The Future of Uzbekistan After Andijan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 11

Locals in Andijan cover a man killed in violence there two weeks ago

To assess the nature and likely development of terrorist threats to Uzbekistan in the wake of the Andijan massacre, we must determine what exactly happened there on May 12-13 and place this massacre – which may have taken as many as 1,000 lives – in context. [1] Uzbekistan, China, Russia, and other Central Asian governments quickly blamed the uprising on Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the Taliban and other Islamist movements outside of Uzbekistan. This, of course, is the standard response by all these regimes to any disturbance within the CIS and it is not just an ignorant pro forma response that is exculpatory, but it is also utterly self-serving. Hizb ut-Tahrir, not surprisingly, proclaimed that the events in Andijan had nothing to do with it and were a provocation by Islam Karimov’s government intended to discredit it, an equally exculpatory and self-serving response. Many foreign analysts, human rights organizations and local reporters tend to discount claims of HT involvement and accuse Karimov’s regime of overreacting to the demonstration. While they are correct, their analysis too is clearly incomplete.

However, we can place what is known of events there in a context that can explain how and why they occurred and their significance for the future. First and foremost, the demonstrations that prompted the violent reprisal were only the latest in an increasing and apparently escalating series of attacks and popular demonstrations against the regime, its economic misrule, and repression. In 2004, there were at least four episodes of either terrorist bombings or popular unrest directed at the regime and its notoriously corrupt police. All these events highlighted the erosion of popular support for the regime, the hatred of the police, the pervasive corruption of the regime, and the real possibility of growing support for groups like HT. In all cases, the government blamed HT for these events. In a further sign that popular discontent with the Karimov regime is growing, on May 3, 2005 demonstrators marched in front of the U.S. embassy in Tashkent against the regime only to be forcibly dispersed.

While all these cases show a rising tide of disaffection, not least due to the widespread economic misery and corruption of the regime, it is also quite likely that HT’s influence is growing. Many observers and foreign experts believe that particularly in the Fergana Valley, where Andijan is located, HT and IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) influence is growing due to the repression of religion, dissent, and the regime’s economic autocracy. Certainly for the last two years press reports indicate a growing fear among Kyrgyz officials, both before and after Kyrgyzstan’s revolution, of HT’s rising influence and presence. Similarly, neighboring governments like Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed rising concern about Karimov’s policies and their potential fallout for their own government. For example, a trial in Kazakstan of 16 men who are accused of some of the bombings in 2004 in Tashkent is currently taking place, indicating the spread of Uzbek-based terrorism to Kazakstan. [2]

In 2004, Vladimir Bozhko, First Deputy Director of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, publicly warned that as long as Uzbekistan’s and Afghanistan’s populations remain economically depressed and the local situation in those countries remains politically volatile, Kazakhstan will be at risk from terrorist attacks. Moreover, Kazak authorities have repeatedly detained Uzbeks allegedly engaged in terrorism within Kazakhstan or who go back and forth to Uzbekistan, a pattern repeated as well in Kyrgyzstan. [3] Their anxiety should also trigger our concern, for as Ahmed Rashid writes:

“The closing down of Uzbekistan is more than a threat to the country’s own population. It also represents a growing danger to all Central Asian nations. The arbitrary behavior of Karimov’s administration is increasingly seen as a destabilizing factor for the entire region.” [4]

Thus, paradoxically, Uzbekistan may be becoming an exporter rather than an importer of Islamic extremism throughout Central Asia, including Afghanistan. This would be a reversal of the recent pattern whereby Afghanistan under the Taliban exported instability throughout the world and Central Asia in particular. If this trend continues, the destabilization of Uzbekistan could become a catalyst for the spread of similar trends and forces to other Central Asian countries and back to Afghanistan, thus undermining, if not undoing, what has been accomplished there since 2001. [5]

The Andijan demonstrations grow out of this climate. The 23 men initially arrested there and their supporters claim to be merely religiously minded followers of a movement called Akromiya (named after its originator Akromiya Yuldashov). However there is good reason to suspect some HT influence in the events that unfolded in Andijan. The demonstrations of May 12-13 were a culmination of rising pubic anger at the arrest of these 23 businessmen, who claimed to have been arrested largely because the secret police and government wanted to confiscate their businesses, by no means an unlikely scenario. However, despite mounting anger, these demonstrations, including demonstrations at the trial, were peaceful. But on the night of May 12, the NSS (the secret police) began arresting demonstrators and relatives of those 23 men. This ignited the demonstrations and riots that led the “insurgents” to overrun first a police station, and an army or government office to gain weapons and then to storm the prison.

