Two training bases being contemplated for southern Kyrgyzstan -- one by Russia and the other by the US -- are being justified as necessary to maintain stability in the region, and yet could be themselves generators of conflict. Joshua Kucera of EurasiaNet’s The Bug Pit notes that many observers have suggested their real yet unstated purpose is to “check Uzbekistan's aggression” -- although officially they are planned as part of an effort to deter terrorism, a cause that Tashkent says it endorses. Kucera writes the US has an obvious interest in bolstering its defense relationship with Kyrgyzstan; it already leases Kyrgyzstan’s Manas air base, as a key transit and refueling hub for operations in Afghanistan. The counter-terror training center, contemplated for Batken, in southern Kyrgyzstan, would strengthen ties with Kyrgyzstan and lessen the chances that it would be kicked out of Manas.
The US also has a vested interest in its military relationship with Uzbekistan, which is a key participant in the Northern Distribution Network, the supply route for non-lethal military deliveries to Afghanistan. For its part, Moscow is interested in countering Uzbekistan, the largest of the post-Soviet states with whom it has a wary relationship, unlike Bishkek, with whom ties have been closer, and also invokes the need to combat terrorism. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have a very tense relationship, particularly since the pogroms last June in which numerous ethnic Uzbeks were killed in Kyrgyzstan, but even before then had had various border and energy disputes that continue to fester. The border between the two nations is currently closed. While military conflict between the two neighbors is unlikely, how would the US react, especially if Russia took Kyrgyzstan's side? This would put the US in a quandary, and raises the question whether the Batken presence would draw America into a regional conflict -- or help prevent it. Kucera notes that little is known about the plans for the bases, and it is not clear how big a presence the US would have there.
Russia is increasingly making its concerns known about the potential for unrest in its Central Asian neighbors, with dictatorial regimes far more oppressive than Russia's own authoritarian rule. Recently the Russian Duma (parliament) convened a special hearing, "Central Asia: Strategic Partnership and Security Issues." With the revolutions in the Middle East, the situation in Central Asia is of "extreme concern" said Russian parliamentarian Aleksei Ostrovsky. Ostrovksy compared the rate of population growth in Central Asia to Egypt, and said most of the population lives in poverty. Labor migration to Russia by Central Asians was all that was preventing a "social explosion," he said. Russian national interests will be impacted by unrest in its neighbors, and it faces threats of cross-border crime, illegal migration, drug-trafficking, arms smuggling, and terrorism, he said. Last year, when violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan, the interim government in Bishkek appealed to Moscow to assist in maintaining order through the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the security alliance of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russia declined -- and while Uzbekistan pushed for a larger regional body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has a limited experience in such deterrence, to deploy a policing assistance unit, local authorities in Kyrgyzstan refused to accept it. Russia has repeatedly said that the CSTO is not mandated to become involved in internal conflicts, yet the issue has been debated and its mandate could be changed.
So far, such Arab-style unrest seems a remote unlikelihood in Uzbekistan precisely because of the Karimov regime's harsh control. Yet the longevity and persistence of the dictatorship, now in its 22nd year, means that change is inevitable and it may come with great disruption. Regrettably, peaceful dissent, tried by small independent political parties, human rights groups and various independent civic associations, has been harshly deterred and human rights defenders thrown in jail. Thousands of religious prisoners who worshipped outside state-controlled bodies have also been imprisoned. Keeping these people in jail is fueling further unrest as their relatives continue to protest -- the regime has tried to quell the outrage of families by frequent interrogations and intimidation, and by adding additional sentences to their relatives as they reach the end of their terms.
As human rights groups have pointed out, no prisoner arrested for religious offenses under the criminal code (extremism, membership in an illegal religious group, etc.) has ever been released as a gesture of conciliation to concerned Western governments, although various human rights activists and journalists have been released or had possible prison sentences changed to fines. The official state amnesties declared on various holidays have never affected the religious prisoners. Yet recently, rumors began to circulate that religious prisoners may be considered in the amnesty to coincide with the 20th anniversary of independence, September 1, the BBC's Uzbek Service reported. Both police who regularly keep tabs on relatives and the prisoners themselves have voiced this rumor, although no official pronouncement has been made at all.
The Uzbek regime faces a dilemma with the disposition of some 7,000 of such religious prisoners. If they go on keeping them incarcerated, they risk the growing outrage of their relatives and friends and the alienation of many domestic communities as well as Western governments. If they let them go, even with pledges not to continue their activities and heavy surveillance, inevitably some will return to the same activities that led to their imprisonment, such as participation in the banned religious movement Hizb-ut-Tahir, which seeks to restore the caliphate in Eurasia. The regime might employ a variety of tactics, releasing certain prisoners they think might be expected to remain passive and quiet, adding sentences to others to deter them, and co-opting still others into state-controlled religious bodies. The prisoners, as their numbers grow and as they and their relatives rebel more, become as much of a threat inside prison as they were outside, so it is likely that the authorities will try to cleverly combine various methods to co-opt and control the situation. Chiefly, despite the rumors of potential releases, the tactic seems to be to add to the sentences just as prisoners near the end of terms, and within prisons to separate religious prisoners who seem to be fraternizing, sending them to punishment cells if they are caught praying.
A group abroad has organized to directly challenge the Karimov regime and to consciously use social media like Facebook pages to imitate the methods of the movements in Iran and the Arab world. Called the Popular Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), the organization is made up of the Erk party, a banned party whose leader, Muhammad Salih, was forced into exile; the May 13 Union, which is a group made up of the Andijan Justice and Renewal movement of refugees who fled Uzbekistan following the massacre; and Tyanch (Support), a human rights group. The Uzbek authorities have responded by stepping up surveillance of Internet fora and now have ordered operators of cell phone networks to report any suspicious text communications.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog. To subscribe to Uzbekistan News Briefs, a weekly digest of international and regional press, write firstname.lastname@example.org