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Uzbek Opposition Leader Hopes Andijon Tragedy Will Awaken West

(Washington DC--July 20, 2005) Muhammad Salih, the founder of the Democratic ERK Party of Uzbekistan, hopes that the tragic events in Andijon will awaken the West to the need for democratization in Uzbekistan. Salih told a recent RFE/RL audience that "Democratization is the only way out of post-Soviet problems" for Uzbekistan and other countries in Central Asia.

"We don't ask a lot from the West. We want the West to aid party formation and leaders of the opposition, to ensure the conduct of fair elections and to ensure the existence of a free press," said Salih. "This in it of itself is enough to ensure the peaceful removal of this anti-democratic regime."

According to Salih, over 1,000 people were killed in the May 13 clash between government troops and protesters in the city of Andijon in eastern Uzbekistan. The government's account of events differs widely from that of witnesses and human rights monitors. Salih maintains that some of the approximately 1,000 killed were buried in mass graves, each containing 15 to 20 people, as well as thrown into the Karasu River. Approximately 18 flights left Andijon between May 13 and 14, carrying at least 35 bodies, he said. President Karimov contends that the chaos was sparked by armed "bandits and terrorists" who attacked and seized a prison, releasing hundreds of inmates, and that less than 200 people were killed.

As a leader of the democratic opposition, Salih characterized "Andijan is a litmus test for countries who want influence in the region." The events have turned Uzbekistan into a complex international issue. According to Salih, Russia and China are unconditionally on the side of Karimov, based on each country's fears -- "Russia sees Central Asia as the source for religious extremism, while China fears a growth of internal separatists." Salih also noted, however, that "Neither wants to recognize that Karimov gives strength to what they fear."

Karimov, supported by Russia and China, will not agree to an international investigation, said Salih. But neither Russia nor China can save the regime, according to Salih, although they will do everything within their power to do so. Salih said he believes that the people of Uzbekistan have already turned against Karimov: "It is not comfortable to sit on bayonets."

This, Salih said, was the reason he was in the United States, urging the U.S. to expand its support for democracy activists in Uzbekistan. "There is a fear that if America left, the 'dragon next door' will put a base there."

Since the U.S.-led war on terror began, according to Salih, Karimov has been able to turn terrorism into a "natural resource just like cotton and gold." Salih said that Karimov is disappointed that U.S. aid levels have been low, compared to assistance for the war on terrorism. Salih has never supported the arming of the political opposition and believes that those who use violence and arms in the struggle should be punished. "Our methods will be the method of Gandhi, of peaceful resistance," said Salih. "If we were to arm ourselves, we would be acting just like Karimov."

Karimov has continually linked the events with terrorism, a move Salih considers baseless, claiming that Islamic radicalism has no roots in Uzbekistan. Salih said, "For Karimov it is not religious extremism, it is free elections he is afraid of."

If his party was to come to power or even be allowed to participate in the Uzbek government, something he sees as dependent on U.S. involvement, Salih believes it would know how to deal with this issue through the legalization of all non-violent Islamic groups, in order to prevent them from going underground. "I disagree with the term 'Islamic terrorism,' because Islam is based in morality and terrorism is, by its nature, immoral," he said.

"The West must ensure that the fall of this regime is a soft one and does not crush everything beneath it," Salih concluded.