Officially, Russia remains supportive of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's administration, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continues to endorse Tashkent's contention that Islamic militants were responsible for the recent violence in and around Andijan. Behind the scenes, however, Russian political strategists are deeply concerned that Karimov's intransigent reliance on force is fueling instability in the Central Asian nation.
Despite Uzbek government statements that the eastern end of the Uzbek portion of the Ferghana Valley, including Andijan, has been stabilized, a confrontational mood still grips the region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Insurgents staged hit-and-run raids on security checkpoints in Andijan in the pre-dawn hours of May 17, leaving at least one Uzbek police officer wounded. There was no word on insurgent casualties. Meanwhile, security police have reportedly rounded up hundreds of Uzbeks on suspicion of involvement in the Andijan events, which left over 700 protesters dead. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Without offering proof, Karimov claims the Andijan events -- which began when armed protesters overran a local prison, setting hundreds of inmates free constituted a well-planned operation carried out by radical Islamic militants, with logistical support from international terrorist groups. Eyewitness accounts have discredited Karimov's version of events, and some foreign governments, along with international organizations and human rights groups, have reacted critically. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russia has largely accepted Karimov's explanation. However, in an interview published May 17 in the Russian newspaper Izvestiya, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to backtrack slightly. Lavrov generally concurred with Karimov's assessment, stating that the Islamic militants carried out the Andijan operation according to a "prearranged plan." At the same time, he gave Russia some wiggle-room by noting that the assertion is based on "data that has yet to be verified."
"The highly regrettable fact is that very many totally innocent people died, and the causes of why it all happened must be cleared up," Lavrov told the newspaper.
The Andijan events are deepening a dilemma for Russian foreign policy. Russian support for Karimov has strengthened over the past year or so, as the Uzbek leader distanced himself from the United States, in large part because Tashkent viewed Washington as an engine for the revolutions that have swept the CIS over the past 18 months. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For over a decade, the Kremlin has believed that Karimov's authoritarian administration offered the best guarantee for securing stability in Uzbekistan. The Andijan events have shown that those who equated the ruthlessness of the regime with its ability to maintain stability were mistaken, some political analysts contend. An increasing number of Russian policy makers, though still eager to reassert Moscow's influence in Uzbekistan, are worried that the forceful strategy pursued by Karimov is misguided, and could potentially blow up Central Asia's existing political order. The Kremlin, however, appears hesitant to change its position on Karimov.
According to a Kremlin press service report, Russian President Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with Karimov on May 14 and expressed his concern about the possibility of instability in Central Asia. Speaking on the Mayak radio on the same day, Russia's First Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Loshchinin said a hastily assembled "crisis group" had been established under Foreign Ministry auspices. He also admitted that Russia is worried about the "explosive situation" in the Ferghana Valley.
As news of the Andijan crisis broke on May 13, Russian diplomats initially noted that widespread poverty might be playing a role in the situation. "The difficult socio-economic conditions [in Uzbekistan], certain weakness of power... the Islamic factor all this combined with popular discontent over [meager] living standards make the situation so explosive," Loshchinin said in his Mayak radio interview. However, after Putin's telephone talk with Karimov, the Russian leadership's attitude changed perceptibly, with Lavrov and other top officials blaming "external extremist forces of the Taliban-type" for the Andijan events.
Political analysts believe that the Andijan crisis will eventually force the Kremlin to alter its policy toward Karimov. Russia's paramount strategic interest in Central Asia is maintaining and safeguarding stability there, and a growing number of experts see Karimov as a source of potential instability.
A major problem now confronting Russia, along with the rest of the international community, is that beyond Karimov there is no readily identifiable political force in Uzbekistan that could be counted on to maintain stability. A power vacuum in Uzbekistan could have disastrous consequences throughout Central Asia and beyond, opening the way for a dramatic increase in drug trafficking and other criminal activity, as well as potentially creating new safe havens for international terrorists groups.
During more than 15 years in power, Karimov has sought to stifle all possible political competition, while establishing a stranglehold over the country's economic life. As one commentary published in the Kommersant daily on May 16 stated: Karimov "destroyed the secular-democratic opposition and gave rise to an Islamic one. He destroyed the Islamic opposition and an economic one emerged. Having liquidated the latter, he created the opposition of regional elites."
Given that Karimov's administration has closed off virtually all outlets for the realization of political and economic ambitions, it is no wonder that regime opponents are resorting to arms, some Russian experts say. More ominous for Uzbekistan's future stability, the Andijan events show that some anti-government protesters are sufficiently desperate that they are willing to fight to the death.
Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia department at the Moscow-based CIS Institute, said Karimov has put himself in a "very difficult situation." By constantly employing forceful methods when dealing with all kinds of opposition, Grozin says in the interview with the Strana.ru web site, the Uzbek president has drastically limited his space for maneuver, and now finds himself caught up in a vicious cycle. With each violent clampdown, the regime increases the number of its opponents and at the same time "narrows the window of opportunity to influence the situation by non-violent means," Grozin argues.
Other experts say that so long as the socio-economic problems in the Ferghana Valley are not resolved, "one can only dream of the stability in Central Asia." Political analyst Dmitry Verkhoturov, writing for the APN.ru political web site, argued that Ferghana's pauperized population will continue to be a source of revolutionary unrest. "Uzbekistan possesses all the prerequisites for the revolution like the one that has already taken place in Kyrgyzstan," Verkhoturov said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russia's policy in Central Asia should be based exclusively on pragmatism, some analysts say. At the same time, they suggest that time may be running out for finding a solution to the Uzbek dilemma that preserves stability.
"Only recently it would seem that the Karimov regime was unassailable, but it turns out that this is not the case," to Aleksandr Sharavin, director of the Institute for Military and Political Analysis, wrote in commentary posted on the Politcom.ru web site. "One has to understand that Karimov can be toppled any minute."
A few observers are expressing concern that the window of opportunity for a peaceful transition in Uzbekistan already may have closed. The continuing reports of gun-battles in the vicinity of Andijan indicate that a prolonged insurgency may be starting in the Ferghana Valley. "If Central Asian [residents] finally resort to guns then they will keep on shooting for a long time," said a commentary posted on the Gazeta.ru website.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.