TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - Corruption, repression and economic hardship have fueled such widespread discontent here that the entire country is on the brink of unraveling, and many fear that with the slightest effort the Taliban of neighboring Afghanistan could set off an explosion in Uzbekistan that would reverberate throughout Asia.
Uzbekistan is the keystone to Central Asia, a region of former Soviet republics rich in oil and gas and hobbled by poverty. If Uzbekistan falls apart, all of Central Asia will follow. And if Central Asia spins out of control, that will likely draw its two big neighbors - Russia and China - into the fray.
Uzbekistan has been struggling with two separate Islamic movements. An underground political party in the nation's cities seeks a peaceful transformation into an Islamic republic. A small but wily armed guerrilla movement - which has the direct backing of the Taliban and uses bases in Afghanistan - seeks to overthrow the government by force.
Through indiscriminate arrests, torture and killings, against a backdrop of economic mismanagement, the regime has managed to create serious opposition forces where once none existed. Hostile to even mainstream Islamic teaching, it has been unable to counter extremist interpretations of the Quran within the opposition - interpretations that glorify violence and demonize the infidel West.
The government has been considering this week whether to make air bases available to U.S. forces gathering for an attack on Afghanistan. But a representative of the anti-Taliban Afghanis warns that the Taliban could cross the Amu Darya river into Uzbekistan almost at will, despite extensive minefields along the border. A quick victory in a battle against demoralized and ill-equipped government forces, some say, could lead to the disintegration of the country.
"And yet, the main problem is not from Afghanistan but from a very unstable situation inside Uzbekistan itself," says Vitaly Ponomaryov, head of the Central Asian program of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow.
Islam Karimov was the last Communist Party leader of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, and he effortlessly turned himself into president of the nation of Uzbekistan in 1991. His country had little of the natural resources to be found elsewhere in Central Asia, but it was the most populous country in the region, it was geographically central, and its agriculture should have provided the foundation of a prosperous economy.
After police opened fire on a student demonstration in January 1992, the Karimov regime shut down the universities and spent the next several years stamping out a nascent democratic opposition.
Karimov pointed to a clan-based civil war in Tajikistan next door, claimed his opponents were Islamic radicals who wanted to bring the war to Uzbekistan, and declared that this justified the crackdown. The democrats were scattered. What caught the government off guard was the emergence of a genuinely Islamic, anti-democratic movement.
For two years, Uzbek fighters based in Tajikistan and Afghanistan have made forays into villages across the border and held them until driven off by the ragged Uzbek army. The attacks underscored the weaknesses of a regime more intent on subjugating its people than on being able to carry on a shooting war.
The Islamic fighters have gained financial support from Uzbek exiles in Saudi Arabia and training from the Taliban.
Another Islamic movement, called Hizb ut-Tahrir, has sprung up in the cities, espousing the nonviolent creation of an Islamic state. An international group founded by Palestinians in 1952, it has underground branches in several of the Central Asian countries but is most active in Uzbekistan.
Legally banned throughout the region, it has appealed to people who are eager for stability and discipline. The government has responded by cracking down on mosques and arresting thousands suspected of harboring too much zeal for Islam.
In a country of slightly more than 20 million people, rights advocates put the number of those arrested at 100,000, perhaps more.
The result has been widespread discontent. In July, an estimated 600 women demonstrated in Tashkent and Andijan to protest the imprisonment of their husbands and brothers as Islamic extremists. The police arrested many - including any woman in the vicinity wearing a head scarf, one witness says - and beat several.
"Two hundred women are hardly going to overthrow the city government," says Vasilya Inoyatova, a dogged human rights campaigner. But the authorities were afraid, she says, that if they didn't crack down, others would soon join them.
The Islamists' popularity is not hard to fathom, says Ghulam Sakhi Ghairat, an official in the embassy of the anti-Taliban Afghan forces in Moscow. The people of Central Asia are "very ready" to listen to anyone who offers retribution against corrupt officials and answers to life's questions, he says. Their anger, he says, is like a dam ready to break.
