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Uzbekistan: Stagnation and Uncertainty

Asia Briefing N°67
22 August 2007

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OVERVIEW

Uzbekistan remains a serious risk to itself and its region. While 69-year-old President Islom Karimov shows no signs of relinquishing power, despite the end of his legal term of office more than half a year ago, his eventual departure may lead to a violent power struggle. The economy remains tightly controlled, with regime stalwarts, including the security services and Karimov’s daughter Gulnora, exerting excessive influence, which drives away investors and exacerbates poverty. The human rights situation is grave, and those who seek to flee abroad live in constant danger of attempts to return them forcibly. While the government cites the “war on terror” to justify many policies, its repression may in fact be creating greater future danger. Efforts at international engagement have been stymied by its refusal to reform and to allow an independent investigation of the May 2005 Andijon uprising. Little can be done presently to influence Tashkent but it is important to help ordinary Uzbeks as much as possible and to assist the country’s neighbours build their capacity to cope with the instability that is likely to develop when Karimov goes.

According to the law, Karimov’s latest seven-year presidential term expired in January 2007, a date which passed largely unnoticed. Speculation about who will ultimately succeed Karimov continues, though there is no clear front-runner. While Turkmenistan managed a peaceful transition following the death of President Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006, there are reasons to be concerned that Karimov’s departure may lead to serious instability, with potentially grave consequences for the region as a whole.

The economy remains heavily dependent on the export of cotton, gold and natural gas, all commodities largely controlled by the regime and its allies, who reap considerable profits while the population at large faces serious hardship. Gulnora Karimova has reportedly been particularly ruthless in her drive to increase her financial empire. Millions of rural citizens have turned to shuttle trading or sought jobs outside the country to get by, with the latter group sending large remittances, although government interference may be increasing in these areas as well. Even major Russian and Chinese investors interested in Uzbekistan’s energy industry face serious obstacles to doing business.

Despite the release of two recently convicted human rights activists, the overall situation has changed little. Regime critics are severely persecuted. Hundreds of citizens have fled abroad, and some of those in Russia or Kyrgyzstan have faced harassment and intimidation from local and Uzbek security services. There have also been a number of cases of illegal deportation. Religious freedoms are severely curtailed: members of “non-traditional” sects encounter harassment and arrest, and devout Muslims run the risk of being branded extremists or terrorists. Civil society and the independent media have been almost wiped out, while journalists working for foreign news services face threats and persecution.

The government regularly cites the dangers posed by radical Islamist groups, particularly Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to justify such policies. Despite occasional outbreaks of violence in the region in recent years, however, there is no clear evidence the IMU poses a direct threat to it. However, if the regime continues its repressive policies, support for radicalism may well grow.

The suppression of an uprising in Andijon in May 2005 was a turning point. Hundreds – if not more – of civilians are believed to have been killed. Alone among world powers, the EU imposed limited sanctions and has continued to uphold them, albeit in progressively weaker forms, most recently in May 2007. Repeated efforts by the EU, and particularly Germany, to promote renewed engagement with the Uzbek authorities has evoked only token gestures. Relations with the U.S. are at an all-time low. Even ties with Russia, which supported Karimov over Andijon, show signs of strain. Despite Karimov’s desire to retain foreign policy options not to be an international pariah, his regime has done little to improve relations with any of its foreign interlocutors.

Bishkek/Brussels, 22 August 2007


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