Wsj com East of the Oder February 8, 2002

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02uzbek - East of the Oder
February 8, 2002
Karimov's War on Islam

Could Destabilize Central Asia


TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Although they have been driven from power in

Afghanistan, Islamic extremists still have fair chances of seizing power

in several neighboring states. One is the country that has shifted most

dramatically toward the West during the recent crisis. Uzbekistan's

ferocious policies designed to crush Islamic militants could end up having

just the opposite effect.

Uzbekistan is the strategic kingpin of ex-Soviet Central Asia, an ancient

center of Islamic learning, and a beacon to ethnic Uzbek minorities in

neighboring countries. If a wave of religious fanaticism should sweep out

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, it would surge right through the

artificial state boundaries inherited from the Soviet era.

In the wake of the September 11 atrocities, such threats naturally took

second place in America's calculations. Washington urgently needed access

to air bases near the Afghan border, and Mr. Karimov responded boldly with

an offer of cooperation. Commercial airliners landing at Tashkent's main

civilian airport last month taxied right past a U.S. Air Force transport

plane; neither partner tried to conceal the American presence.

Sound policy, however, looks beyond immediate tactical needs. The most

serious long-term threat to stability and freedom in Uzbekistan comes from

Mr. Karimov himself. In a country where more than 80% of the populace is

of Islamic heritage, his government is pursuing the most aggressively

anti-Islamic policies anywhere in the former Soviet Union. An Uzbek emigre

in Moscow has more freedom to practice his faith than his cousins in their

ancestral homeland.

Speaking in Tashkent to visitors from the Keston Institute, an

Oxford-based research center specializing in international religious

freedom, a local barber said that he had forgotten how to trim a beard,

because, as he put it: "In our country beards are forbidden." Though there

is no such formal law, other sources confirmed that beards are risky.

Unless he is elderly, a man with this traditional sign of Muslim piety is

likely to be detained and taken to a police station for interrogation as a

"suspicious" character. Women with traditional Muslim head coverings also

face discrimination.

Uzbekistan's criminal code includes a vaguely worded ban on the use of

religion to "undermine social harmony." A 1998 law stipulates that only

organizations formally registered by the Ministry of Justice -- which

imposes high hurdles for such registration -- may conduct any kind of

religious activity. One can see in Uzbekistan many buildings formerly used

as mosques but now closed by the authorities.

Mr. Karimov, who led Uzbekistan's Communist Party during the Soviet years,

has revived Soviet practices of minutely regulating religious life. Muslim

institutions are controlled by the Spiritual Directorate of Uzbekistan, in

effect a state agency -- in a country with no tradition whatsoever of

political freedom. An adviser to the directorate's head told us that he

fully supports Mr. Karimov's policies.

In August, Human Rights Watch published a detailed memorandum on religious

persecution in Uzbekistan, based on hundreds of interviews. Its

conclusion: Thousands of Uzbek Muslims have been "detained, harassed,

tortured, and imprisoned" even though "only very few have been charged

with specific violent acts" and "even more rarely have the authorities

produced credible evidence to support charges of the use or advocacy of

violence." Instead, the government has targeted "people who pray in

mosques not run by the government, who belong to Islamic groups not

registered with the government, who possess Islamic literature not

generated by the government, or who meet privately for prayer or Islamic

study, singling them out for nothing more than the peaceful expression of

their religious beliefs."

Keston asked our sources if there had been any cases of such religious

believers charged under the criminal code but then found innocent. They

could not remember one. Conditions within prisons are brutal, with many

instances of torture, and, we have been told, deaths while in custody. One

recently released prisoner told us that his jailers had beaten him simply

for saying his Muslim prayers. The Soviet-style crackdown has also

included harassment of prisoners' relatives, thus swelling the numbers of

embittered citizens.

Certain forces stand ready to exploit such bitterness. The Islamic

Movement of Uzbekistan is explicitly committed to the violent overthrow of

the current regime and its replacement by an Islamic state. It has

launched armed attacks on Uzbekistan from bases abroad. Less extreme is

the Uzbek branch of the international Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of

Liberation), which advocates the unification of all Muslims in the world

into a single caliphate. Although in the past this party has publicly

rejected armed methods, its rhetoric has taken a violently anti-Western

turn since Sept. 11. Hizb-ut-Tahrir shares the IMU's hostility to Western

civilization and also that group's anti-Semitism. Its underground

activists have told representatives from Keston Institute that countries

such as the U.S. and Great Britain are offspring of Satan.

