Over the past six weeks, the independent FerganaNews.com portal has conducted an online discussion, sparked by an article of the leader of the “Birdamlik” opposition movement, Bahordir Chorniyev, on the possibility that Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov and his regime could be overthrown by a “velvet revolution” (fergananews.com/articles/7849; fergananews.com/articles/7852; fergananews.com/articles/7854; fergananews.com/articles/7856).
Most of those taking part were skeptical about that possibility, but none of them has as bleak a vision of Uzbekistan’s future as Maryam Ibragimova, a Tashkent-based political scientist, whose article concludes the current series (https://www.fergananews.com/articles/7860). In an 800-word letter to the editor, she argues that her “beautiful and unhappy land” likely faces “either a military dictatorship or a civil war.”
As “a professional political scientist,” Ibragimova writes, she says she has no choice but to add her voice and that in her view there is no possibility of any “velvet” revolution in Uzbekistan. Instead, she continues, what lies ahead is “a bloody dismantling” of the existing dictatorship “or a prolonged civil war accompanied by the disintegration of the country.”
The Tashkent scholar gave five reasons for her explanation. First, in what she describes as his regime’s “greatest political mistake,” President Karimov has destroyed what might have been a liberal opposition whose criticism would have acted to restrain him from his worse missteps. His unwillingness to tolerate any criticism has driven the most talented people of the country to flee and meant that there is no one left to stand up to him. “‘Velvet’ revolutions presuppose a demand for reform. But now in [Uzbek] society, there are very few people who are ready to support” such things.
Second, there are no institutions in Uzbekistan that provide serious political and economic education or even more traditional education. As a result, the graduates of the institutions that do exist are inadequate to the tasks the country faces, and ever more people are turning to Muslim schools for answers to their problems.
Third, Uzbekistani guest workers in Russia are keeping the Central Asian republic afloat, an arrangement the Kremlin likes because it benefits from “the incompetent and corrupt bureaucrats” who rule in Tashkent. Fourth, Uzbekistan’s police and judicial organs are completely corrupt to the extent they function at all. Many of their staff have told Ibraimova, she reports, that they make no decisions. Instead, the powers that be and the National Security Service (SNB) simply give orders.
And fifth, the officers of the SNB know exactly what is going on, but they mostly do not want to rock the boat because they profit from the corruption. In fact, the political scientist says, “the SNB is the only organization” in Uzbekistan which knows the state the country is in and could act. One hopes that some of its officers will do so, she says, implicitly drawing an eerie parallel with the role of Yuri Andropov and the Soviet KGB in the Soviet Union during the 1980s.
As a result of these five factors, Uzbeks “do not believe in their country’s future.” The active part has already left or wants to do so, and overwhelmingly those who remain are satisfied with Karimov’s policy of “bread and circuses” or at least are not prepared to unite to challenge his regime. A velvet revolution requires exactly that, and it also requires leaders “capable of uniting those who agree with them and struggling often at the sacrifice of themselves for their ideas,” Ibragimova says. “Where are these leaders” in Uzbekistan today? Anyone who begins to distinguish himself or herself will be repressed, compromised or driven abroad.
As a result, at least in the short term, Uzbekistanis can expect only “the worst” of scenarios. As long as the regime has enough resources to buy people off, it will survive. When it runs out—and eventually, it will—“criminality will increase, chaos will ensue, and a bloody collapse” of the entire system and even the country will follow, she warns.
Once that starts, Ibragimova argues, there are only two possible outcomes: Either “the SNB and the army will unite and establish a military dictatorship,” something many in Uzbekistan—and, it should be said, not just there—will support as “better than anarchy” even though it will not solve the country’s problems. Or worse, “the SNB and the army will be paralyzed by corruption,” and “chaos will grow into a civil war.” In what is likely to be a war of all against all, various groups will become involved, including “separatists, Islamists, the narco-mafia, Russia, China, the United States, etc., etc.”
Such prospects serve in many ways as the last bulwark of the Karimov regime: it can pose as a lesser evil to those outcomes. But the ruling system cannot change itself and does not yet face a “velvet” pressure to change. Ibragimova concludes by expressing hope that her prognosis will somehow turn out to be incorrect.