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Uzbekistan: West Accused Of Memory Failure Over Andijon Bloodshed

Some of the bodies of those killed when security forces fired on Andijon demonstrators (AFP) Three years after Uzbek security troops opened fire on a public square packed with peaceful demonstrators, President Islam Karimov's government maintains that the crackdown thwarted a plot to overthrow the government and establish Islamic rule.

His administration continues to reject Western and UN demands for an independent inquiry into the deadly confrontation in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon on May 13, 2005.

But as the anniversary approached, the West stood accused of forgiving the Uzbek government for a massacre of civilians at Andijon and warming to Tashkent for strictly geopolitical reasons.

Rights activists have expressed concerned that international attention has been fading and Western concern for the victims has been replaced by the West's desire to boost its own energy security, given Uzbekistan's huge deposits of fossil fuels.

"At the end of April, the EU foreign ministers met to discuss sanctions [against Uzbekistan]," Maisy Weicherding, Central Asia researcher for Amnesty International, told RFE/RL. "When we actually read through the final conclusions there was absolutely no mention of Andijon and that was the reason why sanctions -- however limited they were -- were imposed on Uzbekistan in the first place."

The European Union, which initially condemned the bloodshed and demanded an international probe, has gradually eased its stance toward Tashkent.

Iron Fist

Uzbek state television has broadcast trials showing defendants being convicted of plotting the protest and the unrest that preceded it in the eastern city of Andijon, including admissions of guilt and expressions of remorse.

Human rights groups accuse Uzbek authorities of extracting those confessions through duress or threats to the men's families. Uzbekistan has long been criticized by international organizations and Western states over allegedly widespread torture and abuse of detainees.

A rash of overnight violence and lawlessness by armed men targeted mostly local institutions on May 12-13, and included a jailbreak to free purported followers of the Islamist Akramiya group and the occupation of city hall.

But eyewitnesses said the vast majority of protesters on the central square when troops began firing were men and women who'd turned out to complain of economic hardship.

Shuhrat, who lives in a village near Andijon, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that it was poverty that forced people to take to the streets. Shuhrat said that low incomes and high unemployment prevented many residents from feeding their families.

"Being able to afford white bread has become a privilege for us," Shuhrat said. "It's true. A family who can afford white flour, white bread, is considered to be very, very rich among us."

Uzbek officials have claimed that just 187 people, many of them soldiers, were killed during the violence, and that the others were involved in a "foreign-sponsored" insurrection.

Human rights groups and eyewitnesses have said at least 700 people were killed when the troops fired on the crowd, including women and children.

Turning Down The Heat

The fact that no independent investigation has taken place -- despite U.S. and European calls for such a thing -- is pointed to by Weicherding as another failing of the West.

"Has Uzbekistan shown any initiative at looking into Andijon and allowing an independent investigation? No," Weicherding said.

After the Andijon events, the EU implemented limited sanctions against Karimov's government, including an arms embargo and a visa ban on 12 senior Uzbek officials.

The following year, however, four officials were taken off the visa-ban list. And in 2007 and again in April, the visa sanctions against Uzbekistan were suspended for six months.

During a visit to Central Asia in April, EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner defended Brussels' stance, saying Tashkent has taken steps to improve human-rights conditions.

"Uzbekistan is the first Central Asian country with which we have formalized such a human-rights dialogue," Ferrero Waldner said. "And the release of a number of human-rights defenders in Uzbekistan -- that was a positive sign, and that encourages us for further moves in the future."

The United States, too, had strongly condemned Uzbekistan over its handling of Andijon. The criticism came at a price to Washington, as Tashkent demanded that U.S. forces leave the Karshi-Khanabad military base in southern Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan also appears to be softening its tone toward the United States and the West, although the country's leadership remains publicly cozy with Moscow.

...And Responding In Kind

Tashkent has also hosted a number of Western delegations over the past year. President Karimov signaled his government's willingness for rapprochement with the West in a speech last year.

"In its foreign policy, Uzbekistan has always wanted and supported maintaining mutually beneficial cooperation -- based on mutual respect -- and relationships with all its close and far neighbors, including the U.S. and Europe," Karimov said, "and we will never change this course."

The public tone from Tashkent has clearly softened, since previous comments in the wake of Andijon were openly defiant of attempts by the international community to pressure Uzbekistan to allow an independent investigation. In March 2007, Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov boasted that EU sanctions "are not bothering us," adding, "We do not have to explain ourselves."

The Uzbek government recently agreed to allow more NATO forces to use Uzbek military facilities in the southern town of Termez, including a military base where German forces have been stationed since 2001.

Regional experts say the urge to diversify its energy sources are one reason the European Union has sought to strengthen ties with Tashkent.

Robert Templer, the director of Asia Programs at the International Crisis Group (IGC), told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the West will be unable to secure Uzbek gas or establish a genuine rapport with Tashkent for as long as Karimov is in power.

Uzbekistan has natural gas -- although deposits are far smaller than in neighboring Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- but most of its gas reserves have been pledged to Russia.

Russian oil giant LUKoil has already invested a reported $500 million in Uzbekistan, and last month the company announced its intention to invest a further $5.5 billion there.

Templer said that "history shows that making concessions will not work with leaders like Karimov." He argued that the West should take a much more assertive stance with Uzbekistan if it wants to improve its position in Central Asia in the long run.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier contributed to this report

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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