Uzbek President Islam Karimov's removal of Andijon Governor Saydullo Begaliev on October 13 was not an unusual event. Karimov has frequently swept into Uzbekistan's provinces to sack governors for sins ranging from corruption to nepotism to incompetence.
But this is Andijon, where unrest and bloodshed in May 2005 -- when Begaliev was governor -- shocked the world. More importantly, Karimov's reasons for removing Begaliev pointed to the first significant adjustment in Uzbekistan's official position on Andijon since the events occurred.
In the full text of Karimov's remarks -- which appeared on the UzA official news agency website on October 14 -- the president reiterated the familiar official position that the unrest in Andijon was organized by international extremist groups supported and financed from outside the country with the aim of destabilizing constitutional rule and creating a caliphate.
Moving The Blame
But for the first time since the Andijon events, the Uzbek president also acknowledged in the address -- which was given in Andijon to regional officials and community leaders on October 13 -- that poor economic conditions in the region and popular resentment played a role.
Karimov accused local authorities -- first and foremost Andijon Governor Saydullo Begaliev -- of neglecting the population's grievances and failing to resolve mounting socioeconomic problems.
"Who is responsible for taking into account resentments stemming from daily hardships, for solving problems and, if not capable of doing so, for reporting these problems to the central government?" Karimov asked.
The president charged that Begaliev's cronies in the local government mishandled social and economic policy and misused finances allocated from the federal budget to enrich themselves, thus "giving a tool to the enemies" of the Uzbek government's policies. Karimov noted, "Begaliev demonstrated an inability to improve the current situation, promote entrepreneurship, and protect business people from various forms of harassment."
Karimov also acknowledged that young people in the region lack opportunities to develop and succeed, concluding that this has negatively affected their morale and pushed some of them to join various groups such as Akramiya and Hizb ut-Tahrir. "An analysis of the Andijon events demonstrates that the majority of those who took part in the criminal acts are inexperienced, confused young people," Karimov said.
Weak Social Conditions
Karimov's statement indicated a significant shift in the official interpretation of the Andijon events, which were dubbed a massacre in reports by such rights organizations as Human Rights Watch, which claim that hundreds of people -- most of them unarmed protesters -- were slaughtered by government troops. The government says that less than 200 people died and that they were all armed insurgents or security forces.
But in his speech, Karimov indirectly acknowledged for the first time what outside observers had long ago pinpointed as the main causes of the unrest; namely, poor socioeconomic conditions in the region.
Karimov's address suggested that local authorities in Andijon could face consequences if the official version begins to stress rampant corruption and high unemployment as the causes. Interestingly, a report by ferghana.ru on October 10 -- only days before the removal of the current Andijon governor -- indicated that Qobiljon Obidov, the province's former governor, now faces charges of organizing the Andijon violence.
Obidov was removed a year before the violence in Andijon. The events of May 13, 2005 were triggered by the trial of a group of local businessmen whom the Uzbek government had charged with membership in an "extremist" religious organization called Akramiya. The entrepreneurs rejected the charges and said that their only goal was to do business in accordance with Islamic law.
Some accounts suggested that the businessmen fell afoul of the authorities after the province came under new leadership that failed to respect old business arrangements. If the report about the charges against Obidov is confirmed, it could provide further evidence of official Uzbek attention to the socioeconomic component in the Andijon unrest.
The timing of Karimov's speech does not appear to have been random: this month the EU will consider the issue of sanctions against the Tashkent government. In October 2005 the EU levied sanctions against the Uzbek government, including an arms embargo and travel ban for 12 high-ranking Uzbek officials.
Enough To Resume Ties?
Western nations and international organizations have demanded that Tashkent allow an international investigation of the Andijon events. Thus far, the Uzbek government has shrugged off those requests. By acknowledging the socioeconomic causes of the Andijon unrest and naming officials allegedly responsible for them, Karimov may have demonstrated some willingness to launch an investigation that would focus on official wrongdoing at the local level.
A number of events in recent months suggest that Karimov is willing to mend some fences with the West, a desire that appears to be mutual.
In August, high-ranking U.S., Japanese, and EU delegations visited Tashkent and held talks with the Uzbek government. On August 9, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher met with Karimov and newly appointed Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov. Speaking to journalists in Tashkent, Boucher acknowledged differences over the Andijon events but emphasized the common interests that the United States and Uzbekistan share in promoting security in the region. Boucher noted that the U.S. government is considering options aimed at developing new foundations for cooperation with Uzbekistan.
Boucher's visit was followed by then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's talks in Tashkent in late August. Koizumi stated that Japan could assist the Uzbek government in improving ties with the United States and the EU. Koizumi's trip to Tashkent coincided with a visit by an EU delegation led by Finnish Foreign Ministry official Antti Turunen. An unnamed EU diplomat told ferghana.ru on September 2 that the visit was a response to signals from Tashkent that it is willing to try and restore relations with the European Union.
With a Western renewal of full-fledged relations with Tashkent premised on an independent investigation of the Andijon events, Karimov's latest statements may indicate a softening of Tashkent's stance on the issue.
And Karimov may even be willing to sacrifice some officials at the local level -- such as the Andijon governor and regional law enforcement authorities -- by holding them responsible for mishandling the situation in Andijon. Nevertheless, the root causes of the unrest are unlikely to change in the absence of political and economic reforms that go deeper than the removal and replacement of officials.