Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Uzbekistan: Video of the Andijon Uprising

Last week, New York Times reported about video recordings from the events leading up to the 2005 Andijon massacre. The tapes were confiscated by Uzbek authorities after the massacre and have been used as evidence and propaganda by the Karimov regime. However, they may be interpreted in various ways, and cast considerable doubts on the Uzbek version of events. This comes as no surprise as the official Uzbek story has been twarted from the very outset. However, the tapes also give a much more complex picture of developments in Andijon prior to the massacre than has previously been the case.

In May 2005, public protests against a number of arrests in Uzbek city of Andijon led to a massive jail-brake. Protests were sparked by a trial of 23 local businessmen charged with involvement in Islamic extremism. On 12 May, an armed crowd stormed the local prison and prisoners were released, including also heavy criminals. By then, public disconent had peaked and people flooded the streets in massive demonstrations against the Karimov regime, which were to be know as the Andijon uprising. On 13-14 May, demonstrations were brutally quashed, and as many as 750 people - mainly civilians - were killed, although Uzbek officials have put the death toll at a mere 169. Thus far, accounts more or less concur.

The Uzbek government's version of events was that an uprising of Islamist extremists - with links to al-Qaida - had been put down by police and interior ministry troops. This version, backed also by Russia and China, holds that there were next to no civilian casualties and that the action was directed against Islamist insurrectors and bandits. Of course, this story is evidently incorrect. Testimonies by Andijon refugees instead clearly point to a majority of civilian casualties. Furthermore, it seems that also the military was used against civilians, at least judging from what arms apparently were used to put down the rebellion.

As the story came across to the international audience, more or less peaceful demonstrators had been brutally massacred by the Karimov regime. This version must be seen against the background of discontent over social and economic conditions that swept over Uzbekistan in Spring 2005.

As a consequence, massive international protests against the massacre were levelled against the Karimov regime. Thus, the international community reacted to the Andijon events. Following the lead of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the OSCE called for an independent international investigation to find out what transpired in Andijon during those fatal 2005 Spring days. In September 2005, the EU imposed sanctions against the Uzbek leadership, walking a thin line between Human Rights concerns and the needs among its member states for the continued use of the Uzbek Termez airbase for supplies to international operations in Afghanistan. Still, such considerations were eventually put aside, and in retaliation Uzbekistan banned Nato, the US and most EU-states from continued use of Termez.

As is often the case with sanctions, international measures against the Uzbek leadership were somewhat blunt, hitting also reform-oriented regime politicians, e.g. the Uzbek Minister of Defence, Kadyr Gulyamov. Western critics of the sanctions have also argued that the only result was to drive Uzbekistan into the arms of Russia, while at the same time losing all possibilities for Western influence over political developments in the country.

Until now, the real events that took place in Andijon have remained obscure. The 70 minute recording now obtained by the New York Times gives a more nuanced picture of events leading up to the massacre. Recordings show the demonstrations after the prison-break but before troops arrived to quash the rebellion. Most of the demonstrators are unarmed civilians, but a number of armed insurgents and criminals take cover in the crowd. Also, a convicted murderer as well as a known female drug-dealer are agitating to the crowd to stir up wider protests. It is simply obvious that some of the escaped prisoners try to exploit the situation to their own advantage. However, it is even more obvious that the overwhelming majority of demonstrators are unarmed civilians exercising their democratic rights. Also, young men making Molotov cocktails are portrayed. When fire fighters arrive to put out fires ignited by insurgents, they are not only hindered to do so, but also taken hostage.

That public protests of this kind should warrant action by the police or interior ministry troops is clear. Needless to state, Uzbekistan - as any other state - has the right to preserve public order by the legal means at hand. However, there is no excuse for massacring civilians in the process of returning order. It is all too evident that the Karimov regime knowingly used excessive force to set an example to the Uzbek people to put an end to protests that had been growing throughout Uzbekistan during Spring 2005. That armed insurgents and criminals used civilians as cover and exploited public discontent in Andijon can never motivate indiscriminate shooting at civilians. Uzbekistan committed a haineous act against its own people no matter what the rationale for it might have been. That the now published recordings gives a more nuanced picture of events does not change this in the least, but only adds to what many observers guessed already from the outset, given the factors involved. Andijon still stands out as Karimov's worst crime. Let us but hope that the world and the Uzbek people will escape a repetion of similar events elsewhere, despite continued repression.

1 comment:

W. Shedd said...

Not to excuse the horrible actions of the Uzbekistan government against its citizens in Andijon - but its heavy crack-down on civilians should be viewed through the lens of the so-called "Tulip Revolution" in neighboring Kyrgyzstan just months before. That revolution started as civilian protests in Jalal-Abad (also Ferghana valley) and Osh ... with the protestors/rebels actually driving north to continue protests in Bishkek, bringing it to the very doors of the Kyrgyz White House.

Even though the Ferghana valley is shared by three nations, it is in many ways, a single like-minded region. It sounds like the Uzbek government was looking for continued strife from the region, was prepared to come down upon it hard, and essentially did that - in an act of preemptive self-preservation.

At least that is how I view the governments paranoid motives for the massacre.