Another chapter of sorrow in authoritarian Uzbekistan

June 07, 2006|By ROBERT RAND

Authoritarian governments inflict sorrow on their people. It's just the way it is.

When an authoritarian regime shoots its citizens in the name of preserving power, the sorrow is all the more searing and less easy to forget. So it is with Uzbekistan, once a key U.S. ally in the war on terror.

Just over a year ago, on Friday, May 13, 2005, Andijon, in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley, was walking on a knife's edge. Thousands of people had assembled in the town's central square to air grievances against the country's imperious president, Islam Karimov. The city bulged with government troops, rifles cocked, fingers on the trigger.

Andijon had been tense all week. Twenty-three Muslim businessmen were standing trial, charged with religious extremism and links to terrorism, accusations they denied. A group of armed men, alleged by Mr. Karimov to be Islamic militants, had stormed a prison, freeing the businessmen plus several thousand others. A military garrison fell.

Events then spiraled out of control. Andijon residents gathered in the streets. Mr. Karimov rushed to the city from Tashkent, the capital. What began as a prison assault turned into a popular uprising.

Late that afternoon, a government helicopter swooped over Andijon's main square. The early evening sky darkened with rain clouds. Armed soldiers and vehicles with heavy machine guns rushed in. "From the sky there was a storm of rain, from the streets a storm of bullets," a witness reported.

Today, nobody knows for sure how many died. Or if they know, they are not telling. The government of Uzbekistan has not released a list of the dead. Human rights groups estimate the number to be in the many hundreds. The events in Uzbekistan that day are widely known as the Andijon massacre. Or Bloody Friday.

It was tempting once to hope that Uzbekistan would hop onto the wave of democracy that washed over a troika of former Soviet regimes: Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan.

Even before those so-called colored revolutions, the United States had hoped, after 9/11, to prod and push Uzbekistan toward freedom with the carrots of security guarantees and economic aid. But Uzbekistan never has been a gentle, leftward-leaning place. It has no free press, no free speech and no political alternative to Mr. Karimov.

In the year since Andijon, Mr. Karimov has shunned democracy with a vigor befitting the former communist he is. (He was a member of the last Kremlin politburo.) Leaders of a nascent opposition group, the Sunshine Coalition, were jailed. Foreign nongovernmental organizations, whose mandate was to promote democratic values, were chucked out of the country like drunks from a bar.

Mr. Karimov has also shunned the West, the United States in particular. Washington criticized Tashkent's handling of the Andijon affair.

The United States especially angered Mr. Karimov when it facilitated the evacuation, to Romania, of hundreds of Andijon refugees who had fled the violence to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. In response, Mr. Karimov ousted the Americans from an airbase in southern Uzbekistan near the Afghan border. And in the weeks after Andijon, he scurried off to Beijing and Moscow, currying favor and new alliances with regimes that value Soviet-style realpolitik and disregard human rights.

A year after Andijon, there is more sorrowful news from Uzbekistan. More death, this time of a single man who by avocation practiced freedom of expression much in the way the Andijon protesters exercised that right when they congregated in the town square.

Evgeniy Dmitriev was a lead actor in Tashkent's Ilkhom Theater, an avant-garde playhouse that for 30 years has been the crown jewel of creativity and freedom in Uzbekistan. The Ilkhom takes risks. It satirizes the state. It tests the limits. It survives because it has established an international reputation for excellence and daring. Mr. Karimov is afraid to touch it.

The Ilkhom ended a run in Moscow last month. Mr. Dmitriev, 32, died in an arson fire in the Moscow apartment in which he was staying. Boris Gafurov, another key ensemble member, was seriously injured. Mr. Dmitriev was buried in Tashkent on May 6. Several hundred mourners attended the funeral. An ambulance was called to stand by, in case the sorrow proved too much to endure.

The Ilkhom tragedy bears no resemblance to Andijon in its cause. Its effect, however, is identical, sending those who value freedom in Uzbekistan reeling. Yet again.

Robert Rand, a journalist who lived in Uzbekistan from 2001 to 2004, is the author of "Tamerlane's Children: Dispatches from Contemporary Uzbekistan," to be published this month. His e-mail is robertmrand@yahoo.com.

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