"But this is not a clash of civilizations," Ghairat says. "I don't think the Muslim is very, very dangerous. What is important is the poverty."
Not all unrest is religious. Villagers in Duslik blocked the highway from Tashkent on June 26, unhappy that they hadn't had gas for three years or drinking water for five years, despite government promises, and that they hadn't been paid in months. The government turned on the gas and paid the back wages - which stopped the protest but demonstrated to many who had been cowed by a decade of harsh repression that disobedience can bring results.
"They saw that the government had to worry about them," says Talib Yakubov, head of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan.
The economy has probably been declining at the rate of about 2 percent a year for the past 10 years, says a Western diplomat here, which cumulatively is starting to have a big effect. The decline, he says, could continue indefinitely, thanks to incompetent economic management.
A typical example of what goes wrong can be found at a company called Tashinterm, originally set up as a small joint venture with a Chinese firm to make thermoses. But the glass came from China and the metal containers came from Russia, and customs problems, a plummeting currency and the inability to convert Uzbek currency into rubles, yuan or dollars drove the company to the brink of bankruptcy - and in debt to the Chinese for $500,000.
So, says Sakhid Sabirov, the deputy director, it was reorganized into two new joint ventures - one to make cardboard spindles for cotton spools, and the other to make bandages, both using local materials. Those companies have done better, though the bandage firm - which he noted has a good market waiting for it in Russia's war-torn Caucasus - had to shut down this summer. One vital ingredient must be imported from Russia, and Uzbek customs wasn't letting it through.
"And as soon as a business gets to the point of exporting, or of making a profit, of course there are problems," says Larissa Gorbushina, the company's bookkeeper.
Or check out the sprawling Hippodrome bazaar that has taken over a racetrack on the outskirts of Tashkent. Clothing, housewares, bolts of cloth, electronic goods - just about anything conceivable is for sale there.
Ubadulla Ziyaev, a vendor who sells synthetic wigs, says business throughout the bazaar has dropped by 50 percent during the past five years. Prices have dropped and the quality of goods has fallen, he says. Nobody can afford what used to be inexpensive Chinese clothing. And many traders were ruined last year, when Uzbek customs held up truckloads of winter clothing all through the fall, because of an expected increase in import tariffs. By the time the clothing was allowed past the border, it was too late to sell it.
"In Kazakhstan, you pay a bribe to get something done," says Ponomaryov. "In Uzbekistan, you pay a bribe so you can find out who you have to bribe next."
The going price for an appointment as district mayor in Tashkent is said to be $100,000.
For a time, the Karimov government was making overtures to the West. Uzbekistan pulled out of a military-cooperation bloc that includes most of the former Soviet republics. Tashkent became actively hostile toward Moscow. Western firms moved in.
But pervasive corruption, capricious officials and the inability to convert the Uzbek som into hard currency made doing business here impossible. Most of the firms have moved out again.
Procter & Gamble, thwarted in its plans to build a sanitary-napkin factory by male officials who were offended by the idea, keeps a skeleton office. IBM has closed down entirely. Even the International Monetary Fund, once active here, maintains its presence only by means of a brass plaque on a door and a driver on call when IMF officials make their rare visits.
For the past year or so, Karimov's government has been turning more and more to Moscow and Beijing for help, because it has had nowhere else to turn. Direct government assistance, from Russia and China, is small but about the only tangible external connection Uzbekistan has.
In the spring, Uzbekistan applied and was admitted to a group called the Shanghai Five - consisting of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan - which was put together to combat Islamic separatism, and motivated by a fear of the Taliban.
There has been little combat but a great show of unity. In truth, though, there is tremendous distrust among the other Central Asian countries toward Uzbekistan, which often acts as if it should be the kingpin of the region.
"Uzbekistan's foreign policy strategy is based on one important task - to balance the interests of the great powers in this region," says Farkhad Tolipov, a foreign policy consultant in the president's office. "But it's difficult so far."
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