- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

With more than 500 dead in Andijan, a city in the impoverished and overpopulated Fergana Valley, a hotbed of Islamic extremism in Uzbekistan, the face of Central Asia has changed forever. Brittle relations between the government of President Islam Karimov and his people are bloodstained.

The city is quiet — a graveyard quiet. President Islam Karimov’s government, its heavy-handed tactics, and a deliberate provocation by Akramia, a local Islamic organization, appear to be at fault for the massacre.

According to the sketchy media reports, hundreds of people were killed and many other wounded. Hundreds, if not thousands became refugees in the neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

Western observers should be careful not to mistake this for one of these peaceful “multi-color” revolutions which occurred from Belgrade to Bishkek in the last three years. The violence, even if quelled for now, may re-ignite — with unpredictable consequences in this tinderbox of a region.

Uzbekistan, its neighbors, along with other world powers, need to find a way out of this crisis — and fast. The main challenge for the Uzbeks and the U.S. is how to move along the road to political reform without allowing Islamists to take over.

Akramia is named after its founder, Akram Yuldashev, who has been in and out of jail on charges of Islamic extremism. Public evidence of his group’s terrorist activities is sparse. However, the recent operation in Andijan, which included seizing a military base and disarming a contingent of government troops seems well-planned, and executed without regard to civilian casualties. Moreover, the threat of radical Islam in Central Asia — and especially in impoverished and radicalized Fergana Valley, which straddles Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — is significant and growing.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has links to al Qaeda and directed terror attacks in the 1990s. It suffered setbacks fighting alongside Usama bin Laden in Afghan-istan and its leader, Juma Namangani, was killed. Another leader, Tahir Yuldashev (no relation to Akram), survived and is now hiding in Pakistan.

Another key player may be the global, clandestine radical Islamist party, Hizb ut-Tahrir al Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation), which is recruiting supporters by a thousand. Hizb’s goal: creation of a worldwide Califate, a military dictatorship based on Shari’a law, and Holy War (jihad) against Land of the Sword — that is, the West.

Central Asia, according to Hizb, is ripe for an Islamist revolution because of its corrupt “infidel” regimes and U.S. presence due to the war in Afghanistan. The region, with its natural resources such as uranium mines, is as good of a bridgehead in global jihad as any. Hizb has declared democracy is un-Islamic but is likely to take part in any popular uprising.

If President Islam Karimov — a Soviet-era secular authoritarian leader — does not negotiate with the secular and moderate opposition, the uprising could spread.

Uzbekistan is a quintessence of everything wrong with post-communist Central Asian regimes. Since the Soviet collapse, the country has never had legitimate elected leaders, or postcommunist democratic institutions. Instead, it stagnated.

Mr. Karimov took over when Moscow stopped taking phone calls. The elites remained the worst of Soviet Central Asia — riven by a combination of clan allegiances, corruption and an inability or unwillingness to reform and modernize.

The people of Uzbekistan are sick and tired of Mr. Karimov. Today he is opposed by a combination of Islamist organizations and secular opposition parties and movements. These include the Erk and Birlik parties, which are largely secular, urban and middle class. However, the Uzbek opposition has not one recognized leader, such as Victor Yushchenko in Ukraine or Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia.

Uzbekistan is now on the brink. It is strategically located in an area that has known much bloodshed and little democracy. In 1992, ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were at each other’s throats in Osh, with deaths reaching 2,000. A civil war that resulted from a split between northern and southern clans in Tajikistan took more than 100,000 lives after the Soviet collapse.

The United States has strategic interests in Uzbekistan and should follow the situation closely. The country was a key ally in the 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom that liberated Afghanistan. A U.S. air force base in Khanabad is just one of the American sites in the country. Islamists use U.S. presence to agitate against America and the West. They also attack Karimov for maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel.

Russia and Western powers and international organizations will think twice before aiding Karimov to quell the revolt. Meanwhile, China and Kazakhstan, with its oil riches, are nervously watching developments in Andijan.

A fall of Uzbekistan into the hands of the Islamists would cause a geopolitical shift in Central Asia and endanger both U.S. and Russian interests there. In the long run, radical Islamist strategists believe Central Asia, with its Soviet-educated technical personnel and ample natural resources — gold, oil and gas, uranium, and globally competitive cotton production — will emerge as a militarized Muslim state: a califate. They see it becoming an anti-Western jihad territorial base.

To avoid that catastrophe, Uzbekistan’s neighbors and the United States, Russia, China, European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United Nations should prod Mr. Karimov to find a way out of the current crisis. This may include legalizing political parties, giving opposition access to the media, and scheduling elections. Parliamentary elections could take place before presidential ones, and Mr. Karimov should be encouraged to transfer power thereafter.

To avoid the political expansion of radical Islam, it is important Uzbekistan’s people have hope and that the country open to modernization. But the time left for Uzbekistan to change course may be running out. Decisive action is needed now.

Ariel Cohen is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author and editor of “Eurasia in Balance” (Ashgate, June 2005).

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