So Little Change From 'Comrade' to 'Mister'


The Wall Street Journal, 24.06.2005

Guess what? I'm no longer appealing to Western governments to support democracy in Central Asia. I've done this too often. Looking into the past, into my archives, I see a whole cemetery of such appeals. From the very birth of the civic movements in the region, starting in 1989, I've been calling on the West not to trust despots and to support democracy in Central Asia. Since then, only one thing has changed. In 1989 these despots were first secretaries of their local communist parties. Today they're called presidents of independent states.

Sixteen years have passed since the first secretary of the communist party of a vassal province of the Russian Empire became the first president of Uzbekistan. Islam Karimov was no longer a "comrade" but a "mister." At the time, I was often asked: "What do you think, is Mr. Karimov capable of implementing true reforms?" A generation later, different people ask the same thing. My answer to this question has always been that communists, by their nature, aren't capable of bringing about reform. Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and others challenge this claim, but these figures are exceptions rather than the rule, and even their record is far from perfect.

Now, after last month's massacre in the eastern city of Andijan, after the killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters by Mr. Karimov's army and police, I think no one in the world is seriously wondering about the ability of Uzbekistan's tyrant to change his ways.

On May 13, up to 30,000 people gathered in the main square of Andijan to protest against economic hardship and government oppression. According to the latest figures from independent human-rights groups, about 1,000 of them, including women and children, were killed that day. About 3,000 were injured. Immediately after this bloodbath, Mr. Karimov ordered the arrest of everyone who had been there.

Don't say that these numbers are an exaggeration. Don't say that the number of people arrested, at least several hundred, would be impossible to keep anywhere. President Karimov has covered Uzbekistan with countless jails and camps. Jasliq camp, for example, is called "a place with no return."

The Independent newspaper compared Andijan with the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But here's a difference: The whole world sympathized with the students of Tiananmen. Yet the women and children of Andijan's Babur square get little notice. Our two great neighbors, Russia and China, call it an internal affair of the dictator-murderer in Tashkent.

Only Britain was brave enough first to condemn the killing of innocent protesters publicly. And it immediately confused Mr. Karimov. He started stumbling, saying that no one was ordered to open fire on protesters. Imagine, if there were few more such governments who'd challenge this cowardly dictator. But no one else dares upset him.

After that blow, Mr. Karimov struck back. Accusing his opponents of wanting to create an Islamic caliphate -- when the people merely want a decent life -- he declared that Uzbeks would not accept "medieval values." In a way, he's spot on! Mr. Karimov's despotism itself is "a medieval value." Uzbeks did not want to accept it and that's why they rose in protest in Andijan. Mr. Karimov is angry with the international press for accusing him of killing 500 people, while he claims that he killed only 176.

President Karimov allowed foreign diplomats to visit Andijan, but made every possible effort to prevent them from meeting ordinary people -- the victims of the state terror. Fearing that his crime would be plainly exposed, Mr. Karimov rejected U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call to conduct an independent investigation of the Andijan events. He believes that he can wash away any trace of it by doing so. He may bury countless corpses, but such a crime will not be buried. It is so huge that it is visible from all corners of the world. In order not to see it, you would have to close your eyes shut, like other leaders in the former Soviet Union are doing now.

So I've decided not to write appeals to so-called leaders of the world any more. A better question for me, and other dissidents, is "What's the Uzbek democratic opposition going to do?"

That's an easy one. The Karimov regime relies on the army, police and international support as part of the "antiterror alliance" to hold on to power. The first is still strong, the second a bit rotten and the third trying to distance itself from this regime but so far without success.

It's our job to deal with the army and police. Intelligent generals and officers can be brought over to the people's side. The same can be done inside the police. As for the third pillar of Mr. Karimov's regime, I leave it to the publics of countries whose governments are his strategic partners to push for a reassessment. Anyone who claims to love freedom must not only safeguard it for himself but help others win it.

Uzbekistan's secular opposition has been and is best able to take this country out of the catacombs of despotism. I don't call upon the West to support Uzbek democracy. I call upon the West not to support men like Islam Karimov.

Mr. Salih, the leader of the Erk Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, lives in exile in Germany.