Friday, May 13, 2005

Violence in Uzbekistan

There are reports out of protests, prison breaks and even deaths in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Instapundit has a good roleup too.

ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan — Outrage over the terror trial of 23 Muslims exploded into broader unrest in eastern Uzbekistan on Friday when armed protesters stormed a jail to free defendants, clashing with police in violence that brought thousands of protesters into the streets. At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded, witnesses and officials said.

One protester, who put the death toll as high as 20, said 30 soldiers were being held hostage because they were shooting at demonstrators. Two of the dead were children, Sharif Shakirov, a brother of one of the defendants told The Associated Press.

President Islam Karimov and other top officials rushed to the eastern city of Andijan, where the government insisted it remained in control despite the chaos, though it blocked foreign news reports for its domestic audience.

For those of you who have not been to Uzbekistan, which is probably just about everyone, it is a very remote (it holds the distinction of being one of only two doubly landlocked countries in the world in case you ever get that question on Jeopardy) and poor country. It is also a virtual police state. My job when I was in Tashkent was basically to haggle with traffic cops to get out of tickets. They apparently can't afford cars, so they stand on just about every street corner waving down passing motorists.

I found their characterization of rushing "to the eastern city of Andijan" a bit odd, since Andijan is in the Fergana Valley, the only real agriculturally rich and densely populated area of Uzbekistan, and only about 50 miles east of the capital anyway.

The big question of course is whether this "uprising" is a more popular rebellion like in Kyrgyzstan and the Ukraine, or more Islamic fundamentalist tinged (cue memories of Tehran 1979). Just to give you an idea of what the country is like, in Bosnia for example, they play the Islamic calls to prayer 5 times a day (mostly just to annoy the Serbs) but you never see anyone praying. In Uzbekistan, which is 90% Muslim, it is illegal to even play them. Islam Karimov (ironic name admittedly) bans just about any display of Islam, in a paranoid attempt to crush Islamic fundamentalism. The people I talked to didn't really seem to care, their biggest concern was just surviving economically, in a country where a hundred dollars a month was considered a decent salary. In the aforementioned article this guy points that out.

"We are not going to overthrow the government. We demand economic freedom," Egomov told The Associated Press.

"If the army is going to storm, if they're going to shoot, we are ready to die instead of living as we are living now. The Uzbek people have been reduced to living like dirt," Egomov said.

This is not to say that Islamic fundamentalism plays no role, religion is a common way of venting frustrations for more temporal concerns. The US has helped a bit, giving $500 million plus to Karimov in return for renting an old Soviet Airbase for the Afghan war. Of course how much of that ended up in Swiss bank accounts is a good question.

More on all this later if I get a chance.

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