion, and you also have a right to say what you like, but I can’t find the difference between the stuff that you write and G.B. Shaw’s brilliant and eloquent and bullshit defense of Stalin in the 1930s.

Obviously there are a lot of people in the world, who for political or ideological reasons, will overlook really bad, even evil and murderous things that a dictator does because as you keep saying, “he’s the best alternative we have.”

But the thing is, this is not a paper argument–it’s not an intellectual debate. Most of you on this site are parading around your fantastically learned opinions about a country on the other side of the world, where you don’t live, where you were not born, and in whose fate you have absolutely no personal stake (and though I do live here, before very long I will be in the same position you are, so I am not exempting myself from this criticism).

Isn’t anybody else even a little bit disturbed by all this bullshit ideological arguing over the dead and rotting corpses of real people??
You can make Uzbekistan and the rest of the Central Asia into anything you want at all, and then find articles on the internet that support that opinion and make you (we) feel smarter. And if you don’t live here, you can think whatever the fuck you want about this country and what goes on here, because you don’t have to confront the REAL uzbekistan with the real facs, the real people, the real economy, and the real dead people, the real people rotting in jails, the real people who can’t ever say what they really think, read real news, or have meaningful contact with the outside world.

Frankly I apply this same logic to myself—what the fuck does it matter what I think or what I say? It doesn’t change anyone’s life here–I certainly hope that the work I do here does make an impact, and can be confident that at least in a very small way it has (I do humanitarian aid work with orphans).

Anyway, I guess I’m just suggesting that we all remember that this is not play, it’s not university debate club anymore. This is very real, and some people are paying for their opinions about these issues with their lives.

This site as a whole is fantastic because it was the best hub in the English speaking world (and continues to be) for collecting news about events that are not covered adequately by the media. I am really honored to get to participate in this forum, but I also think we owe it to the people of Uzbekistan whom we all claim to care so much about to stick close to the facts as best as we can find them…

I apoligize if I’m stepping on people’s toes here, we all just got informed by our embassy here that some of us are likely going to pay with our lives as well just for being here in the near future… see a post I hope Nathan adds later.

There is nothing concrete yet, but I get the impression Peace Corps is getting pulled out and some of the embassy personnel are leaving as well.

Jacob June 1, 2005 at 11:38 am

need i have a personal stake in this ?

Nathan June 1, 2005 at 12:13 pm

David, I think that you, Laurence, and I do have a personal stake in things. Not as much as Uzbek citizens, but I know all three of us have a bond with the country.

All things considered, I’m not terribly interested in seeing Karimov go. And not just because it makes sense on paper, but because, in my experience, plenty of Uzbeks, even though they loathe the man, aren’t particularly interested in seeing that happen right now. That aside, we’ve got a pretty crappy hand in Uzbekistan, and the best we can do is just play it.

Personally, I don’t think the country’s anywhere near as bad as is reported. I also don’t think things are going anywhere as swimmingly as Laurence suggests.

david_walther June 1, 2005 at 2:22 pm

I don’t discount that many of us may have an emotional tie with Uzbekistan, and perhaps a deep one–when I say “stake,” I mean it it in the gambling sense. What happens here might effect you and I and L and all the rest of us emotionally or “personally” but we can always leave, or have already left.

It’s a tremoundous irony, I think, and a not insignificant tragedy, that we are the ones who CAN talk about this… we are a degree, or three, or five removed from all of it. The people who all of this really effects are cut off from the discussion… I think that’s what makes me feel awkward a little bit about all this.

As regimes go, please don’t read me as an interventionist. I think, as I think we are supposed to think as Americans, judging by our Declaration of Independence, that countries generally ought to sort out their own affairs, and rule themselves. I don’t think that we have a “hand to play” here at all, whether it’s you and I personally or the US government in general.

I agree with you that a lot of people don’t really care if Karimov goes or stays–they don’t give a fuck who actually runs their country, most I think because it’s never even occured to them that they could give a fuck. They’ve never known anything but dictators, I mean, literally never. We know the history. But I do think that many of them care very much about HOW he runs the country, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a majority of Uzbeks in any city here who were very happy about that detail.

The thing is, the reason we are “stuck” with Karimov is that he has destroyed and oppressed all possble alternatives to himself–except for the vultures waiting in the wings in his own clan or in his rival clan looking for a weakness. Regime change is very theoretical, and the truth is that we couldn’t effect it no matter how much we wanted to. Let me make it clear that I don’t think Uzbeks ought to go out in the streets and fight the police–but I think all of us owe it to these people who we have this bond with, this stake with, to do whatever we can (which for most of us consists at this point of writing on a website or sharing information) to support their freedom—their freedom of speech, their freedom of religion, their freedom to property, their freedom of movement… all the things that we (well, those of you back in the US) have and take for granted.

What we absolutely should not do, I think, is stand by and watch them have their rights that we care so much about for ourselves trampled all over in the name of “regional security” or
“stability” or whatever the hell else. What I really would like to see here (and I think with a few exceptions it is the general rule) is for all of us to put our politics aside and act, or write, or argue, or whatever, for the actual benefit of the people living here.

I know that all sounds hopelessly idealistic, but I guess I’m a hopeless idealist.

jonathan p June 1, 2005 at 3:38 pm

Kudos to david for reading many of my thoughts. How’d he do that?

Lyndon June 1, 2005 at 4:02 pm

I don’t really have an opinion on the original post. I generally agree that it’s a comparison so academic (for several reasons) as to be of little use in helping us formulate a practical policy response to the current situation. The US also for some time supported Yeltsin’s policy in Chechnya during the First Chechen War – was that the right thing to do? Does considering that it have any relevance to a discussion of what to do after the Andijan events? Perhaps in a Washington think tank, but in reality, likely not.

