(Washington, D.C. -- March 13, 2006) Uzbekistan remains in danger of further instability -- a fact that carries serious implications for its neighbors, according to an expert on Uzbek affairs. Michael Hall, Central Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group told a recent RFE/RL audience the international community must prepare a "long haul" strategy for Uzbekistan, since no short-term improvement can be expected in Uzbek civil society freedoms.
Hall said there is growing "anger and frustration" among Uzbeks at their government's economic record, despite its' posting an official growth rate of seven percent in 2005. "Although on paper Uzbekistan looks prosperous," Hall said, this growth has not been felt among the general population. Uzbekistan's growth is fueled by high earnings from exporting cotton and gold, Hall said, but the "profits go to the Karimov regime," with "minimum benefit" to the average Uzbek. Furthermore, the traditional markets, or "bazaars," are increasingly under the government's control, which in turn is "endangering the livelihoods" of thousands of Uzbek small traders who depend on the markets to survive.
The massacre at Andijon in May 2005, Hall said, "dispelled doubts" about how President Karimov would respond to the "color revolutions" that have occurred in other post-Soviet countries. "Since Andijon," Hall said, there has been a "widening crackdown on the political opposition" that has resulted in as many as "650 convictions... including local members of the security services who were judged negligent for allowing the unrest." Despite the crackdown, Hall said, the loyalty of the Uzbek security services to Karimov is "not assured," because of a rivalry between the Interior Ministry and the Security Service (SNB) and "the lack of transparency and reliable information" that makes it "difficult to assess" what's going on in the Uzbek government. Hall predicted that the "denial of public space" for the population would "drive people into the underground" and into radical organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ironically, by banning NGOs that represented the interests of "librarians and beekeepers," the Karimov regime may be creating a situation in Uzbekistan where "Hizb ut-Tahrir will be the only NGO left [in Uzbekistan]."
According to Hall, it is unlikely that a "color"-style revolution could take place in Uzbekistan, for several reasons. First, Hall said, Karimov excels at keeping any political elites from challenging him. Second, Karimov's willingness to use force ruthlessly creates a "fear factor" within the populace that keeps popular challenges to his power in check. Third, according to Hall, the Karimov regime enjoys demonstrable support from Russia.
Uzbekistan's growing relationship with Russia and worsening one with the West further demonstrates Karimov's lack of interest in reform, Hall said. "Long term change will involve unrest," Hall said, because Uzbekistan lacks the political institutions needed to deal with change. The implications for the region of such unrest include increased pressure against Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, "both weak neighboring states" according to Hall, and renewed Uzbek refugee flows into these countries that could further destabilize the region. Although Karimov has "distanced himself before from Russia," Hall cautioned that U.S. re-engagement with Karimov must wait until there is "some reform."