Political Murder in Central Asia: No Time to End Uzbekistan’s Isolation
14 Feb 2008
The murder of prominent journalist Alisher Saipov, a strong critic of the Uzbek regime, raises serious new doubts about Western attempts to accommodate the authoritarian government in Tashkent.
Political Murder in Central Asia: No Time to End Uzbekistan’s Isolation,* the latest update briefing from the International Crisis Group, looks at the Saipov affair and its consequences. A Kyrgyzstan citizen, Saipov was shot dead in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, in October 2007. Though Uzbekistan denies any involvement in the killing, there are strong circumstantial and other indications as to its possible motives – especially Saipov’s association with Erk (Freedom), a leading Uzbek exile opposition party – and responsibility. The briefing examines the killing’s implications for the opposition to President Islam Karimov, the country’s neighbours and the Western attempt at engagement.
“The murder of Alisher Saipov suggests the Uzbek regime may be both more ruthless and more fragile than even its strongest critics would have guessed”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project Director. “It hints at possible willingness to risk negative international publicity and condemnation in return for a demonstrative murder that sows fear and a sense of vulnerability among the regime’s enemies”.
Although in public Kyrgyz officials deny any involvement of Uzbekistan in Saipov’s death, in private some tell a different story. Several also told Crisis Group they are increasingly concerned at political developments in Uzbekistan. They complained that Karimov’s single-minded insistence on retaining power and his brutality are the main factors in the development of a radical Islamist underground and expressed frustration that their neighbour refuses to discuss the resulting security issues.
The EU and the U.S. need to heed the warnings. Attempts to engage the Uzbek regime are riddled with inconsistencies. Genuine communication presupposes dialogue and ultimately, mutual accommodation. But President Karimov shows little sign he is genuinely disposed to either. Softening the approach taken by Brussels and Washington since the May 2005 massacre in the Uzbek town of Andijon in the hope, for example, of regaining U.S. military use of the K2 airbase for operations in Afghanistan or to check Russian influence in Central Asia is likely only to encourage a dangerous and unpredictable regime.
“If Uzbek security services were responsible, as could well be the case, the murder of Saipov may be a sign of increasing regime desperation”, says Andrew Stroehlein, Crisis Group’s Director of Media and Information. “Placing bets on the president of Uzbekistan at this time could, at least in the medium term, cost the West’s regional position dearly. Indeed, it would be a poor geopolitical bet”.