One year since deadly unrest gripped the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan, the government still blames the violence on Islamic extremists. But most Western experts say that's how the regime justifies its ongoing political repression.
Relations between Uzbekistan and the United States have declined significantly since last year when hundreds of protesters reportedly were killed by government forces in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan.
After repeated demands by the United States and the European Union for an independent investigation into the incident, the Uzbek government last year evicted U.S. forces from an Uzbek military base near the Afghan border and closed several American non-governmental organizations.
While the Uzbek government blames Islamic extremists for the unrest in Andijan and puts the number of dead at less than 200, many human rights organizations and journalists say government troops fired on thousands of unarmed, secular demonstrators in the city's main square.
May 13th will be one year since the incident, which began when armed men stormed a prison and freed local businessmen who were accused of belonging to an Islamic extremist group.
But according to journalist Marcus Bensmann with the Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung who was in Andijan at the time, the demonstration overall lacked religious overtones. "What I saw in Andijan, there were no Islamic demands. I didn't hear any "Allah Akbar!" [i.e., God is Great!] I didn't hear any demand to build an Islamic state," says Bensmann.
Crackdown on Dissent
The U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other monitoring groups say the Uzbek government routinely blames democratic protests on religious extremism and note that there are several thousand people in Uzbek prisons as a result.
While the possibility of Islamic extremism does exist throughout Central Asia, Chris Seiple, President of the Washington-based Institute for Global Engagement, says the threat in Uzbekistan has been exaggerated. "It has certainly been present since the late 1990s. That said, the threat has been overstated and overplayed by folks in the region and especially the Uzbek government for their own purposes. And the irony is the more they overstate the threat, the less credibility they have with their allies in the war against the terrorists, the more likely they create the conditions in which the radical extremist threat could become much more serious and could become a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Seiple.
Despite criticism from the United States and other Western nations during the past year, the Uzbek government has continued its crackdown against pro-democracy forces.
But some scholars contend that Uzbek President Islam Karimov may not be the focus of repression in the country. Chief among them is political scientist Frederick Starr of The Johns Hopkins University here in Washington. "There are much tougher forces out there than we are aware of who control most of the assets in the country including the gold, the oil, the gas, the cotton and drugs and Karimov does not control that. For example, the monetary reform. Who stopped that? We blamed it totally on Karimov. He didn't [stop it]. He was an advocate. But other forces that are benefiting from the present situation stopped him dead in his tracks," says Starr.
But while Uzbekistan has posted healthy economic growth in recent years, most experts agree that only the ruling elite, including Islam Karimov, have benefited.
Anara Tabishalieva, a Kyrgyz scholar currently studying at The Johns Hopkins University, says Uzbekistan could take a page from the political transformation underway in her country. She adds that like in Uzbekistan, the number one problem facing Kyrgyzstan is not religious extremism, "There are 50 political parties and around nine-thousand non-governmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan. It is very easy to open one in the country. But nevertheless, we do not see any growth of religious extremism. The main threat to us today, the more important threat is to economic and social reform and political liberalization."
Pakistani journalist and scholar Ahmed Rashid, who has studied Islamic groups in Central Asia, says Uzbekistan's leadership needs to turn its attention to implementing political and economic reforms. "I think the main issue in the region is democratization and economic reform. If there was a democratic opposition, there will be a chance for democratic elections. I think that would be much better than putting all of the emphasis on blaming the Islamists when actually they do not pose a serious political threat," says Rashid.
In the year since the Andijan violence, Uzbekistan largely has turned away from the West toward Russia and China for economic cooperation and political support. And that, most analysts warn, is a sign that reform in Tashkent could be long in coming.
Odil Ruzaliev contributed to this report.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.