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Getting Uzbekistan Wrong

Two powerful trends cross paths in the Ferghana Valley.

2:25 PM, May 16, 2005 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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CERTAIN WORLD EVENTS, which at first seem obscure, have the peculiar capacity to illuminate the hidden contradictions of world politics. But the glare they produce often confuses most spectators. The collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 was such an event. So was the uprising in the Uzbek city of Andijan last week.

The situation in Uzbekistan is easily understood: "U" for Ukraine, "stan" for Kyrgyzstan. That is, the peak of the democratization wave in the former Soviet states is reaching Central Asia, where it cannot but intersect with the similar wave in the Muslim world, and where it cannot be obstructed for much longer.

The bare facts about the Andijan events are simple, but were also predictable. First, the Ferghana Valley and neighboring regions of eastern Uzbekistan have been seething with discontent since late last year, when thousands turned out to demonstrate against high taxes and restrictive state policies on commerce. The protests began in the ancient city of Qoqand, which also has a tradition of local political rule, and quickly spread to Andijan province.

This turmoil is unrelated to radical Islam, and Islamist extremists were unable to capitalize on it. Nor is it motivated by desperate poverty; rather, it is an expression of rising expectations. The democratizing revolution in Kyrgyzstan, which lies on the border near Andijan, electrified the Ferghana Valley. The unsettled Uzbeks now have, next door, a successful example of direct action against unjust rule.

The crisis accelerated six weeks ago when citizens in the town of Andijan began peaceful demonstrations against the imprisonment of 23 young, local businessmen. The 23 were accused of belonging to an "Islamist conspiracy" called Akramiyya, which in reality seems to have been nothing more than a local spiritual and charitable circle. The Uzbek authorities and Russian and foreign news agencies and blogs have together accused Akramiyya of affiliation with Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT--the Liberation party), an extremist, neo-Wahhabi organization which is banned in several countries.

But Sheikh Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf, the 52-year-old, former grand mufti, or chief Muslim cleric for Central Asia, whom I interviewed at length in December, and who is notably pro-American, denies the charge that Akramiyya is connected to HuT. According to him (as reported by the Jamestown Foundation), Akramiyya "has nothing in common with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other radical political Islamic organizations."

Although a reliable, detailed account of last week's incidents remains elusive, it is certain that Uzbek troops fired on demonstrators in Andijan, killing an unknown but significant number of people. Citizens fought back and killed some members of the security forces. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Uzbeks began streaming from Ferghana toward the Kyrgyz border, convinced their lives were in danger and that they had to reach a territory where some kind of democratic norms were in place.

The Uzbek government of Islam Karimov has continued to blame the Andijan insurrection on HuT, and to try, therefore, to decouple the crisis from the post-Soviet democratization movement. I saw this coming during my December visit to Uzbekistan, which coincided with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. In extensive talks with Uzbek officials, I found them impervious to the logic of their situation. When Ukraine was mentioned, they would change the subject or argue that it was irrelevant to them--indeed, Karimov himself declared that democratizing "projects" allegedly inspired from outside would have no place in his domain.

When I tried to explain to the Uzbeks that neither President George W. Bush nor Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had supported Karimov in the past, wanted to hear this, they became hostile. My visit coincided with the decision of the U.S. State Department to declare HuT an "extremist," but not a terrorist, organization. Why were "we" doing this, I was asked aggressively and angrily? Why were "we" protecting terrorists? According to Uzbek security officials and ethnic Russians who work in their ranks, the U.S. and Britain have coddled HuT to maintain it as a weapon against Moscow.

The bottom line in Uzbekistan is simple and obvious. The people of the Ferghana Valley have Kyrgyzstan next door, just as Wahhabi-ruled Saudi Arabia has newly liberated Iraq next door, and just as 25 years ago, the Soviet Union had Poland next door. Uzbekistan is the most populous and developed of the former-Soviet Central Asian republics. Of all these states, it has the most in common with Ukraine and Georgia, even more than Kyrgyzstan had. The appeal of radical Islam in Uzbekistan is highly overrated; the resentment of local bazaar merchants against unjust taxation and other abuses in the Ferghana Valley is not. It's time for the Uzbeks to definitively join the democracy movement and leave the Soviet era, with its bloodshed and lies, behind.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.