Wed, May 18, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Uzbekistan leadership running out of options

By Christopher Boian  /  AFP , MOSCOW

The leaders of the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan have few palatable options that will enable them both to calm unrest fueled by economics and radical Islam and retain political control, experts said.

Social discontent and anti-government protests have been spreading below the media radar for the past two years, while entrenched government corruption, economic mismanagement and a one-track response of force to suppress political and economic opposition are beyond correction, they added.

It's a problem, too, for both Moscow and Washington, which have backed the Uzbek regime.

"This government is in a dead-end of its own making," said David Lewis, an analyst for Central Asia working in Bishkek for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention organization.

"It is really hard to see an optimistic outcome here," he said, adding that even a last-ditch attempt to implement economic freedoms that have been stymied for years could spin out of control, undermining the leadership's hold on power as it did in the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

"My money would be on a widening of the protests to different parts of the country. And when you get a large amount of people on the streets, the default option of the government is going to be repression. They do not have many other mechanisms in their repertoire," Lewis said.

Anti-government sentiment, rooted in economics and social justice concerns but focused by a politically-engaged, contemporary strand of the Islamic faith, presents a challenge not just to President Islam Karimov but also to the US and Russia, both present in the country.

The US got the nod both from Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001 to open an air base in Uzbekistan for operations to remove the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

And Washington, keen to keep the military foothold in the turbulent Central Asian region that it acquired then, has backed the hardline Karimov regime and in large measure turned a blind eye to documented, sweeping and extreme abuses of human rights in the former Soviet republic.

"The United States is going to face some very difficult choices," Lewis said. "So far, US statements have been very cautious. But when people start seeing on television the crackdowns by security forces trained by the United States, the pressure to break with Karimov will be high."

Moscow, also unstinting in its support of Karimov and fearful of a spread of Islamic militancy on its borders along with a surge of refugees from Central Asia into Russia, will also be compelled to reassess its Uzbekistan policy as the unrest there gains in strength.

"In Uzbekistan's part of the Ferghana Valley, there is a concentration of extreme poverty, even hunger, and a strong Islamic tradition which has recently turned aggressive," said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Economic decline, unemployment, deep corruption, a general feeling of powerlessness to affect change and the strengthening of underground religious movements after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union are all objective factors that have combined to strengthen radical Islam, he said.

"Karimov ... provoked these people," Malashenko said. "He arrested not only the Islamist leaders, but their wives. No one likes this. Karimov is guilty."

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