Bloodbath in Uzbekistan - the sordid role of the democracies

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1000 dead, around 2000 injured, thousands of refugees fleeing towards neighbouring Kyrgystan – that’s the horrible balance sheet of the repression carried out by the Uzbek army against the popular riots [1] which took place on 13 May in several Uzbek towns in the Ferhana valley, notably Andijan, Pakhtabad and Kara Su. The army didn’t hesitate to use armoured cars, helicopters and heavy machinegun fire against demonstrations of tens of thousands. A large number of unarmed civilians including children were killed, with soldiers finishing off the wounded with a bullet in the head, while the police arrested many hundreds more. Faithful to traditional Stalinist methods, the government led by the despot Karimov did all it could to hide the truth, first imposing a media black-out, then presenting the massacre as a legitimate response to an armed Islamic uprising. Initially the American, Russian, Chinese and European governments lent support to this version, only growing more critical when the testimonies of a number of people who had been caught up in this tragedy began to circulate. In order to defend their interests as imperialist bandits, the grand democracies have cynically backed Karimov in his ‘struggle against terrorism’, merely asking him to carry out a few token democratic changes. [2] Now, feigning indignation, as they do after every massacre engendered by the barbarity of capitalism, the international organisations, like the UN, the EU and numerous Non-Government Organisations, have been calling for an inquiry.

Faced with the bourgeois media, who reduce events like this to issues like terrorism or the behaviour of individual tyrants like Karimov, it is necessary to understand the real background to this bloody repression: the heritage of Stalinism, the growing decomposition of capitalist society and the sharpening of imperialist tensions which have made Central Asia in particular a strategic focus for military rivalries.

The republics of Central Asia were created by Stalin in 1924, carving up the region in the same way that the great powers divided up Africa or the Middle East. This patchwork of countries was held together by the Stalinist terror meted out to the population until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, which resulted in the independent status of the Central Asian republics. Then a Pandora’s box opened up. The richest and most populated region, the Ferghana valley, has been at the centre of all kinds of discord: shared between Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan and Tajikstan, and is cut up into a series of enclaves which can only encourage border conflicts and ethnic and religious tensions. These tensions have exploded into outright violence on several occasions: in 1990, hundreds died in clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the south of Kyrgyztan; up to 50,000 were killed in the civil war in Tajikistan between 1992 and 1997. Behind the ethnic tensions, the three local republics are in dispute over territory, water rights, and the control of the arms and drugs trade from neighbouring Afghanistan. In this chaotic context, the war in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance has had major repercussions throughout Central Asia, giving birth to a multitude of Islamist groups which have served to accentuate rivalries between the different republics and draw a part of the population into new massacres. The dramatic situation facing the mass of the population has been further aggravated by the authoritarian practices of these states, most of whose leaders are former Stalinist bosses. In Uzbekistan, the family clan around Karimov has appropriated all the main sources of wealth – mainly from raw materials – and corruption is the law. The average earnings are 10 to 20 dollars a month and production per inhabitant has fallen by 40% since 1998. The population is caught in a deadly trap, with the choice between plague and cholera – Stalinist bureaucrats or Islamist fanatics. The pauperisation of the population is helping to make this region a real powder-keg. The US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, under the banner of the war against terrorism, has strongly accelerated the whole process of destabilisation, since Uncle Sam’s concern for the region is not to bring peace but to defend its world leadership.

For the first time in history, the United States has established itself in Central Asia, and it plans to stay there, not only in Afghanistan but also in the two neighbouring ex-Soviet republics (Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). This is an open threat to China, Russia, India and Iran. However, its scope is far more profound: it is a step towards an authentic encirclement of the European powers - a new edition of the old policy of ‘containment’ that the US used against Russia. From the high mountains of Central Asia it will exercise strategic control over the Middle East and its oil supplies, which are crucial for the European nations’ economies and military action” (International Review 108).

Thus Eurasia has become the axis of conflict between the imperialist powers. The Americans have spent millions on setting up military bases for their intervention towards Afghanistan and for winning control of the region (according to the US press, the CIA even uses Uzbek know-how in the field of torture, using special planes to deliver ‘terrorists’ arrested in Afghanistan or Iraq to interrogation centres in Uzbekistan). Facing this offensive in its own backyard, Russia has strengthened its own bases in the region, notably in Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, while China has also been supplying military equipment to the Kyrgyz army, hoping to get a foothold in this strategic zone. All this military activity only adds to the prevailing instability, as we are seeing in Afghanistan and Iraq, but this in turn will oblige the US to intensify its military presence, while other powers can’t afford not to respond in kind. For the population of this region, the intervention of these powers will bring not a new dawn of democracy but a further slide into repression and violence.

Donald, 4/6/05.

[1] It seems probable that the riots were the product both of a major economic attack by the government (in April new restrictions were imposed on small street traders in a situation where, given the massive unemployment, the black market and the bazaar are the only form of economic activity open to millions of Uzbeks) and of a trial of 23 small entrepreneurs accused of having links with Islamism. The population hit the streets to demand ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’, accompanied by opposition political groups, which include certain Islamist groups.

[2] While the US administration supports Karimov for now, it can’t be ruled out that it may try to extricate itself from this Stalinist embarrassment, especially if it is able to create a viable political opposition. This would be more in conformity with its stated aims of bringing justice and freedom to the region.