However paradoxical it may sound, the recent terrorist acts in Uzbekistan were not a complete surprise, either to average citizens in the republic or to political analysts. The horrific economic situation in the republic, the extreme level of corruption exhibited by the state apparatus, the explicit authoritarianism of the ruling regime and the unexplainable obedience of a population suppressed by poverty – all of these factors together produced the premonition of a calm before the storm. It is noteworthy that nearly all the local residents with whom this Jamestown correspondent had the opportunity to converse on the eve of the terrorist acts expressed harsh criticism of the ruling regime but, simultaneously, were amazed at their own obedience. This correspondent repeatedly heard residents in the republic say, “Is it possible that we are such slaves that we shall endure such usurpation indefinitely?”
That the present stability is illusory was also underscored by some people in power. For instance, Sadykhzhan Kamaluddin, the president of the International Islamic Center of Kyrgyzstan, who is an Uzbek by origin and one of the more prominent Islamic scholars in Central Asia, told Jamestown not long before the recent terrorist acts,
“The economic situation in Uzbekistan is extremely difficult. So far only fear has restrained people from organizing spontaneous demonstrations. But people’s patience is not infinite. Here in the East there is a saying: ‘A knife should be sharpened against a stone, not a melon’.”
Kyrgyz law enforcement officials also assured Jamestown that, among all the Central Asian republics, the most powerful underground organization of Islamic fundamentalists operated in Uzbekistan. In November of 2003 the deputy head of police of the Osh oblast of Kyrgyzstan, Erkin Ersenaliev, told Jamestown: “The main source of influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir [the radical international organization dedicated to the unification of all Muslims in the world into a single Caliphate state] is still located in Uzbekistan, and in particular in the Andizhan oblast, which is on the border with our state.” And Dilmurat Orozov, the head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Dzhalalabad oblast (southern Kyrgyzstan), assured Jamestown: “Thanks to the repressive measures of the Uzbek authorities, the local Hizb ut-Tahrir members turned into dedicated fanatics who are ready to die rather than change their views.”
Meanwhile, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which suddenly revealed its operational capabilities in Pakistan in March of this year, has in essence answered the debates that raged for three years regarding whether the U.S. armed forces had managed to eliminate this international terrorist organization. According to admissions by the Pakistani military, IMU forces mounted a vigorous resistance against Pakistani troops in the province of Waziristan, thereby confirming that the IMU remains a highly professional and combat ready force.
Today we can only guess as to who is behind the recent terrorist acts in Tashkent – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir (members of which categorically denied in conversations with this journalist their involvement in bombings; they also insisted that they are committed to peaceful tactics), or some other radical Islamic organization. But this is ultimately not of the most importance. What is important is that in Uzbekistan today there are a significant number of desperate people, who, without any hesitation, are prepared to adopt terrorist tactics. Moreover, there are armed militants abroad who are ready to assist them with both finances and weapons.
At present, living standards in Uzbekistan are among the lowest in the entire Commonwealth of Independent States. Indeed, in this regard Uzbekistan is rivaled only by Tajikistan – a republic that earlier experienced some four years of bloody civil war. Statistical data on salary levels is kept highly classified in Uzbekistan, and is impossible to obtain at any of the republic’s statistics directorates. What is officially known is that the minimal salary is equal to 5,540 Uzbekistani soms (that is, approximately $5.5). However, according to estimates by independent experts, the average salary in the republic is not more than $20. Moreover, salary arrears in rural areas reach six months.
Circumstances are especially difficult in the rural parts of the country, where more than 80 percent of the republic’s population resides. This Jamestown correspondent can testify to the fact that meat has practically disappeared from the rations of rural residents. The main food for peasants is a loaf of bread. It is also not uncommon to see that flour is mixed with agricultural nutritional supplements intended for feeding domesticated animals so as to lower the price of baked bread. It is likewise worth noting that Russia, which is considered a relatively poor country by European standards, is perceived as a prosperous country in Uzbekistan. Moreover, large numbers of Uzbeks seek to find work in Russia. According to estimates by the Research Center on Migration in CIS and Baltic Countries, 600,000-700,000 citizens of Uzbekistan (that is, more than 20 percent of the country’s male population) travel abroad, mainly to Russia, for temporary work on an annual basis.
Apart from the objective factors that explain the present crisis – such as the low level of education of the population and the deficit of land suitable for horticulture – there are also subjective reasons. The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who in Soviet times headed the republic’s Communist Party, is in essence continuing the economic policies of the Brezhnev era.
Although Uzbek peasants are now permitted to rent land, they are not free to decide what to plant on it; the state makes this decision. They are also required to sell their harvest to the state. The price for cotton in Uzbekistan is ten times lower than in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where it is bought at real market prices. Uzbek peasants are thus forced to be ingenious. In fields rented for cotton production they raise vegetables, but they surround them with cotton plants so that the authorities will not discover their initiative.
The business community never materialized in Uzbekistan as it did in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Many of this author’s Tashkent acquaintances complained that it is virtually impossible to pursue private entrepreneurship because of the bribes that one is forced to pay. In essence, the only rich people in today’s Uzbekistan come from a thin layer of corrupt government officials. The pervasiveness of corruption in government structures, against the background of extreme poverty for the population as a whole, leads even some of the most Soviet-minded of people in Uzbekistan to utter pronouncements sympathetic to the Islamists: “If they come to power at least they won’t take bribes and they won’t steal.”
The disastrous state of the Uzbek economy exists in sharp contrast to the propaganda pouring out of local media outlets, which continuously claim new successes for the “state of a great future” – the official reference to Uzbekistan. Pompous and expensive government buildings and hotels are being built across the republic. The love of the Uzbek authorities for showing off, a trait that they inherited from Soviet times, sometimes leads to outright peculiarities. For instance, there are ATM machines installed in the halls of the expensive hotels – but it is not possible to withdraw money from them. It turns out that the ATM machines were operational only for several days during last year’s session of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. Since then the machines seem to have functioned primarily as an element in the hotels’ interior design.
In order to restrain popular unrest Tashkent maintains one of the highest staffing levels in terms of the ratio between law enforcement officials and the population in general. Thus, before the recent explosions in Tashkent there were police checkpoints every one hundred meters. Moreover, on all roads in the republic there are police checkpoints at which every car is meticulously examined. Of all the Central Asian states, Uzbekistan is alone in implementing tough policies towards Islamic fundamentalists. Thus, if an individual in Uzbekistan is found to be in possession of a proclamation from Hizb ut-Tahrir, he or she is sentenced to a minimum of ten years in prison. According to estimates by international human rights organizations there are more than 7,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan, including approximately 5,000 who are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Poverty compounded by this sort of political repression is generating desperate resolve in people who have nothing to lose. In private conversations many relatives of political prisoners told this correspondent that they would happily take up arms if they had an opportunity to do so.
1. See Mike Redman, Central Asian Militant Group Remains Active in Pakistan, Eurasianet.org, March 24, 2004.