David, thanks for your comments on behalf of idealism. We need more of that – if idealism is not the guiding light of our foreign policy, and it’s replaced by unconcealed cynicism, self-interest, and double standards, America will slowly but surely lose its ability to lead by example (which is much more powerful than our ability to lead by force). Some might say that’s already happening.

Mark Hamm June 1, 2005 at 11:08 pm

“But, like Karimov, he faced fanatical forces wanting to drag his country back in time to a far worse place”

I’m not sure this statement is true, unless the protesters were fundamentalist.

Your last statement is intriguing though. Karimov very much may have miscalculated world response.

Lyndon June 2, 2005 at 5:51 am

Maybe there’s a better comparison to be made – between the Andijan news blackout and the Russian government’s current (and long-standing) record of mistreatment of people trying to cover the situation in Chechnya. From the Moscow Times today (

Polish Journalists Held by FSB in Ingushetia
Thursday, June 2, 2005. Issue 3179. Page 2.

By Judith Ingram
The Associated Press

Federal Security Service agents detained three Polish journalists for 14 hours in Ingushetia and confiscated 18 videocassettes with footage they had shot in the region, the Polish Embassy said Wednesday.

Tomasz Klimanski, the Polish consul general, said all three journalists had valid visas and accreditation from the Foreign Ministry. When they asked when their videos would be returned, the security agents told them “in due time,” Klimanski said.

The Federal Security Service branch in Ingushetia declined to comment.

Mariusz Pilis, a journalist with state-run Polish television, said he and two colleagues were taken Sunday evening from a hotel in Nazran, the main city in Ingushetia. They were preparing to travel to Grozny to interview Moscow-backed Chechen President Alu Alkhanov and other senior Chechen officials.

“Four or five militia members took us to police in Nazran and then split us up and wanted to hear our version of what was happening. We didn’t know why we were arrested, and they wouldn’t tell us anything,” Pilis said by telephone from Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, which borders on Ingushetia. “They took our equipment, film, private letters, photographs, notebooks with telephone numbers — just everything.”

“After those 14 hours of investigation, we were informed that we were arrested because our visas and accreditation cards are no longer valid,” he said. “That was the official reason, but not the real reason because our accreditation cards and visas are still valid for several more weeks.”

Pilis is the director of a planned documentary on Chechnya, which he says depicts the suffering in the region. He was detained along with a soundman and cameraman.

“We’ve been in Chechnya a few times before, and we filmed things as we saw them, and of course this was critical because of the things going on there,” he said.

The documentary would eventually air on TVP1, the main channel in Poland’s state-run television network.

After the three journalists were freed, they were returned to their hotel but prevented from leaving by armed security agents for several hours, Pilis said.

“After a few hours, they came with equipment and our cards but didn’t return the films,” Pilis said. “They advised us to leave Ingushetia and not come back anymore because if we stayed one more night we would have great problems.” […]

Matt W. June 3, 2005 at 3:13 am

On the original post:

1) I’m not sure anyone here is condemning Karimov for using force in Andijon. He is being condemned for using EXCESSIVE and INDISCRIMINATE force. Proportionally, he responded with more force than Yeltsin (who was facing a TOTALLY different kind of uprising, and did not immediately resort to excessive force; he also made a rather successful effort to separate combatants from non-combatants before engaging). Also, it’s pretty well-established that APCs and heavy machine guns were used, which I’m not sure have a worse kill ratio when firing into a crowd than the Yeltsin’s 1993 tanks. Yeltsin acted with relative caution over almost a week. Government figures, while not completely credible, were open to public scrutiny and therefore more credible than Karimov’s, were that 187 had been killed and 437 wounded. So Lawrence’s assertion that “Yeltsin used even more force” seems unfounded at least.

It’s also fairly clear that more shooting was done than had to be. The events of early last year in Tashkent show that the Uzbek armed forces have units and procedures that can deal with a small armed uprising by isolating the most violent participants and engaging in combat with them (little reliable information is available on the events around TTZ early last year, but it clearly wasn’t a massacre of civilians– it appears to have been a gun battle that was as cordoned-off as possible in the middle of a large city). They didn’t even try to use these tactics in Andijon.

2) Yeltsin in 1993 was a more clear-cut armed rebels vs. government situation. Yes, there were lightly armed crowds that clashed (those who moved on mass media outlets come to mind), but the real famous and prominent violence was reserved for the core of rebels under siege in the White House, who were armed and were under siege for a few days. People who were in the line of fire in Moscow in 1993, by and large, knew they were at risk of being shot at– in Uzbekistan, these were mostly onlookers. The house I used to live in on Prospect Navoi was riddled with bullets. As far as I know, Yeltsin troops weren’t firing into residential areas. Karimov’s message was clear– that the rebels were to be put down immediately at any cost. This was a display of brutality and was intended to be just that.

3) For my perferred, though also imperfect analogy, I reach a little farther back — I think the Amritsar Massacre and events leading up to it is a better reference point than Yeltsin in 1993. There were some violent actions against an illegitimate government, but the government’s response was extreme, indiscriminate and directed mostly at unarmed civilians who had nothing to do with the violent activities that elicited the government’s response. There was no attempt to isolate violent perpetrators– just a brutal message to the population as a whole that ALL will be punished.

4) The news blackout is the other major difference with the 1993 Russia events. Yeltsin had nothing like this (even in the first Chechen war, coverage of Chechnya in Russia remained relatively free), which is a large part of the reason why I’m a fan of his. He was open about it: “Here is a crisis, this is how I’m dealing with it”.

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