A winter of discontent in Uzbekistan is giving way to a spring of uncertainty.
Along with neighboring states in Central Asia, Uzbekistan was battered by fierce winter weather for the better part of three months, featuring temperatures as low as minus-20 Celsius. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Deep Freeze has now given way to the Big Drench, as uncharacteristically heavy rains have pelted the country, and are forecast to continue for up to two weeks. Many Uzbeks are now worried about the possibility of severe flooding.
The harsh weather provided a jolt that the country's decrepit infrastructure could not easily absorb: perhaps millions of Uzbeks shivered this winter because of a lack of heating. The shortages were not caused by an energy crunch, as Uzbekistan devotes about 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas out of its annual production of 62 bcm for domestic consumption. Worn-out pipes frequently malfunctioned under the cold conditions. As a result, electricity consumption skyrocketed, putting enormous pressure on the county's outdated electricity grid, with some areas reporting multiple blackouts and brownouts. All portions of the country felt the shortages of heating and electricity, but conditions were especially dire in rural areas.
The first sign of open public anger appeared on January 16 in the city of Ferghana, located in the heart of the Ferghana Valley, Uzbekistan's breadbasket, as well as the center of radical religious sentiment. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For three consecutive days, about 300 residents demonstrated in front of the city's municipal building, venting their frustration over interruptions in gas and electricity supplies.
Later in January, a protest erupted in the town of Khojeili, a transportation hub in the western Karakalpak Autonomous Republic, and in the Zafarabad District of Jizakh Province. As part of their protest, Khojeili residents blocked the main road linking the cities of Nukus and Kungrad, lifting their barricade only after local authorities took action to ensure the delivery of electricity and gas. In addition, reports have circulated about smaller-scale demonstrations in various locales.
"In a situation where basic needs are unmet, people have little to lose and are willing to take their anger at government," said an Uzbek resident who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity.
Most of the protesters were women, according to local observers, who added that the demonstrations were organized locally and showed no signs of being part of a coordinated campaign against the government. Even so, the protests underscore the tenuous social balance that exists in Uzbekistan. Officials have long relied on repression to contain various threats to the administration's authority, most notably Islamic radicalism. But Karimov's focus on security has caused the economy to suffer, and now developments may have reached a point where a significant portion of the population is willing to speak out.
In confronting demonstrators, the government eschewed shows of force. It helped that the recent protests, unlike previous political demonstrations, were narrowly focused on local social and economic problems, and did not contain any direct challenges to central authorities in Tashkent.
Rather than encourage decisive government action against protesters, Karimov and his lieutenants pursued a more populist course. On February 2, for example, Karimov fired Adiljan Allayarov, the mayor of Ferghana. Some observers suggested that Allayarov's removal was directly linked to his failure to resolve energy emergency in the city, and was therefore an act intended to send a message to the political bosses of other cities and provinces.
Karimov's desire to beef up popular support and his foreign policy objectives may also be part of a lax treatment of protests. Following his controversial re-election as president on December 23, Karimov announced an intention to boost economic standards. He also took action to improve Uzbekistan's tattered international image, abolishing the death penalty and announcing an amnesty of human rights activists.
The reluctance to resort to force should not be interpreted as a sign of the administration's weakness at least over the near term. At present, Karimov remains firmly in control of the levers of power. However, his new-found restraint perhaps demonstrates awareness that he has to try something other than merely tightening the screws on society, in order to keep the lid on simmering frustration.
Karimov may now be casting about to find the right balance of preventative measures to keep popular protests from ever posing a genuine threat to his authority. As long as protests remain random and disjointed, his administration has little to fear, observers say. But he might quickly find himself in serious trouble, if those angry with his policies were to ever coordinate their actions.
"The lack of organized opposition, [and] the inability of the protesters to forge a cohesive protest plan, backed by a clearly articulated alternative vision for the country's future development, means that the protests stand little chance of attracting broad nationwide support," according to an exiled Uzbek opposition activist who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity,
As underscored by the government's professed interest in economic development, keeping discontent from achieving a critical mass is now Karimov's top priority. The problem is that the harsh winter has made the government's task more difficult. Unless immediate and extensive action is taken to shore up the country's energy and electricity distribution networks, another winter like the one now fading could provide the spark that ignites widespread unrest. Over the immediate term, the government will face other stern challenges, especially containing rising prices for essential foodstuffs.
Karimov seems to feel strongly that US and EU diplomatic support would serve as a counterbalance to building pressure from Russia and China, thus enabling him to retain room for maneuver in the Central Asia's geopolitical contest. Thus, he is apparently probing for a rapprochement with the United States and EU. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Relations with both Washington and Brussels have languished since the Andijan events in May 2005, as Karimov felt comfortable in relying on Russia for security assistance.
But Karimov appears to realize that he will need more than what the Kremlin can offer if he wishes to remain in his comfort zone. Russia, though indisputably expert in the use of coercive measures to contain popular discontent, is logistically incapable of providing the kinds of development assistance and political support that, under the present circumstances, could create safety valves that can prevent a social explosion in Uzbekistan.
Alisher Khamidov Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.