Special Guest Article
Uzbekistan's Economic Revolution
Loretta Napoleoni is a true journalist, someone willing to uncover facts that the powerful would rather keep secret. Here is an all-new article.
by Loretta NapoleoniIs the bloodshed that in mid May took place in the Fergana Valley, in eastern Uzbekistan, the most recent chapter in global counter-terrorism? A world-wide effort to stop the Islamist insurgency from spreading, like a virus, across the free world? This is what President Karimov, unchallenged ruler of Uzbekistan and key ally of George Bush in Central Asia, would like the world to believe. Yet, a quick look at the events which led to the uprising seems to contradict such a statement. Far from being an Islamist insurgency, the unrest is part of an economic revolution aimed at destroying the corrupted regime of Karimov in order to embrace a free market economy.
The roots of the present uprising lie in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Without Moscow's monetary lifeline, diplomatic channels and trade structure, the Central Asian Republics plunged into economic chaos. Stability was achieved through harsh repression, the sole instrument known to the new rulers of the region. These are former hard-liner communists who had risen to power through the Soviet hierarchy and, as the 'evil empire' crumbled, skilfully carved economic kingdoms from the carcass of the Soviet Union. Among them is Karimov, regarded as one of the most brutal Central Asian dictators. Torture and police brutality are widespread in Uzbekistan. The country has no independent political parties, no free and fair elections, and no independent news media. Uzbekistan is also believed to be one of the destination countries for what is known as "extraordinary rendition" where detainees, mostly Islamist extremists, are transferred by the US to countries known to practice torture in order to extract information. Last year Human Rights Watch released a 319-page report detailing the use of torture by Uzbekistan's security services. It said the government was carrying out a campaign of torture and intimidation against Muslims that had seen 7,000 people imprisoned, and documented at least 10 deaths, including one man who was boiled to death in 2002.
In the early 1990s, the birth of the Central Asian republics and their detachment from Moscow, the economic heart of the former Soviet Union, set in motion a process of decentralization, which destroyed much of the agrarian and industrial infrastructure of the entire region. Following independence, borders were drawn between the republics, dividing villages, farms, sometimes even families. Passports were required to travel to local markets, which are now located in different countries. Irrigation systems were interrupted as they criss-crosses the various borders, preventing water supplies flowing from one country to another. Trade between the Fergana Valley and Tashkent, the largest and most important Central Asian market, was disrupted as this market was no longer freely accessible. Government neglect and corruption turned what once was a fertile valley into a poverty stricken area. Today, unemployment in the Fergana valley rages between 80 and 85%, those who are particularly affected are the young generations, aged 25 to 35.
It is against this bleak scenario that the unrest in eastern Uzbekistan has to be analysed. On 12 May, in Andijan, one of the largest cities in the Fergana valley, several dozen of armed men, believed to be Islamist extremists, stormed the cell of 23 businessmen, on trial for allegedly forming an Islamist terrorist cell and freed them along with 2,000 other prisoners. The commandos took several guards hostage and set off in a convoy. The army was called in; soon a bloody urban guerrilla filled the streets of the Andijan. Eventually the commandos barricaded themselves inside the administration building, in the city's main square. News of the fighting drew thousands of demonstrators, who peacefully assembled in the town square to protest Karimov's repressive government. “The demonstrators were not, they were not shouting any inflammatory, Islamic prose, they were just protesting against the economic situation and they were talking about their grievances against the government,” denounced Peter Boehm, a freelance journalist who witnessed the event, during an interview on the New York radio program, Democracy Now.
According to a local builder who survives on $10 per month, it was the first time in 15 years, since the fall of the Soviet Union, that people had gathered in a public meeting. People were protesting against high unemployment, low wages, rampant corruption, poor living conditions and constant repression. As they gathered in the square, soldiers opened fire on the crowd, shooting indiscriminately. Even the local police begged the soldiers to stop shooting. In the end hundreds of bodies, including those of women and children, filled the square. A mass of survivors fled towards the border of Kyrgyzstan where witnesses say Uzbek troops fired on them once more. Some reports put the final death toll as high as 750.
Even for Uzbekistan's atrocious human rights record, the killing of 750 innocent people is an outrage. Indeed, it is reminiscent of what took place in Tiananmen Square in Beijin, in 1989. However, this time the United Stated have not denounced the event, nor has the Bush administration ended the special relationship it enjoys with Karimov who offers military bases. On the contrary, less than a week after the massacre, the head of US Central Command, General John Abizaid, said that operations were being scaled back at the US base in Uzbekistan as a "prudent move." But he said this was not intended to be a political message of disapproval to President Karimov.
The Bush administration is carefully avoiding a key question, why thousands of people risked and almost a thousand lost their lives to free 23 businessmen? Who were these men and why were they on trial? Several reports confirm that they were self-made businessmen, who had no relations with the oligarchic elite which surround Karimov. “People were there for a month demonstrating every day because the 23 businessmen employ most of the people in town,” explains Justin Raimondo, editorial director of Antiwar.com. “When the cops came, took them away and charged them with being part of an Islamic group, which doesn't exist, everybody became unemployed. So, that's why people broke in armed, took over the town, and basically freed the people, they freed their employers.”
The 23 businessmen strongly opposed Karimov's ban on imports introduced at the end of 2004. Last November, there was an outbreak of social unrest across the Fergana valley following the introduction of the new law which prohibits people to sell any imports unless they had personally and physically imported them. Import restrictions brought economic life in the entire Fergana Valley to a standstill. “This is the real motive for the upsurge in Uzbekistan, which is why I'm saying it's a free market revolution, but Bush, Mr. Free Market, is not supporting it,” said Peter Bohen. “And he's not supporting it because the state interests of the United States are opposed to the official ideology of the United States. So, it's very interesting and ironic.”
Although the Uzbek revolution is economically and not religiously based, it has been presented to the world as the latest attempt of al Qaeda's followers to enslave a Muslim country. The US is supporting this propaganda, choosing to ignore the economic forces who cry for free trade because of its geopolitical interests in Uzbekistan. To keep its military bases in Central Asia, Washington is willing to compromise the economic principles President Bush praises daily. One wonders where the propaganda ends and the truth begins.
Loretta Napoleoni is an economist and author of Terror Incorporated : Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks.
Also see Napoleoni's earlier articles
The Saudis: Friends or Foes?
Hussein's Weapons of Mild Destruction
Ten Things You Don't Know About Terrorism
The Caucasus is on Fire
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