In Uzbekistan, which likes to behave as a regional power in Central Asia, large-scale antigovernment protests by citizens have begun to shake the foundations of the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov. Demonstrations broke out last week in the town of Andijan in the Fergana Valley, where rebels had announced a plan to build an Islamic state. The trigger came when armed men freed 2,000 inmates from a prison. The attack escalated into a blood bath as law-enforcement authorities suppressed it. The demonstrations then spread to another town.

The demonstrations in Uzbekistan were sparked apparently by recent political changes that have occurred in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Many Uzbeks reside in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, close to the Fergana Valley.

The Uzbek government has pointed its finger at the involvement of Islamic extremists and tried to frame the incident as evidence of the need to fight terrorism. However, such an attitude appears capable of only driving the public further away from the government. Current developments are forcing President Karimov to face up to the reality that has caused public dissatisfaction with his repressive regime.

They are already having an impact on the surrounding region, with refugees fleeing into Kyrgyzstan. There might also be a subtle impact on Kazakstan and Turkmenistan, which are ruled by similarly authoritarian regimes. Thus securing regional stability depends largely on the response of international organizations and related countries.

The demonstrations in Uzbekistan have been characterized by big disparities in claims about the number of victims. According to antigovernment sources, up to 700 people have been killed, including more than 500 in Andijan alone. However, the public prosecutor general officially put the number of dead in Andijan at 170 people, including law-enforcement personnel. Since the Uzbek government has placed tight controls on information to the extent of restricting coverage by Russian media, the official announcement of the number of victims cannot be accepted at face value.

Reports by refugees who fled into Kyrgyzstan seem to substantiate the fact that “indiscriminate shooting” took place. Undeniably the dictatorial nature of the government, which viewed the protests as something that had to be suppressed, contributed to the casualty toll.

The fact that citizens rose en masse to take part in the protests shows that there are limits to suppression with force. It seems that mounting unemployment and deteriorating living standards became the background for the demonstrations. The demonstrators were calling for justice as well as better living conditions. Discontent with a situation in which just a handful of interests maintain control over the economy is understandably increasing.

The leader of an assassination attempt on President Karimov, in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in 1999, hailed from the Fergana Valley. The attempt was linked to the Taliban-allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which advocated a holy war to overthrow the dictatorial regime. Still, it is dangerous to jump to the conclusion that the recent demonstrations were all the work of Islamic extremists. Rather, attention should focus on the reality that Islamic organizations are gathering public support and that suppression simply makes them more radical.

The major powers are engaged in a tug of war over interests in Central Asia. The United States, which has been allowed to operate a military base in Uzbekistan in its fight against terrorism, is competing with Russia, which is stubbornly defending its historical sphere of interest. Uzbekistan has maintained its own course by balancing these two sides. The concerns of China, which faces problems with the Uighurs in its northwest region, also deserve attention.

In the fight against terrorism, the Uzbek dictatorship has been tacitly accepted by the international community. However, the demonstrations show that the status quo has its limits. The explosion of public dissatisfaction was certainly not a response to pressure from foreign forces or calls by terrorist group leaders. Information control and a heavy hand will not lead to a resolution.

What is urgently needed in Uzbekistan now are efforts toward democratization in which criticism of the government is permitted. As a first step, the Uzbek government should look into the events behind the demonstrations. Japan, which has been providing support for economic reform in Uzbekistan, surely has a role to play in helping restore stability.

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