At the prison the demonstrators overran the building, freed the prisoners, and then wantonly and brutally killed the 54 unarmed prison guards including women. The next morning, naturally the crowd attached to the demonstration swelled. And when negotiations with local authorities collapsed, members of the various Uzbek armed forces (nobody can give a clear description of which forces they represented) apparently began firing indiscriminately, triggering a massacre that claimed several hundred lives. [6] While nobody is sure who gave the order to fire or who fired first, Karimov came in person to Andijan and was clearly directly involved with events there for several hours. Therefore, it is hard to imagine the troops simply losing control and firing into the crowd. Even so it is clear that this episode highlighted the un-professionalism and incompetence of local Uzbek armed forces.

This account of the demonstrations and of the preceding context is taken from numerous sources, including in some cases, eyewitness accounts. They show just how self-serving accounts by Karimov, other governments, and by HT spokesmen are. It is reasonably clear that the Andijan uprising is only the latest in a series of Uzbek uprisings that could now spread throughout Central Asia due to the desperation induced by Karimov’s brutal and economically mismanaged policies. In fact, the display of unprecedented brutality and the disproportionate use of force in Andijan will likely further accelerate the Karimov regime’s loss of legitimacy and may in due course lead to its ouster.

Moreover, it is conceivable that this desperation and contempt for the public played into the hands of groups like HT (if not HT itself) and directly led to the massacre at the prison and the seizure of weapons, clearly insurgent acts no matter how they were represented by the perpetrators. In that case, it would appear that the organizers either hoped for a capitulation of local authorities or a provocation to further discredit the regime. We cannot know for sure. While it is self-serving for the various parties to blame HT or Karimov, it would appear that both these forces played a negative role in setting the stage for a brief insurgency, inciting the insurgency and then repressing and exploiting it.

If this assessment holds up it also highlights the very great and growing likelihood not just of the Karimov regime’s steady loss of legitimacy, but also of an ever growing likelihood of violence originating either in Uzbekistan or among radicalized Uzbek refugees throughout Central Asia. In other words, while Karimov successfully repressed the Andijan uprising, he may have done so at the price of his regime’s future legitimacy and viability. Many observers believe that absent a radical change in policies this loss of legitimacy is inevitable. [7] And then HT or similarly situated groups will be able to exploit this misrule for their own purposes and possibly not only in Uzbekistan. Thus they may be the long-term beneficiaries of this tragedy based on the old revolutionary maxim of the worse it is the better it is (for the revolution). In the final analysis, just as the Andijan rebellion of 1916 heralded vast and imminent Central Asian upheavals, this rebellion may be the harbinger of far worse things to come.


1. This is based upon eyewitness reports forwarded to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, (Henceforth NED Reports) see also “Uzbekistan ‘Bucks Trend’ of Reform in Central Asia: Amnesty,” Agence France Presse, May 25, 2005

2. Oleg and Daur Dosybiev, “Kazaks Accuse 16 in Tashkent Bomb Trial,” Institute for War & Peace Reporting, May 20, 2005,

3. This is based on accounts from recent travelers to Central Asia who met with elites and officials in Uzbekistan and neighboring governments.

4. Ahmed Rashid, “Karimov Contributing to His Own Demise in Uzbekistan,” Eurasia Insight, December 20, 2004

5. Farkhod Tolipov, “Uzbek-American Strategic Partnership: To Be or Not to Be,” Unpublished paper based on his presentation to the Center for Strategic and international Studies, Washington, D.C., December 10, 2004

6. ICG Report; Rotar; “Karimov Orders Bloody End to Andijan Uprising,”; Peter Boehm and Andrew Osborn, “Uzbekistan: ‘In the Narrow Lane, the Machine Guns Clattered Remorselessly,” The Independent, May 22, 2005.

7. “Uzbekistan: Anticipating Round Two,”, may 25, 2005, Conversations with American experts, Washington, D.C., May 26, 2005