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    Central Asia
     May 18, 2005
The lessons from Ferghana
By M K Bhadrakumar

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw initiated a discussion in the "international community" on developments in Andijan in Uzbekistan. Straw said on Saturday, a day after an unspecified number of protesters were killed by security forces, "The situation is very serious, there has been a clear abuse of human rights, a lack of democracy and a lack of openness." He demanded that the government should allow "independent observers such as the Red Cross" to visit Andijan. But, asked whether Britain would support an opposition movement in Uzbekistan, Straw parried, "It's for the people to decide on a change of regime, not outsiders."

Why wouldn't Straw comment on the "opposition" - the Hizbut Tahrir (HT) - in the Andijan incidents? Tashkent has alleged that HT activists in the city communicated with "mentors" in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, it is well-known that the HT's "headquarters" are in the United Kingdom. HT spokesmen appear routinely in the coffee shops of plush London hotels to give media interviews.

Significantly, in the first detailed Russian reaction on Monday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of the Andijan unrest as a "Taliban-like provocation". He said foreign radical forces, particularly Taliban, were behind the unrest. Lavrov expressed full understanding for the government's handling of the critical situation: "I do not think any country will tolerate foreign forces seizing arms depots, staging violence, raiding administrative buildings and taking hostages on its territory."

Lavrov called for a "thorough investigation" into who sent the group of gunmen into Andijan and why, as intelligence reports indicated, "foreigners were among the gunmen". Interestingly, Lavrov went several steps ahead of Straw's modest proposal regarding the Red Cross and suggested that the UN Security Council's anti-terrorism committee, the Commonwealth of Independent States' anti-terrorist committee and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) should all be involved in the investigation. Lavrov stressed the importance of avoiding "further escalation and more casualties" and the need to ensure stability so that "people calmed down and did not respond to provocative acts".

The HT's potential for stirring the pot in Central Asia, and beyond in Russia's Volga regions or China's Xinjiang, is not in doubt. Once ensconced in Central Asia, HT could look to South Asian countries too. Historically, in the churning ethnic, religious, cultural cauldron, Central Asia and South Asia become indivisible.

Russian security forces have detained HT activists in recent weeks in seven regions of the Volga federal district - the autonomous republics of Tatarstan, Bashkiria, Chuvashia and Udmurtia and in the Nizhny-Novgorod, Kirov and Samara regions - and in Ulyanovsk region. There were "foreigners" among the detainees who were in possession of topographic maps, especially of Russian oil and gas pipelines, elements of explosive devices and HT propaganda material.

The Andijan unrest should not have taken Tashkent (and regional capitals) by surprise. Uzbekistan authorities have been sharing information about HT activities with friendly countries in the region. Consultations were held by security agencies in the region in April about the likelihood of HT-instigated upheavals. All this would have enabled Tashkent to act swiftly. A key ingredient of a "velvet revolution" - authorities' inability to be proactive - could not have come into play.

But there are deeper reasons why the Andijan incident could be localized. First, an assessment of President Islam Karimov's leadership is needed. Uzbekistan is the only country in Central Asia where post-Soviet state formation has been systematically advanced. (Historically, Uzbek people have been far more advanced in social formation.) Karimov moved according to a plan - avoiding the "shock therapy" route of Boris Yeltsin's Russia; listening to prescriptions on market reforms, but avoiding what Joseph Stiglitz called "globalization's discontent"; retaining national control over mineral and natural resources; placing emphasis on "self-reliance". The "doctrine of international community" cannot be easily imposed on leaders like Karimov, such strongmen insulate their agenda and carry on.

Thus, when we speak about deprivation in Uzbekistan, we tend to forget that although the average monthly income for an Uzbek is about US$30, the salary drawn by a top official is also below $100. Equally so, Karimov never placed lids on social mobility. Uzbekistan's growth rate of 6-7% in recent years has been appreciable, though it might be low given the huge backlog of the Soviet Union's collapse. Karimov has reversed Uzbekistan's post-Soviet decline. Therefore, beyond the underpinnings of clan or family kinships that may or may not provide substrata of support, the Uzbekistan establishment has a social base. This is a difference between the "revolutionary climates" in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Again, the Ferghana Valley, a critical region for Central Asia, is not typical of Uzbekistan in its religious fervor. Uzbek people are deeply religious (which is natural considering the country's fantastic history as a cradle of Islamic culture), but Uzbekistan culture is drawn from several layers of identity. In the Khorezm or Bukhara-Samarkand regions, arguably, there could be layers of collective consciousness, such as Persian (Zoroastrian) civilization or the Samanid legacy. (Uzbeks do not disown Buddhist heritage either.) Thus, the HT's clarion calls incited rural Ferghana, but failed to evoke resonance in the "urbanized" Uzbek hinterlands.

Karimov's main problem has been distinguishing friends from foes. Partly this had been because he was in a hurry to modernize his country, and partly due to choices to be made in a difficult world. This predicament accounted for the zig-zag in Uzbekistan's foreign policy during the past 15 years. Hopefully, there will be greater predictability ahead.

The decision to give a military base to the US in October 2001 is a fine example. True, Uzbekistan was literally stampeded into the decision by an insistent US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld camping in Tashkent. But Karimov was too preoccupied with the specter of Islamic militancy in next-door Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. As an erudite leader (schooled in dialectical materialism and economics at that), he could have anticipated that an entree for neo-liberalism would have consequences.

