Will the Revolutions in the Middle East Have an Impact on Uzbekistan?
Will the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen have any impact on Central Asia? Generally, the short answer from analysts has been "no" because the histories and current situations are too different. While the Middle Eastern countries have the same kind of strong men practicing the same kind of torture and corruption as the Karimov regime and other dictatorships in Central Asia, civil society is more advanced in some areas in the Middle East and people have also had more access to alternative media, mainly through the Qatar-owned television company Al-Jazeera, and social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Even so, human rights activists and journalists in Uzbekistan -- those who have managed to stay out of jail -- as well as many ordinary people have been avidly following what news they can glean of events in Egypt this week, mindful of some powerful parallels: crowds in Cairo are demanding the immediate resignation of Hosni Mubarak, 82, who has been in power in Egypt for 30 years; and while not able to gather unafraid on public squares since troops massacred hundreds of demonstrators in Andijan in 2005, similarly, many Uzbeks would like to see Islam Karimov, 73, in power for more than 22 years, also step down.
Like Mubarak, Karimov tells Westerners concerned about Islamic fundamentalism and the spread of the Taliban from Afghanistan that only his brutal but secular rule can stem the tide of militants. His invocation of terrorist attacks in his own country -- incidents about which little is known and which have entailed jailing hundreds of people in closed trials without due process -- has been a persuasive tactic in regaining support from the U.S. and European Union after ties were broken over Andijan. Meanwhile, as more and more people see their relatives jailed and tortured for religious devotion or human rights activity, they are increasingly angered at the government.
Very mindful of the parallels, Uzbek state media has suppressed any news of the events in the Middle East and has carried no footage or commentary about the marches of hundreds of thousands of people in Cairo this week, the independent website uznews.net reported. A few state publications that have covered the events have carried only brief news stories and commentary accentuating the danger of a resurgence of radical Islamists. The state newspaper Novosti Uzbekistan ran articles headlined "In Jordan, Radical Islamists Coming to Power" and "Cairo: Brutal Control Over Radicals," uznews.net reported.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik, and the BBC's Uzbek Service provide independent programming to try to break through the Uzbek government's news blackout.
On January 28, Radio Ozodlik aired a discussion with several Uzbek observers regarding the liklihood of demonstrations such as have occurred in Tunis and Cairo ever happening again in Uzbekistan. Shahid Yakub, special correspondent on the Middle East for the BBC, said like Mubarak, Karimov has been many years in power, and like the Egyptian ruler, has authorized the broad use of torture. Tashpulat Yuldashev, a former diplomat, said that while Uzbek and Egypt are similar in their oppressive tactics, there are differences in the societies. In his view, the socio-economic status in Egypt is higher than in Uzbekistan and Mubarak, despite his iron rule, has permitted more economic freedom; tourism has become very developed and that has helped improve some people's income. Yuldashev believes that Mubarak's rule is not as harsh as Karimov's, and that Uzbekistan should be compared to North Korea or Burma rather than Egypt.
Shamsiddin Atamatov, leader of a group called Andijan Justice and Development, who has been forced into exile, saw a direct correlation between the events now on Tahrir Square in Cairo and on Babur Square on May 13, 2005 in Andijan in the Ferghana Valley. He perceives Karimov as more brutal than Mubarak, noting that the Uzbek leader ordered troops to fire the first day on everyone, including men, women, older people and children, and Mubarak has not done this, having troops mainly use tear gas. (At least five demonstrators were killed this week, although it was not clear whether government troops or pro-government forces were responsible.)
The independent Uzbek sociologist Bahadyr Musayev said that while the nature of the two tyrants was similar, people's mindsets in the two countries were different; he did not believe that Uzbeks would go out on the streets, as fear had overtaken people and their spirits had been broken. Those who might still promote freedom had all been forced abroad or jailed and those who remained were intimidated, he said. Atamanov objected to Musayev's gloomy depiction of the Uzbek people and said he believed people would still resist tyranny.
Joshua Keating has rounded up a list of "America's Other Most Embarrassing Allies," and included Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov on the list (although unfortunately, not Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov).
In November 2010, Centcom commander Gen. James Mattis visited Uzbekistan to sign a security cooperation pact, including military training, and last week President Karimov travelled to Brussels to meet with NATO and EU leaders who appreciate his country's role as a central hub in the Northern Distribution Network supplying troops in Afghanistan.
While the Uzbek people may not be ready to rise up again yet, the West's growing collaboration with a government widely hated for corruption and oppression will likely be remembered when they do.