Suicide bomb attacks and battles with police in the past week left scores of people dead and wounded in Uzbekistan. Against the backdrop of the Madrid train bombings and Uzbekistan’s role as an American ally in the war on terrorism—hosting a U.S. base on its soil—it’s easy to see another link in the chain of al Qaeda-inspired events.
But other developments complicate the picture. Deprivation and mounting frustration are increasingly driving Uzbek citizens to desperate acts. The suicide bombs were a new phenomenon. But public acts of suicide and clashes with police are not. In continuing to engage Uzbekistan in the war on terrorism, the U.S. and the West must address its fragile internal political and economic situation directly. Uzbekistan is a pressure cooker ready to explode.
Over the last year, President Islam Karimov’s government has grown more repressive and fenced-off the state from the outside world. Mass arrests of observant Muslims as suspected members of radical Islamic groups and deaths from torture in police custody have been well-documented. Social activists have been detained. In one case, the elderly mother of a torture victim was imprisoned for “anti-constitutional activity” after publicizing and protesting the atrocity.
Uzbekistan’s famed bazaars have contracted dramatically, with high tariffs imposed on imported goods from China and Central Asian neighbors in the name of economic reform. Mines on borders, set to deter militants, illegal migrants and smugglers, have killed villagers and livestock. Three teenagers tending cattle were blown up on the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan border just last week. Uzbek officials are notably absent at meetings on cross-border cooperation—most recently at a conference I attended on March 24 in Osh, on the Kyrgyz side of the Fergana Valley. This fertile but impoverished region, enclosed by breathtakingly beautiful mountains, is now divided among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and has gained a reputation for spawning extremist Islamic movements. The Uzbek government refuses to address complaints about international trade and transit barriers that hurt other states.
For Uzbekistan’s neighbors, this is mystifying. People I spoke to across the region all note Uzbekistan’s great potential. It is the heart of Central Asia, with a large and industrious population, oil, gas, gold, cotton, and advanced infrastructure. Its ancient cities once dominated the Silk Road from China to Europe. Its capital remains Central Asia’s communications hub. Several Kazakh and Kyrgyz officials told me that “the Uzbeks will eat us up” if the country ever opens for business. They cannot understand why Uzbekistan eats away at itself instead.
In closing the economy, the Karimov government is now dependent on vulnerable cash crops and commodities to generate revenues. Welfare subsidies, state salaries and living standards have steadily declined. In rural areas, where almost two thirds of Uzbekistan’s population is concentrated, the economy is essentially cashless. In the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan’s cotton farmers are rarely paid. They subsist on flour handouts for bread, cotton stalks for fuel, and produce from garden plots. Many work as illegal day laborers in Kyrgyzstan. They steal cotton from the state and smuggle it into Kyrgyzstan to sell, along with fruit and vegetables in the bustling bazaars of Osh, Kara-Suu, and Bishkek. Crossing the borders is perilous—not just because of landmines. At Kara-Suu, Uzbek authorities destroyed their side of the bridge that spanned the border as part of their effort to keep people in, and out. Now people fall from an improvised rope bridge and drown in the fast-flowing river.
In Uzbekistan today, poverty could easily be confused with government policy—as a tool for social control. The population’s attention is focused on subsistence not politics. Genuine opposition parties have been denied registration. Edgy NGOs that focus on human rights have been tightly squeezed. The Uzbek government has insisted that international groups re-register with the Ministry of Justice so it can monitor potential “troublemakers.”
All these developments point toward more crises in Uzbekistan. In settings with high levels of deprivation across the world, the likelihood of extremist acts rises when there is low government legitimacy, increased police repression, and few political safety valves. There is a definite tipping point in the delicate balance between state repression and social upheaval. There have already been upheavals and extreme acts in Uzbekistan. Women and men, claiming they have no other recourse and nothing to lose, have set themselves on fire in local government offices, at border crossings, and in other public settings to protest the arbitrary actions of the police. It is not such a huge leap from self-immolation to blowing oneself up—although it obviously requires more planning.
Just last week, a disgruntled miner, protesting low wages and pension cuts, blew himself up in Bolivia. He killed two policemen and wounded ten others. The leap from social protest to international terrorism in Uzbekistan, but not Bolivia, comes from the fact that Islam has become the organizing principle for disgruntled Uzbeks in the absence of political alternatives. Militant movements, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which sprang up in the 1990s and eventually joined forces with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, gained traction by recruiting among disaffected young Muslims. Other radical groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir play to the widespread anger with the government, its persecution of observant Muslims, and the fact that there are no political parties and few other groups to channel people’s grievances.
Islamic radicalism, militancy, and violence are filling the vacuum in the political space between the people and the government in Uzbekistan. This is in stark contrast to the situation in neighboring countries like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where political parties operate and civil society is relatively vibrant. Uzbeks who manage to cross the borders say they revel in the “fresh air” on the other side and the freedom to say what they want.
Unfortunately, even sensible solutions to Uzbekistan’s problems are now difficult to implement. Although the United States can exert some leverage on Uzbekistan’s government, which sees the U.S. military presence and American security assistance as a source of legitimacy, pushing the government to liberalize suddenly could be disastrous. The pressure has to come off gradually to prevent an explosion that would have negative consequences for the whole of Central Asia.
The U.S. government must, however, push the Uzbek government to put the safety valves back in place and allow its population to let off some steam. Stopping torture and arbitrary detentions would be of the first order, along with re-opening key border crossings, allowing freedom of movement in the Fergana Valley, facilitating private trade, and reinvigorating the bazaars. If something is not done, and soon, there will be more physical and political explosions in Uzbekistan, even if all the perpetrators of the recent terrorist acts are apprehended.