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Uzbeks Remember 2005 Protest Deaths

  • Peter Fedynsky

Shamil Sultanov, Vitaliy Ponomarev, Arkadiy Dubnov at Independent Press Center in Moscow

Shamil Sultanov, Vitaliy Ponomarev, Arkadiy Dubnov at Independent Press Center in Moscow

Thursday, May 13, marks five years since authorities in Uzbekistan killed hundreds of anti-government protesters in the city of Andijan. That day has come be known as the "Andijan Massacre."

The exact number of victims is still not known five years later.

The Uzbek government says 187 people died, mostly terrorists or their victims. Independent assessments put the death toll in the many hundreds who died when government forces randomly opened fire at anti-government protesters.

A panel of Central Asia experts in Moscow marked the tragedy on the eve of the anniversary, presenting a complex weave of factors that could erupt in more unrest in the region.

Central Asian programs director at Russia's Memorial human-rights organization, Vitaliy Ponomarev, says Uzbek judicial secrecy and the absence of an international investigation not only make it difficult to establish a figure, but also to relieve the pressures he says sparked Andijan in the first place.

The repressive policies of Uzbek President Islam Karimov are among the main sources of destabilization in Uzbekistan and throughout the region, said Ponomarev. He said such policies drive thousands of people into the underground or force individuals to flee abroad. And in some cases, adds Ponomarev, people join radical groups, because they have no other way to protest.

Vremya Novosty newspaper Central Asia analyst Arkadiy Dubnov believes Andijan is partly the result of leaders who lost touch with the people, a problem he says exists throughout Central Asia. The Uzbek leadership has lost understanding of how the outside world is organized, how things abroad work politically, and what is most frightening, Dubnov said, is they have lost understanding of what is going on in their own countries.

Shamil Sultanov, president of the Russia-Islamic World Research Center, says this lack of understanding risks collision with three other factors. The first, a potential power struggle in Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev will soon turn 70, and Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov is 72.

The second is the growing influence of Islam, which could struggle for supremacy with a third factor, which Sultanov describes as a narco-system that corrupts officials throughout Central Asia and Russia.
Sultanov says this narco-system has everything: leadership, elite international connections, its own armed forces, instructors, and agents, just like a normal state.

Sultanov points out that ruling Central Asian elites do not know how to modernize their societies, relying instead on slogans from decades ago in order to maintain power as long as possible. Western organizations are also at a loss how to deal with such problems as overpopulation and water shortages that plague parts the region, said Sultanov.

These analysts say the West is adding to regional pressures by ignoring its own ideals of democracy and human rights to curry favor with local dictators; Europe for the sake of energy, and the United States to gain logistical support for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

In 2005, Washington condemned the Uzbek government's handling of the Andijan uprising. In response, the Karimov regime closed an American base in Uzbekistan used to supply U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Similar charges were recently leveled by the opposition in Kyrgyzstan regarding the U.S. military transport center in Bishkek.
Vitaliy Ponomarev accuses America of lowering its standards after 2005. Along with fluctuations in U.S. policy, he said there has been a certain consistency over the past five years. He says America lowered its human-rights standards and closed its eyes on many things in the region that would have prompted a more decisive reaction if abuses had occurred in Ukraine, Belarus or Azerbaijan.

The Andijan Massacre occurred after hundreds of people gathered by a local court on May 12, 2005 to demand the release of 23 popular businessmen accused of Islamic extremism. Their supporters say the charges were trumped up. Overnight, a group of armed men freed the businessmen along with hundred of inmates from a local prison. On May 13, thousands of people converged on the city to support the uprising, which was put down by deadly force.

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