In Uzbekistan, the Revolution Won't Be Pretty

By Martha Brill Olcott
Sunday, May 22, 2005

The handsome young man who received me last month in a government office in the Uzbek town of Fergana was working for the area's governor as a state "watchdog" for supervising Islam, but he didn't look or act the part. Rather than lecture me on the evils of religion, he told me that he had spent a year studying at an Islamic university in Cairo. And he gave me a copy of a book that was a Uzbek runaway bestseller.

The book, "Religion: There Is a Proper Way," is a guide to bringing Uzbeks back to their true faith through prayer. Moreover, it is being taught in an experimental public school program about the "history of religion." Its author, Sheik Muhammad Sadyk Muhammad Yusuf, fled Uzbekistan in fear of his life in 1993. He had been fired as the country's senior cleric for, among other things, being too tolerant of the Islamic fundamentalists in his native Fergana Valley. But he's back, and the government's decision to allow the open sale of his book was part of an effort to encourage "good" Muslims and discourage "bad" ones, like those tied to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an alleged terrorist group the sheik criticizes.

These distinctions were a small step forward for the regime of Uzbekistan's secular president, Islam Karimov, who for most of the past decade has repressed Muslims of every stripe while currying favor with the United States and Russia for his stand against religious extremism. However, after a prison break, a popular demonstration and an army crackdown in the eastern town of Andijon last weekend that took at least 169 lives, Karimov is blaming Islamic extremists again.

There are dangerous Islamic extremists in Uzbekistan, including some who want to oust the secular government and establish a caliphate, but my visit to the fertile Fergana Valley, where cotton and discontent seem to grow side by side, suggested that the Karimov regime's troubles run much broader and deeper than that.

Poverty, corruption, repressive security agents, price controls on cotton sales, steep taxes on small businesses and restrictions on small traders have created a disgruntlement that has nothing to do with religion. Karimov's cronies have monopolized industries for their own advantage.

And Karimov himself, the former first secretary of the Communist Party in this former Soviet republic, who was elected president in 1991, has extended his term by referendum rather than face any opposition.

But instead of restoring public confidence by offering concrete economic reforms, the Uzbek president continues to blame his problems on Islamic terrorists and the foreigners who support them. He snipes at Western critics who are pressuring him to liberalize. And he shows no signs of wavering in his commitment to an ambiguous policy of "evolution, not revolution." The latter, he says, comes when leaders show weakness, not strength.

Karimov is right about one thing at least: His country won't have one of those "color" revolutions on which he heaps such scorn. Despite international expectations that Uzbekistan could become the next democratic domino among the former Soviet republics, power there will never be transferred the way it was in Georgia's Rose Revolution, Ukraine's Orange Revolution, or even Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution, where crowds were unruly and the outcome uncertain.

Popular frustration may be even greater in Uzbekistan than it was in any of these countries. But their revolutions coalesced around opposition figures who had administrative experience and widespread support, and who were able to use flawed electoral processes to unseat entrenched leaders.

In contrast, Uzbek public figures who criticize their regime are few and far between. The three most serious challengers to Karimov are Shukrulla Mirsaidov, a former prime minister who has been living under house arrest in the capital of Tashkent since 1992; Muhammad Salih, a poet who ran against Karimov for president in December 1991 and who lives in Norway, where he leads a pro-democracy group called Erk , or Liberty; and Abdurahim Polat, a scientist and leader of a pro-democracy group called Birlik , or Unity, who has shuttled between the United States and Turkey ever since a near-fatal beating in Tashkent in 1994.

The pro-democracy groups exist entirely in exile. Uzbekistan's new parliament, which has very limited powers, was chosen by a process that left virtually no room for participation by critics of the regime. Karimov may congratulate himself for oppression efficient enough to have eliminated serious rivals, but this risks dire chaos when a day of transition inevitably arrives.

There are pro-reform elements within Uzbekistan's ruling elite -- in economic ministries, parliament, the private sector, the diplomatic service, even the military -- but to name these people would put their jobs at risk. There is no evidence that they are organized and many may not know of each others' existence.

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