In the early morning of May 13, 2005, a small band of well-armed men stormed the central prison in the city of Andijon, in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley. The assault freed 23 local businessmen, held since July 2004 on suspicion of membership in a radical Islamic group and scheduled for sentencing, along with hundreds of other inmates. Several guards were killed or wounded in the prison break. Some of the prisoners and leaders of the attack then seized the Andijon city government’s offices and took hostages. As word of the events spread, a crowd gathered in Andijon’s central square throughout the morning and early afternoon. Some local citizens arrived knowing about the prison break, but others came simply after hearing about a protest.
Although the militant leaders were organized and committed a willful criminal act by breaking into a prison and killing its guards, the crowd was more spontaneous. Interviews, surveys, and first-hand accounts all emphasize that people came to express their social and economic frustration but that the protest had no clear political message. A portable microphone was passed through the crowd, and individuals began to air pent-up complaints about everything from government repression, poverty, and corruption to poor schools and hospitals. People continually asked for government representatives, including Uzbek president Islam Karimov, to address their grievances. Reports suggesting Karimov had left the capital, Tashkent, for the Ferghana Valley in response to the developing crisis led some to believe he would make a personal appearance. When a helicopter flew over the square, rumors circulating that Karimov had arrived apparently caused cheers to erupt. Although Karimov later admitted that he had flown to Andijon to control the situation, he refused to meet with protesters. Instead, later in the afternoon, government troops drove around the assembled crowd, shooting civilians.
There is legitimate disagreement over the number of citizens that were in the square and even the number injured and killed, but it is clear from our interviews conducted with survivors who fled to the Kyrgyz Republic that government forces fired indiscriminately, killing men, women, and children, and that troops pursued those who fled the square. It was the bloodiest protest in Uzbekistan since it gained independence in 1991.
A year after Andijon, Karimov’s government continues to refuse an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) investigation into the events. Local human rights activists are being rounded up and imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and international media and watchdog organizations have been expelled from the country. Uzbekistan’s relationship with the United States and Europe has unraveled. The Uzbek government has forced a U.S. military air base at Karshi-Khanabad, which played an important role in the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, to close. The country’s foreign policy orientation has shifted dramatically toward Russia, China, and South Asia. The cycle of protest and repression in Uzbekistan has raised questions about the future stability of this erstwhile U.S. ally in the heartland of Central Asia.
In the wake of Andijon, Western and regional analysts wonder if protestors in Uzbekistan have now been cowed by the regime’s vicious response or if there are similar events on Uzbekistan’s horizon with the potential to undermine the government. Why did Karimov’s government suddenly resort to such brutality to bring the protests to an abrupt end? Given the fact that none of the protestors’ grievances have been addressed, will elections in 2007 become a touchstone for opposition? Is there any prospect for a democratic opening or reform in Uzbekistan?