It may take a while to sort out all the details, but we do know some
of what happened last week in Andijon, Uzbekistan: Government
soldiers shot and killed hundreds of unarmed protesters, who had
assembled after rebels freed 2, 000 prisoners from a local jail.
"They shot us like rabbits," an Uzbeki told Reuters, "and chased
and finished us off like dogs in side streets and alleys."We also know that the Bush administration's immediate response was
grotesque. "We are concerned about the outbreak of violence," White
House spokesbot Scott McClellan said, "particularly by some members
of a terrorist organization that were freed from prison." It was
three days before the administration shifted the balance of its
criticism to Uzbekistan's government, saying that the slaying of
innocents was "deeply disturbing."
The roots of the crisis are not complicated. Uzbekistan's dictator,
Islam Karimov, does not tolerate dissent. A former communist
apparatchik turned pro- Western kleptocrat, Karimov has tortured
and killed his way to the top of the heap of the world's human
rights abusers. His medieval regime notoriously suffocates
prisoners with chlorine-filled gas masks and has boiled at least
two opponents in cauldrons of water. He has used a real but
exaggerated threat from an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist
organization, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as a cudgel
to destroy all opposition.
Andijon, a city of 300,000, sits in the Ferghana Valley in the
eastern-most corner of Uzbekistan, a region that has suffered
disproportionately from Karimov's economic policies. Cotton is the
lifeblood of the Uzbek economy, but farmers are forced to sell the
so-called "white gold" to the regime for pittances, while the
government resells it for massive profits that sustain Karimov's
rule. In Ferghana, citizens sought to counter this crushing
economic system with free enterprise--bazaars, local banks,
informal trade with neighboring Kyrgyzstan--which Karimov has
sought to eliminate, to the anger of Valley residents. That
explains why the criminal case of 23 Andijon businessmen- -accused
of extremism and membership in an outlawed Islamic group--morphed
from just another government show trial into a mass uprising.
Karimov claims the men- -who make up the backbone of Andijon's
middle class--are Muslim radicals, but, for the people in Andijon,
the men were a source of much-needed jobs.
Early this month, protests outside the court where the businessmen
were being tried became regular, and, last Thursday night, rebels
of uncertain origin stormed their prison, which was emptied of its
prisoners, some of whom, Karimov's government alleges, were members
of the IMU. What followed the prison break was an apparently
spontaneous protest in Andijon's town square. Karimov claims that
the crowd was a threatening group of bandits and Islamic
fundamentalists, but most (if not all) were actually civilians
demonstrating against Karimov's corrupt rule and severe economic
policies. One of the few foreign journalists on the scene reported
the following: "They are shouting social slogans, I would like to
stress, not Islamic ones. They say that things are bad, ask why the
authorities have brought the people to live in such misery. "
Soon after, Karimov's soldiers stormed the square in armored
vehicles and fired at unarmed protesters, including women and
children. The United States thinks about 300 were killed, while an
Uzbek opposition group claims at least 745.
The Bush administration's reasons for keeping Karimov as a strategic
partner are wearing thin. We needed Karimov after September 11,
when he offered us an old Soviet airbase to stage operations
against the Taliban. But we now have the sprawling Bagram
installation in Afghanistan. Others argue that Karimov is a secular
bulwark against Islamists in Central Asia's most populous state.
But Bush himself has sworn that privileging stability over the
uncertainty of freedom is a strategy doomed to failure. Moreover,
support for Karimov is counterproductive, since he seems bent on
driving Uzbekistan's Muslim fence- sitters into the Islamists'
camp. Another argument sees Uzbekistan as a way to check Chinese
and Russian influence in the region and to secure Central Asian oil
and gas reserves for the West. But Karimov needs us more than we
need him. Losing the United States as a military partner would be a
severe blow, and there are millions of dollars in U.S. aid that
Bush could rescind with the stroke of a pen.
We ought to start wielding these sticks. After all, the true test of
Bush's commitment to democracy is whether he is willing to push for
it even in cases when it might be against our short-term
self-interest. In that sense, Uzbekistan is the first real test of
Bush's commitment to "end tyranny in the world."
By the Editors