Uzbek authorities are cracking down on unrest in the province of Andijan on May 26. Reports are sketchy, since the government has shut down communication in the Andijan region. There are a few eyewitness reports of shots heard May 25 in the Andijan city of Khanabad, possibly from an attack on a police checkpoint and a government security building. Other reports have surfaced saying that the attack may have been carried out by a suicide bomber. Casualty reports range from none to half a dozen. In response to the alleged incident, the Uzbek military reportedly is moving tanks and troops into the region. While the violence is nowhere near that seen during the 2005 "massacre" in Andijan, the crackdown creates some opportunities for the government of Uzbekistan, a power that is on the rise regionally, and for Russia, which seeks to control that rising star.
The Key to Central Asia
Andijan is a region that Uzbek authorities try to keep tight control over. The region is located in the Fergana Valley — a volatile region geographically divided among Tajikistan (which controls access to the valley), Kyrgyzstan (which controls the highlands) and Uzbekistan (which controls the valley floor). In Soviet times, Fergana was the center for the region's population, development, agriculture and industry. Dominating the Fergana Valley would mean controlling the heart of Central Asia (and the regional flow of militants and drugs). This is why Soviet leader Josef Stalin split the valley among three states — to keep any power outside of Moscow from consolidating control over the valley. The government of the only real power among those three states — Uzbekistan — is cut off from Fergana by a thin mountain range. This has kept Tashkent from consolidating power over the region and has served to keep Fergana unstable.
Fergana's instability came to a head in 2005, when demonstrations against the declining economic situation in Andijan mixed with a clan uprising against Tashkent. This prompted an Uzbek military crackdown on the region that reportedly left between 300 to more than 1,000 dead. At first the Uzbek government claimed that the 2005 unrest was organized by Islamist radical groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir, and later the government postulated that the unrest was actually an attempt at a color revolution, as seen in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and fellow former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia.
Whatever the cause of the unrest, Uzbek President Islam Karimov used the event to crack down in a large military display that would eradicate much of the political opposition in Fergana and allow Karimov to show the region as a whole that his regime was willing to use brute force in order to maintain control. This eye-opening event was part of Karimov's plan to assume total control, which included consolidating his power inside the country via security forces and purging most foreign influence — especially U.S. and Russian — from Uzbekistan. For the past four years, Uzbekistan has been considered a security state, with Karimov — who has been in power for two decades now — wielding total control.
The current situation in Andijan thus far does not seem to be spinning out of control. Communication in the region has already been cut, and Kyrgyzstan has already closed its border with Uzbekistan. Furthermore, the Uzbek military is more capable of crushing the opposition than it was four years ago. The current example of Tashkent's ability to crack down on any possible domestic instability comes as Uzbekistan shifts into a more dominant role in the region. All of Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors will watch Tashkent's military muscle-flexing closely; Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are all very aware of the power of the Uzbek military and security services.
A Russian Return?
Russia has been silent on the Andijan situation thus far, but Moscow is a wild card. Russia kept Uzbekistan from rising as a regional power during the Soviet Union and has struggled with its relationship with Tashkent for 20 years. In 2005, there were calls for Russia to step in during the Andijan crackdown — Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were being overwhelmed with fleeing refugees and formally asked Russia to send in troops. But Russia stayed out of the matter, saying it had no legal reason to go into Uzbekistan because, unlike most other former Soviet states, Uzbekistan did not belong to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) — Russia's security alliance specializing in border security. Furthermore, Russia has long loathed any operation involving the tactically difficult Fergana Valley. But the situation has changed recently, with Uzbekistan returning to the CSTO fold and Russia sending a large influx of troops to the region, to bases a stone's throw from Fergana in Tajikistan. Russia has not yet shown an interest in getting involved in the unrest in Andijan. But as Russia grows more concerned with a strengthening Uzbekistan, Russia could help foster an uprising in Andijan and then offer to lend its assistance in putting the unrest down — thereby creating a Russian military presence in the middle of a strategically important region.