So the question is not whether Uzbekistan faces a threat from religious

extremists. It does. The issue is whether the current regime's

heavy-handed methods are likely to quench or inflame that threat. As

Mikhail Ardzinov of the Independent Society for Human Rights in Uzbekistan

told us: "The problem is that Mr. Karimov is waging war not only on

extremists but simply on all serious Muslim believers."

That war affects religious minorities as well. A Baptist pastor in

Tashkent told Keston that he was unable to get official registration for

his congregation because it would be politically awkward for the

authorities to authorize more Christian churches after closing so many

mosques. The regime enforces harsh limits on the importation of Bibles and

other religious literature. Unfortunately, the U.S. State Department has

failed to respond with even the elementary step of classifying Uzbekistan

as a "country of particular concern" under America's 1998 International

Religious Freedom Act.

The post-Sept. 11 alliance with Mr. Karimov puts the U.S. into an

ambiguous position, supporting a regime that has in essence declared war

on Islam as a religion. It gives the extremists evidence for their claim

that the U.S. is fighting not terrorism but Islam as a whole. Washington

should not forget the results of its policies in the 1970s, when it closed

its eyes to the persecution of Muslims by another secularizing,

authoritarian but "pro-American" ruler: the Shah of Iran.

Mr. Rotar is Central Asia representative and Mr. Uzzell is director of

Keston Institute (www.keston.org1).

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Updated February 8, 2002 12:01 a.m. EST

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New U.S. Allies, the Uzbeks: Mired in the Past

May 31, 2002

New U.S. Allies, the Uzbeks: Mired in the Past


ASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Two years ago, Poul Jahn employed 140 people as an

importer of products like candy from Germany and Legos from Denmark.

Today, he is all but out of business, because the government stopped

allowing him to convert his sales revenue from Uzbek som into dollars.

His difficulties are just one example of how hard it is to foster economic

or other development in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states that

have become the newest United States allies because of their proximity to

Afghanistan and the usefulness of their bases to American troops.

Under President Islam Karimov, a Soviet-era ruler here who has just

extended his term until 2007, Uzbekistan has displayed little appetite for

either democracy or open markets. Political repression is intense,

corruption is widespread and economic policy owes more to Stalin than

George W. Bush.

American leaders are eager to pump economic and military aid into Central

Asian states, but the sort of bureaucratic thicket and isolationism

encountered by Mr. Jahn makes it difficult to see how the World Bank will

dispense the $1 billion earmarked for the region over the next three


Yet without economic reform to improve the prospects for people here, the

attraction of radical Islamic movements to the poor and disaffected may

continue to grow. Mr. Karimov has used the existence of such movements as

the pretext for an often brutal clampdown on any expression of Islam,

jailing thousands of people in sweeps across the country that have been

repeatedly criticized by rights groups.

Every economy in Central Asia is smaller today than it was before the

collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Poverty is intense, with average

annual income of about $610 here and less than half that in neighboring

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Although leaders like President Karimov have vowed to support economic and

administrative reform, the progress is at best uneven.

"Leaders are finding that they are getting a very different reception now

than they got on Sept. 10," said James D. Wolfensohn, president of the

World Bank, who himself made his first trip to the region only after the

Sept. 11 terror attacks transformed the geopolitical realities of formerly

forgotten Central Asia.

But, Mr. Wolfensohn added, "If they are going to take advantage of this

opportunity for funds and support, then change will be necessary."

Uzbekistan illustrates how hard that change will be. Despite heavy

pressure from the International Monetary Fund, it has yet to abandon its

currency restrictions. Policy often seems to be set mainly to buttress Mr.

Karimov's hold on power.

Meanwhile, a crazy quilt of new borders has disrupted trade and routine

travel throughout the region.

Many people are trapped in enclaves, a few square miles of Uzbek or Tajik

territory surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. Traders who once roamed freely across

borders now need to wait in long lines, show visas and often pay bribes.

"People are trapped," said Natalia Ablova, director of the Bureau on Human

Rights and Rule of Law, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. "They cannot travel,

cannot trade, cannot create business. Just travel through the region, and

you will see the intolerable conditions that each country has created for

its own citizens."

Uzbekistan is hardly alone. Turkmenistan, which has big oil and gas

reserves, has become so autocratic and isolated that World Bank officials

have all but stopped offering aid.

