Rebellion Shakes Post-Stalinist Order in Central Asia

by Gerry Foley / June 2005 issue of Socialist Action

 

 

Throughout the history of the Stalinized Soviet Union, the so-called Central Asian Republics were darkest corners of the bureaucratic dictatorship.

 

It was here that the national oppression imposed on the small nations of the former Russian empire by the Great Russian chauvinist bureaucracy was the most oppressive. It was here that the ruling bureaucracy was the most corrupt, where the living standards were the lowest, where there was the least opportunity for independent thought and organization—even less than in

the European parts of the totalitarian state.

 

This situation was scarcely altered by the breakup of the Soviet Union. In these countries, the Stalinist bureaucracy remained intact and continued to rule in

essentially the same way, only now in the name of restoring capitalism and in alliance with the United States. Thus, in the buildup to its invasion of

Afghanistan, the U.S. was able to establish bases in some of these countries, notably in Uzbekistan.  However, the stability of the repressive regimes in

this strategic area is clearly beginning to splinter.  The explosion in Uzbekistan in mid-May is the most dramatic.

 

The unreconstructed Stalinist regime of Islam Karimov carried out a massacre of a crowd of protesters in the city of Andizhan that ranks with the worst political outrages in history, like the British massacre in the Indian city of Amritsar in 1919 or the slaughter of protesters in Peking’s Tien An-Min Square in 1989.  In Amritsar about 400 people were killed, and the slaughter alienated millions of Indians who had been loyal to the British empire. In Andizhan, the death toll may have reached about a thousand, and this in a city of only 300,000 and a country of only 26 million inhabitants.

 

The Uzbek security forces fired ruthlessly on a crowd of thousands that had come out to support 23 political prisoners who had been freed by rebels on Friday, May 13. Reuters reported May 16: “According to witnesses

interviewed by Reuters in Andizhan, soldiers outside a school gunned down a large crowd, including women, children and 10 police hostages, that was moving away from a main square where the shooting started.”

 

The news service quoted a 31-year-old cobbler who watched the killing from a side street as saying: “It was a massacre. This sickening smell of blood, smashed brains, guts, and blood, blood, was everywhere. I could not put my feet on a dry spot. … I saw soldiers killing several wounded with single shots to the head after asking ‘are there any wounded around?’”

 

In a report published in the website of Al Jazeera, a representative of a Uzbek opposition party, Nigara Khidayatova, claimed that another 203 people were

killed by the security forces in Pakhtabad, another city in the Fergana Valley. She was quoted as saying, “Soldiers were roaming the streets and shooting at

innocent civilians. … Many victims were shot in the back of the head.”

 

In its May 22 issue, the British Independent gave a more detailed account gathered from witnesses: “Two key witnesses interviewed by this newspaper—an ‘insurgent’ who played a key role in the ‘uprising’ and a pro-government former policeman taken hostage by the insurgents—have filled in other gaps in horrifying detail. The crowds, it has been established, were mown down by powerful coaxial 7.62mm machine guns mounted on two Russian-built BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers. Such cannons can unleash 2000 rounds barely pausing for breath before they need to be reloaded.

 

“A military helicopter was used for reconnaissance purposes, and Uzbek troops armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles opened fire on the demonstrators,

creating a deadly field of fire with the BTR-80s from which there was no escape. The soldiers made sure they had done their work well. After the shooting had finished they went from body to body delivering ‘control shots’ to the back of people's heads and scoured the town's streets for survivors to finish off.”

 

The brutal repression drove hundreds of Uzbeks to seek refuge in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. But the lines of refugees were also fired on by the security forces.

In its May 17 issue, the Paris daily Liberation reported: “In the village of Tesik-Toch, the inhabitants told Agence France-Presse that on Saturday [May 14], the Uzbek border guards targeted a group of unarmed civilians who were trying to cross the frontier, killing 13 of them. These testimonies were confirmed by the stories of some survivors who have now taken refuge in Kyrgyzstan.”

 

Roundups of political suspects are also in progress.  The Los Angeles Times reported in its May 17 issue:

 

“Andrei Babitsky, a Russian reporter for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said in a telephone interview from Andijon [Andizhan] that a local human rights activist told him that about 1500 people had been detained. They were being held at the regional office of the national police and at the city police headquarters, with many kept outdoors behind the

building, he said.”

 

The Uzbek rulers allege that they are fighting Islamic extremists. That is the line most likely to appeal to the U.S. authorities, who regard Karimov as an ally in

their war against Islamist terrorism. However, a report in the May 18 Christian Science Monitor quoted a Russian government export as saying that Karimov’s repression was producing the sort of oppositionists he wanted:

 

“’There is no doubt Karimov has effectively closed off all channels for legitimate expression of dissent in Uzbekistan,’ says Sergei Kolmakov, an expert with the Institute for the Development of Parliamentarism, which is linked to the Russian State Duma. ‘That leaves only religion as a forum for people to express themselves, but Karimov uses the label of “religious

extremism” to crack down on any opposition from that direction.’”

 

In these circumstances, there is no doubt that Islamic groups, both radical and moderate, are a factor in Uzbekistan. But the poverty and repression in the

country are clearly provoking mass hatred of the regime that goes beyond any religious motivation or outlet.

 

The bloodshed in Uzbekistan is an acute embarrassment for the U.S., which has given the Uzbek government more than a billion dollars in aid, some of it going to the police and security forces. Some Russian officials have argued that the uprising was encouraged by the U.S. rhetoric about “freedom.”

 

It is obviously difficult for the U.S. rulers to find themselves associated with Karimov’s bloody regime.  But at the same time they certainly do not want to see him overthrown. They have reason to fear that political developments in this explosive region can easily get out of control.

 

Another example is the demonstrations in the Central Asian republic of Azerbaijan on May 21. They came days before the opening of a U.S.-sponsored oil pipeline starting in the predominately Muslim country, which

the U.S. rulers claim will reduce dependence on Mideast oil.

 

Azerbaijan continues to be ruled by the same Aliev clan that ruled it in Soviet times. The demonstrators in the city of Baku were demanding free elections. The present ruler of the country, Geidar Aliev, was elected in 2003 in elections widely considered to have been fraudulent.

 

The police attacked and beat the demonstrators, and reportedly jailed a hundred of them. But it seems now unlikely that repression can keep the lid on much longer in the former Soviet Central Asian republics.