Fifteen years have elapsed since the worst bout of bloodletting that Uzbekistan has seen in its post-independence history, but still the authorities, even under the rule of self-styled reformer President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, appear uninterested in pursuing a thorough and transparent investigation.
The uprising in the ancient Ferghana Valley bazaar city of Andijan which began on May 13, 2005, came on the heels of a wave of arrests of local businessmen tied to another one by their strong Islamic faith.
The thousands that took their positions on the city’s Bobur Square were almost all unarmed citizens, although they also included some gunmen who had been sprung overnight from the local prison. After days of tension, then President Islam Karimov’s government sent in heavily armed troops, who indiscriminately opened fire on the crowd.
There is no consensus on the exact number of fatalities as the authorities swiftly squelched any pleas to conduct an independent investigation. The official figure is 187 dead. Rights activists believe the real figure is many times greater.
“Although the current political elite in Tashkent does not openly talk about this, the disastrous economic situation and political consequences brought on by the Andijan massacre and its aftermath in large part contributed to President Mirziyoyev’s determination to break with the Karimov legacy and begin certain reforms,” said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and Central Asia expert.
There was a slight shift in the official tone earlier this year when Deputy Prosecutor General Svetlana Artykova gave an interview to a local outlet, Qalampir.uz, in which she appeared to concede that excessive force was deployed. The remarks made by Artykova, who was the spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office in May 2005, could only have been made with approval from above.
When asked if weapons were used by government forces against civilians, Artykova answered that there had been no clear coordination between troops and the national leadership and that this was why “a certain number of citizens died during the rally.”
Some officials found responsible for unlawful killing were convicted and some were already out of prison, Artykova claimed. This was the first time any Uzbek official has alleged that any officials were imprisoned for their involvement in the Andijan events.
The idea that government troops would have acted with such force upon their own initiative defies credibility, however.
Indeed, documentaries produced for state television since Mirziyoyev came to power have sought to whitewash the actions of senior security officials, including then Interior Minister Zokir Almatov. After the Andijan events, Almatov was included on a list of Uzbek officials sanctioned by the European Union and the United States. Under international pressure, Karimov finally caved and dismissed Almatov.
In the wake of Andijan, the repression of devout Muslims, whose presence was especially pronounced in the Ferghana Valley, only escalated. Many rights activists were also hounded out of Uzbekistan. Numerous international organizations were forced to shutter.
Although there have been many improvements in those areas, Kamoliddin Rabimov, a political émigré residing in France, believes the Mirziyoyev administration is unlikely to wish to revisit what happened in May 2005.
“For the political elite, especially for the security forces, any such step would be considered a source of destabilization. And for the public, the issue of the Andijan tragedy has been, and remains to be, a very sensitive, painful matter,” Rabimov said.
Ravshan Nazarov, a historian in Tashkent, told Eurasianet that there continues to be a split in perceptions about what actually happened in Andijan. Many hold the opinion that the uprising was the entirely the work of extremists and terrorists – a view that has been eagerly promoted by state-funded action movies, at least one of which is shown as in-trip entertainment on trains running between Tashkent and Andijan. Another camp recalls the events as just another instance of cruel suppression of a peaceful demonstration.
It is this polarized set of perceptions that makes a proper study of the uprising so necessary, said Nazarov
“A serious and thorough analysis of all available materials and documents on the events of 2005 remains to be done. It is necessary to talk directly with participants and witnesses of those events,” he told Eurasianet.
Such a process would in any event only be in keeping with Uzbekistan’s pledges to bodies like the UN Human Rights Committee and Committee Against Torture to enable an impartial and international investigation.
There is more at stake than just fresh insight into a specific set of events.
“Truth-telling and public discussion about the Andijan massacre are deeply important 15 years after the events,” said Swerdlow. “Andijan in many ways was the defining event of the Karimov era. It is necessary to comprehend and study it in an open format for national healing. Understanding the painful history of Andijan will ultimately help Uzbekistan make a transition to a more open and democratic society.”