Karimov began to rethink somewhere toward the end of 2002, when he refrained from backing the US invasion of Iraq (unlike Kazakhstan, which dispatched a token contingent of "coalition forces"). Alongside, he took a major step in aligning Uzbekistan with the SCO, even insisting that the SCO's anti-terrorist center must be located in Tashkent. Through 2003, Uzbek foreign policy began edging away from the US.

The "Rose Revolution" in Georgia must have come as a rude awakening. Eduard Shevardnadze (and Heydar Aliyev in Azerbaijan) had been something of a role model for Karimov - in what was believed to be their sheer skill in steering their countries through the choppy waters of the Great Game. Yet Shevardnadze, who was the darling of the West, was rubbished overnight by Washington and unceremoniously dumped.

A chronicle of Uzbekistan's foreign policy moves since Mikhail Saakashvili's appearance in Georgia is revealing: Uzbekistan's offer to host the next summit meeting of SCO; the visit of Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister Sodik Safaev to China; the visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Tashkent; the SCO summit meeting in Tashkent (a turning point in SCO's graduation as a regional security organization - the first of its kind in Central Asia); Karimov's decision to open up Uzbekistan's energy reserves to China (an agreement on energy cooperation was signed during Hu's visit); Karimov's "personal initiative" with Russian President Vladimir Putin for concluding a bilateral treaty heralding military cooperation with Russia on a scale that Tashkent had been notoriously lukewarm about until then (Uzbekistan is still not a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization binding Russia with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan); Tashkent's criticism of the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine in January; Tashkent giving short shrift to US entreaties to play a role in reactivating GUUAM (the Georgian foreign minister who visited Tashkent in April had to cut short his visit); Tashkent's summary cancellation of a visit by British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell in March; Uzbekistan's endorsement of the anti-secession law on Taiwan passed by the Chinese National People's Congress; Uzbekistan's decision in May to withdraw from GUUAM. (The pro-US regional cooperation organization was set up in 1997 by Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova with a view to enhancing energy and economic cooperation among its founding members. Uzbekistan joined in 1999.)

The trajectory of Uzbek foreign policy puts paid to the misperception that if Washington is treading softly while commenting over Andijan, that is because Uzbekistan is a "close ally". If the US has been caught in a cleft stick over Andijan, the reasons are not far to seek. First, it so happens that US military operations in Afghanistan will be handicapped without the availability of the Khanabad base in Uzbekistan. Washington cannot afford to drive Tashkent into a hostile mode.

Second, pragmatic considerations apart, Washington faces a "moral twister". How far to go in lining up Islamist outfits like HT or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as its tools of regional policy? Unlike Britain, which broke up the Ottoman Sultan's caliphate in the early 19th century, and has rich experience in manipulating Islamism for geopolitics, the US is a relative novice to the game.

Third, the regime change in Kyrgyzstan has been Washington's baptism by fire in Muslim Central Asia. Things being where they are, Washington may need what Leon Trotsky called a state of "permanent revolutions" if it regards geopolitics in Central Asia as a zero-sum game. No matter the rhetoric that Russia "lost" Kyrgyzstan or that the torch of "freedom" journeyed from Tibilisi to Kiev to Bishkek, the plain truth is that Russia, China, the SCO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization have not "lost" anything. Only Kyrgyzstan has "lost" - it has become more volatile.

Russia has since taken the role of mediator to calm the political turbulence in post-revolution Bishkek. Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and prominent leader Felix Kulov have been to Moscow and have taken the friendly advice that they should forge national unity for averting Kyrgyzstan's descent into anarchy. They have just announced a power-sharing formula whereby they will field a joint candidacy in the presidential election in July. Bakiyev will be the presidential candidate and Kulov his running mate. Kulov also reconciled with ousted president Askar Akayev.

Interestingly, Bakiyev was the first regional leader to openly support Karimov over the events in Andijan. Bakiyev stated: "This violence happened because of those known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizbut Tahrir. In no way this can lead to a good life. There should be peace. I do not support the views of those who want to establish a state under the rule of a religious body." The Kyrgyz security authorities have been coordinating with their Uzbekistan counterparts in stabilizing the situation. Kyrgyzstan evidently abhors "color revolutions" in its neighborhood.

The Andijan events will be a turning point in Central Asia's passage through a very difficult period. Reforms have become inevitable. The Central Asian leaderships realize that. When centralized polities enter the vortex of democratic reform, there is bound to be high volatility in the situation. Things can well spiral out of control - as was the case in Shah's Iran and Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union. A hiatus can arise between popular expectations and the state's inability to fulfill them; differences over the pace and directions of reform can lead to new discords and create tensions; discarding old modes of behavior or management is never too easy, nor does it come naturally, it often needs careful, patient cultivation; reforms are bound to affect vested interests and in turn can breed new interest groups, which means that reforms can meet with resistance or can get hijacked altogether. What stands out is an oft-quoted saying by Karimov that until the new house is ready for habitation, the old house should not be destroyed.

Reform in Central Asia must take place in an environment free of outside interference. Geopolitical rivalries are manifestly acute in the region. The million-dollar question is whether the "international community" will allow the region to figure out its way, lending a helping hand now and then perhaps, but without being intrusive or prescriptive. If they allow the region such latitude, those who died in Andijan did not die in vain.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian career diplomat who has served in Islamabad, Kabul, Tashkent and Moscow.

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