Staunton, May 13 – Ten years ago today, the Uzbek security services opened fire with automatic weapons on a demonstration in Andijan (Andizhan), killing more than 500, arresting more than 200 and driving another 500 into emigration, first into Kyrgyzstan and then into Europe, Australia and the United States.
Tashkent continues to insist, and some governments and observers to accept, that it was facing an Islamist insurgency and thus was fully justified in using force to put it down, a position all independent investigations have shown to be so exaggerated that it constitutes an outright falsification — unless one believes that any actions by Muslims are by definition extremist.
But the failure of the international community to challenge the official Uzbek explanation of what happened ten years ago in Andijan not only has allowed Islam Karimov to increase repression at home and spread fear among Uzbek refugees abroad but also has contributed to the growth of real Islamist groups like ISIS across Central Asia.
That is because the extremists can plausibly and convincingly argue that there is no possibility for dialogue with regimes like Karimov’s and the only way forward is to use violence, a view that those who went into the streets in Andijan ten years ago did not have but that an increasing number of people in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia now do.
And thus those who are prepared to support authoritarian actions taken in the name of stability not only are harming the human rights of those who live under such regimes or are within the reach of their diplomatic representations abroad but also are doing more to spread Islamist radicalism and instability than ISIS or its allies could ever achieve on their own.
Those are some of the conclusions suggested by Alisher Ilkhamov, an Uzbek émigré in London and the author of one of the most comprehensive early reports on the Andijan violence, , in a comment to Fergana.com timed to coincide with this anniversary.
Ilkhamov says that he remains convinced that neither Akram Yuldashev nor the community around him were extremists, as the Uzbek authorities have insisted. Their doctrines were and remain directed to the gradual transformation of society rather than to the establishment of an Islamic state or Caliphate.
He suggests that most of the people involved have views that resemble European social democracy, although Ilkhamov points out that the teachings of the group stress socialism more than democracy. He adds that there is even “a definite resemblance” between this group and the Mormons.
The stress on gradualism reflects the repressive nature of the Uzbek state, he suggests, and the stress on social issues reflects the anger many of those who were involved with the Andijan events feel about the massive corruption that they and other Uzbeks encounter in their daily lives.
Ilkhamov cites with approval the conclusions of Sarah Chayses’ new book, “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” (NY: Norton, 2015) and in particular the entire chapter she devotes to the way in which corruption played a key role in the Andijan protests of 2005, prompting Tashkent to defend itself by accusing the group of Islamist extremism.
Those who remain in Andijan and in Uzbekistan more generally are victims of Karimov’s corrupt and repressive regime. Many are afraid to speak out lest they be subject to persecution. But tragically, even those who have fled abroad have not been able to entirely escape the long arm of Tashkent.
Some who fled have become more political at least to the extent of issuing reports and cooperating with other Uzbeks. But many who want to return home or who have relatives there have been effectively depoliticized out of fears that anything they say could have consequences for their relatives and friends at home.
Immediately after the Andijan massacre, “Uzbek embassies and special services began active work, acting according to the principle of carrots and sticks to seek to neutralize the influence” of those who had been involved in the protests and who then fled abroad, Ilkhamov writes.
Tashkent has had some success. In the US, it managed to get 53 people to agree to return, providing them with money and tickets. But this effort was clouded by the fact that two who did so died in mysterious circumstances just before leaving, many who went could not find work, and some were sent to prison. Seventeen members of this group then fled to Kazakhstan.