Tajikistan, ravaged by civil war through much of the 1990's, remains

plagued by organized crime, heroin smuggling and violence. Few foreign

companies venture to do business there, and the average yearly income is

only about $200.

The new isolationism has greatly increased tensions throughout Central

Asia. Uzbekistan is critically short of water, and constantly accuses

Kyrgyzstan of hoarding it upstream. Kyrgyzstan says it needs to store

water for hydroelectric power, because its neighbors will not supply it

with enough electricity.

"You have this shadow play going on between leaders, whether it is about

problems in the Aral Sea or about trade," Mr. Wolfensohn said.

The difficulties become abundantly clear on a trip through the Fergana

Valley, a region that is just 200 miles long but is home to 10 million

people and a big share of Central Asia's industry and agriculture.

A one-hour trip between the Kyrgyz cities of Osh, an ancient trading post,

and Jalalabad now takes four hours — the main road cuts through Uzbek

territory, and side roads are winding and small.

The enclave of Sokh, claimed by Uzbekistan but surrounded by Kyrgyz

territory, is virtually fenced off from the outside world. Uzbek leaders

argue that strong borders are essential to preventing attacks by militant

Islamic groups, notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has

roots in the Fergana Valley and launched several attacks from Tajikistan

and Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000.

Economics is also partly a factor in the Uzbek behavior — to keep prices

for basic commodities like flour, cotton and gasoline artificially low,

the government has imposed a mind-numbingly complex scheme of currency and

trade controls.

At a checkpoint near the Uzbek city of Kuvasai, border police put the

finishing touches last month on a massive new station that looks like the

entrance to a palace.

The new station has multiple rooms for interrogation and searches; animal

pens for the guard dogs; the latest in X-ray and bomb-sniffing equipment,

and a canteen and recreation room for off-duty guards. Police officials

boast that the "Welcome to Uzbekistan" sign can be seen from Kyrgyz

mountainsides 50 miles away.

"You can see that there is nothing like this in Kyrgyzstan or even

Kazakhstan," boasted the station's director, Col. Alisher Amanbaev. "This

has everything you need for a really civilized process."

But not necessarily an easy one. There are no buses or trains that go

straight across the border. Anyone driving a car from Kyrgyzstan will have

to pay $45 for insurance, prohibitive for people in a country where the

average annual income is $270.

"It would be good if we could just drive across," said Micha, a Kyrgyz

hairstylist who waited along the railroad for a ride to Kuvasai. "Before,

we would just go up to the border, stop and then drive through."

Economic life has been disrupted in scores of places. At a brick factory

in Kuvasai, managers were told they would have to pay steep new tariffs on

clay from a quarry just over the border in Kyrgyzstan. Factory managers

located another source on their side of the border, but the land belonged

to a collective farm. Local Uzbek authorities then ordered the farm

collective to hand over the quarry land on a 50-year lease at no cost.

Although factory managers say they are selling more bricks than before,

they are not selling any at all in Kyrgyzstan. A rival Kyrgyz brick

factory is not selling anything here, either.

Uzbek attempts to control exchange rates have created an even bigger set

of barriers. A handful of privileged companies, like the Daewoo automobile

assembly plant, are allowed to purchase dollars at about 700 som to the

dollar. Individuals are allowed to change limited amounts of money at

1,450 som to the dollar. The real exchange rate, available on the black

market, is about 1,500 som to the dollar.

The effect is to wreak havoc in trade, swamping neighboring countries with

artificially cheap Uzbek products and making most exports to Uzbekistan

artificially expensive.

"We are a country with a majority of the population living below the

poverty line," complained one top Kyrgyz official. "But trade with our

Eurasian neighbors dropped 20 percent last year."

Mr. Jahn, owner of an importing company called Jahn International, built a

thriving business here through much of the 1990's. But then the Uzbek

government cut in half the amount of Uzbek som he could convert to


Then it reduced him to a quarter, and then it cut off his "allocation"


To stop him from changing money on the black market, Uzbek authorities

limited bank withdrawals to little more than the amount needed for wages.

To make sure Mr. Jahn did not cheat by selling products out the back door,

they sent inspectors to check his warehouse inventories.

"I don't want to do business illegally," Mr. Jahn said. "Right now, I am

basically out of business."

Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, change may be under

way. Last month, Uzbek authorities announced that citizens would no longer

have to show them airline tickets and travel documents in order to

exchange Uzbek som for dollars. It was a limited offer — no more than

$1,000 per person every three months.

By Uzbek standards, it is a major reform.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Permissions | Privacy Policy
Institute for War and Peace Reporting

Thursday, October 3, 2002

Child Labour Rising As Uzbek Economy Worsens

Families are pulling their youngsters out of school and putting them to work to ensure that there is food on the table

By Gairatjon Sultanov and Umida Khasanova in Samarkand (RCA No. 131, 23-July-02)
Ten-year-old Jakhongir is one of the scores of children who cart heavy goods around the Siab district bazaar, where people from all over the region travel to buy vegetables and other produce.
Jakhongir, who used to go to the local middle school, says that if he did not work his family could not afford to eat, "My father retired because of illness, and receives a pension of only 11,000 som (around $9-$10) a month, and my mother is at home looking after my three little brothers. This is not enough money for us, and as the oldest child, I have to help."
Sherali Ergashev, 12, says his earnings are used to put food on the family table. "I can make 1000-1500 som a day, which I use to buy bread, potatoes, onions, carrots and so on. The people in charge of the market, the police, and my teachers want me to stop, because if I do our family will be left without bread."
His father, Ali Ergashev, says there is simply no other choice, "I am forced to ask my son to do this work, because I am disabled with arthritis, and my wife is also an invalid. Although we are both disabled, the state doesn't pay us any pensions."
The head of the education board in Samarkand, Anvar Bekmurodov, says they have visited some of the parents involved and tried to explain that it's illegal for children to work in the bazaar, "But the parents did not want to listen to us." In fact, some were extremely hostile towards the officials, driving them out of their homes with axes.
Kakhramon Usmoniyon, a local official charged with the prevention of juvenile delinquency, said he had tried, but failed, to stop the practice. "We took carts away from children many times, and made them leave the markets. The next day their parents came to the station asking for them back and pleading with us to let the kids earn some money."
Amid fears that the children would turn to crime, the police, in agreement with the district market administrators, allow children from poor families to work provided they register at the market's police station.
"There is a special registration book that contains photographs and complete information about the children and their parents," said Usmoniyon. "The kids make around 200-250 som a day. They are all under our control."
Medics in the region are, however, critical of children so young doing such heavy work. According to local doctor Rano Bobomurodova, children should not perform taxing manual labour until at least the age of 14. "They could easily injure themselves and do themselves permanent damage, otherwise," he said. "What sort of a future will the republic have if the younger generation cripples itself, and has no education?"
Although Uzbekistan is a signatory to the UN convention on the rights of the child, local authorities have long flouted its provisions, frequently employing Soviet-era practices of mobilising children to gather cotton and do other seasonal agricultural work.
The practice of individual families putting their own children to work is relatively new, only really developing since the mid Nineties, as economic and social problems in the newly independent republic worsened.
Kamiljon Ashurov, a civil rights activist from Samarkand, says if the problem is to be truly resolved it is important that the causes and not just the symptoms are attacked, "We need to solve economic problems, employment issues, and develop social support for poorly-off sections of the population with large-scale reforms. Only then will our children not have to work in the markets."
Gairatjon Sultanov and Umida Khasanova are independent journalists in Uzbekistan.

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Thursday, October 3, 2002
Uzbekistan: Land Confiscations Anger Farmers

Farmers lose their livelihoods in government drive to counter drought and a shortage of arable ground.

By Khalmukhamed Sabirov in Andijan (RCA No. 134, 1-Aug-02)
The Goyib Toshmatov collective farm in Uzbekistan's Andijan province used to be a thriving business with a fine yield of rice. Seventy-year-old Gofir Ummatov and his colleagues spent years cultivating their land - but then government took it away to grow cotton.
"Once our work was done and the land was ready, the local administration seized it and sowed cotton. They promised to give us other plots in compensation but this hasn't happened," Ummatov told IWPR.
Due to a severe shortage of arable land, Uzbek farmers are no longer allowed to grow the crops of their choice. Andijan is one of the worst-affected areas, with many plots being confiscated by the government.
Thousands of farmers have been now been deprived of their sole source of subsistence - the land they till from morning to night.
According to collective farm chairman Toir Mirzakhakimov, the authorities believe that rice is no longer a viable crop, as it consumes too much water. "This region has been stricken by a severe drought for two years, so the government forbade farmers to continue sowing rice."

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