Time Bomb

Uzbekistan is quiet, for now. But the violence that shook the eastern town of Andijan is reverberating elsewhere. In the capital of Tashkent, Uzbekistan's autocratic president, Islam Karimov, clearly hopes his strong-arm tactics will maintain his hold on power. Moscow (not to mention leaders in places like Belarus) worries about another post-Soviet revolution, following on the heels of Georgia and Ukraine. Western leaders are torn. They have no choice but to condemn a dictator's repression. Yet they fear what might replace him.

More than a week has passed since the bloody morning of Friday, May 13, and it's still unclear what exactly happened. The previous night, says a Radio Liberty reporter on the scene, Andrei Babitsky, about 70 to 100 hard-core protesters had stormed the local jail and released 23 political prisoners. By early morning, the citizens of Andijan had turned out en masse--as many as 10,000, according to various reports. But when crowds occupied official buildings, government security forces fired upon them with heavy machine guns mounted on armored personnel carriers. Snipers shot from rooftops as a helicopter circled overhead. Karimov angrily denied that he ordered a massacre, claiming that only 169 people died in the incident, including 32 special police. But international human-rights groups cited anywhere from 400 to 750 deaths, including many women and children. Eyewitnesses told observers for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a London-based international media-development NGO, how soldiers went from body to body in the town's main square, executing the wounded. Even many hours later, visitors to the scene described a grisly tableau of blood and body parts scattered across the square and surrounding streets. According to IWPR, a city pathologist counted 500 bodies at School Number 15 in the old town, guarded by armed soldiers.

Whatever turns out to be true, the shots fired in Andijan are echoing throughout Central Asia and beyond. From Washington, to Brussels, to Moscow--not to mention neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan--governments are watching to see whether the unrest will spread. "If this is what we think it is, that a massacre took place, then it's the beginning of the end" for Karimov, says Zeyno Baran, director of security programs at the Nixon Center in Washington. He expects the violence to escalate in the coming weeks. So does Leonid Ivashov, a retired Russian general and vice president of the Russian Academy for Geopolitical Problems in Moscow. "This was a true armed rebellion," he says. Those who planned it were counting on an iron-fisted response from the government, he adds, suggesting that the president's widespread unpopularity, especially among young people, will make it difficult for him to retrench like the Chinese government did after Tiananmen Square in 1989. "Karimov now has no choice but to try to right social wrongs," says Ivashov. "It's impossible to correct the situation through the use of soldiers and police."

Will the president see things that way? More likely, experts say, he will opt for brutality. The Uzbek strongman sits atop one of the most efficiently repressive state-security machines in the region. Unlike Georgia, Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan, there is no organized opposition in Uzbekistan. Elections are rigged, and there is no free press. Foreign radio is jammed, phones are regularly tapped, dissidents are followed and all the old KGB dirty tricks of political persuasion, kangaroo courts and torture are regularly brought into play, according to Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Tashkent who claims there are 10,000 political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan. He himself was relieved of his duties by his bosses in London late last year after publicly complaining that two such prisoners had been boiled to death by Uzbek police in October 2002.

Clearly, Uzbekistan is an awkward ally--yet it counts among its friends both the United States and Russia. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington was "deeply concerned of reports of indiscriminate firing" on the demonstrators. Yet Washington pointedly did not take sides. After 9/11, the Bush administration established a strategic partnership with Karimov, plunking down $500 million for a military base in southern Uzbekistan in preparation for operations in Afghanistan and paying $60 million or more a year in military aid and training.

Above all, Washington worries about who might replace Karimov. The nightmare scenario: overthrow by aggressively anti-American Islamic militants, many of whom are active in the famously lawless Fergana Valley. There was little evidence to support the Karimov regime's claims that the rebellion in Andijan was the work of Muslim extremists; if anything, witnesses report that the protests represented a broad swath of mainstream citizenry. Yet that did not diminish fears of an Islamic-style revolution, either in Tashkent or foreign capitals. "These demonstrations are not what we saw in Georgia or Lebanon. These were armed people taking over prisons. We recognize the need for Uzbekistan to deal with its terrorism problem," says a senior U.S. State Department spokesman, adding: "You don't want to walk away and let Uzbekistan become another Afghanistan."

That's Moscow's worry as well. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared last week that Muslim radicals linked to the "Taliban" were behind the Andijan uprising, and made clear that Russia supported the use of force by Uzbek authorities. Other Russian leaders went further, suggesting that events in Andijan were backed not only by international terror networks but also by the United States, bent on destabilizing Russia and limiting its influence in the region. Late last week the head of Russia's Federal Security Service, Nikolai Patrushev, declared war on foreign "spies" operating under the cover of Western NGOs. The upheaval in Andijan was only the latest in a string of efforts to undermine Russia and its allies, Patrushev said. They must be stopped--"in the interests of state security."

A new cold war? Not yet, but it could come to feel that way, especially if the region's other authoritarian leaders take a leaf from Andijan in dealing with their own opposition.