Uzbek Fury

In Andijan, in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley, violent confrontations between demonstrators and the government in the past week have left hundreds of people dead—many of them civilians, although no one knows the exact number. The episode is sobering for authoritarian leaders, Central Asian and otherwise. In an age of free news flow, governments that fail to deliver basic necessities and disregard public welfare can’t expect to hold on to power indefinitely. Mass arrests and violence may work in the short term, but that reduces the government’s legitimacy and risks massive civil disturbance—sparked by a tipping event, and fueled by the spread of information and ideas.

In Uzbekistan, the tipping event was the arrest, trial and imprisonment of 23 businessmen on charges of belonging to an Islamist-extremist movement. The charges were seen in Andijan as fraudulent, as well as part of the central government’s efforts to exert control over commercial activity in the Uzbek hinterlands. The businessmen’s employees lost their jobs, plunging their extended families into poverty.

So last Friday, some of their associates apparently decided to spring them from Andijan’s jail, freeing hundreds of other prisoners in the process. Armed men seized public buildings and clashed with police. Ordinary people spilled out onto the streets to protest worsening economic and social conditions. The Uzbek government sent in troops, resulting in a bloodbath.

Close proximity to Kyrgyzstan, and information on recent events in Osh—the epicenter of that country’s revolution earlier this spring—played a role. The border is porous. Ethnic Uzbeks with close kinship ties to Uzbekistan dominate Osh. People move back and forth and information travels with them. Some of the men who stormed Andijan’s prison seem to have armed and organized themselves in Osh for the assault. Now refugees from Andijan are fleeing into Kyrgyzstan.

How all this will unfold is uncertain. But this is not a replay of the recent “democratic revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine or even Kyrgyzstan. The assault on the prison and the demonstrations weren’t carried out in the name of democracy, free elections or political change. They were a more basic reaction to blatant injustice, a corrupt judicial system, arbitrary government and economic hardship. No defined political opposition group in Andijan or elsewhere in Uzbekistan channels grievances and orchestrates developments from the top-down. This is a classic revolt from below.

At the end of the 1990s, President Islam Karimov made a Faustian bargain with his population. Mr. Karimov kept a Soviet-style political system and state-directed economy, and promised to deliver basic necessities and stability and abandon the sort of reforms that, in many Uzbek eyes, brought chaos to other former Soviet republics. Interviews that I conducted in 2000 suggested that Uzbeks were generally happy with this arrangement.

Since 2000, Mr. Karimov hasn’t kept his side of the bargain. Other former Soviet states have turned their economies around. But in Uzbekistan unemployment has risen, living standards have fallen—especially in rural areas like the Fergana Valley—and the country is anything but stable, with social protests and terrorist attacks growing in frequency.

Ham-fisted state intervention in the economy is hampering cross-border trade and travel. The country’s once-flourishing markets and small businesses are devastated. Many Uzbeks have left the country to support their families as illegal migrants in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia. Government corruption has increased; the police and other officials prey on the population. Any political opposition is labeled extremist and Islamist. The government has engaged in mass imprisonment and torture, and now the indiscriminate killing of civilians—exacerbating rather than alleviating domestic tensions. The legitimacy of Karimov’s government has declined as Uzbeks’ perception of hardship has risen.

Mr. Karimov and his government could have turned the situation around. In spite of the recent overthrow of Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan, surveys and research at the World Bank, Brown University and the Brookings Institution show that people in Central Asia don’t necessarily yearn for a different system of government. They simply want more responsive leaders who can solve their problems and won’t make things worse.

The Uzbek government received ample warning that it was courting disaster. Since 2001-2002, international institutions and other governments have pressed Uzbekistan to loosen controls on small-scale trade and the agricultural sector, and appealed to Mr. Karimov to stop egregious human rights abuses and allow opposition parties to participate in politics. Few of these groups pressed for radical political change or sudden economic liberalization, mindful of how difficult this would be for Uzbekistan.

But the Uzbek government chose to shoot the messengers. It hounded out even the most moderate Uzbek opposition leaders and parties, discredited critics like the former British ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray, and expelled representatives of the International Crisis Group, the Open Society Institute and other international groups. They were accused of encouraging sedition and terrorism, and of plotting to overthrow the government.

This week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated appeals to the Uzbek government to reduce the pressure. Unfortunately, steps that could have been taken earlier to address grievances are now too little, too late. Mr. Karimov has painted himself into a corner. And he has doomed the government to using more and more force.

The Fergana Valley is traditionally suspicious of Tashkent. The region spawned militant movements in the 1990s. Now a large group of people have lost loved ones and breadwinners. The incentives to fight Mr. Karimov are greater than ever. As news of atrocities filters to the rest of Uzbekistan, the government’s diminished legitimacy will be reduced further. Mr. Karimov may find himself overwhelmed by protests on multiple fronts, having failed, like so many other authoritarian leaders in recent months, to understand that political problems can’t simply be suppressed away.