“I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic . . . If my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.”
No, that’s not a line spoken by Darth Vader in the latest Star Wars film. It is, however, a quote from Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in an Agence France-Presse dispatch in April 1999, following several anti-government acts of violence in his country of 26 million people, Central Asia’s most populous nation.
Born in 1938 and raised in a Soviet orphanage, Karimov studied engineering and economics in university. He rose to power as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan in 1989, becoming president of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990 and then president of the newly independent republic in 1991.
Last month, Karimov once again lived up to his bloodthirsty rhetoric, this time by ordering the slaughter of some 700 protesters and their family members in the city of Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan.
As we go to press, the chain of events leading to the massacre is becoming clearer, thanks to both eyewitness and independent media reports.
Most importantly, the turmoil does not appear to be related to radical Islam, and Islamist extremists have yet to capitalize on it.
Rather, the Ferghana Valley region of eastern Uzbekistan had been seething with discontent since late last year when the national government imposed high taxes and restrictive policies on commerce, such as the shutting down of trade at the Kholis bazaar — a move that put 3,000 people out of work, and which came on the heels of a factory closure that left at least another 2,000 unemployed.
On May 10, one thousand or so people took to the streets of Andijan, a city of 300,000, to demand the release from prison of 23 local businessmen who had been arrested months earlier and accused of belonging to an “Islamist conspiracy” called Akramiyya. The Uzbekistan and Russian governments have accused Akramiyya of ties to Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), an extremist neo-Wahhabi organization that is banned in several countries. Akramiyya denies the link, though its founder, Akram Yuldoshev, left HuT over doctrinal differences. Neutral accounts say Akramiyya appears to be nothing more than a local spiritual and charitable organization.
By sunset on May 12, the number of Andijan protesters had grown to about 4,000. They attacked a police station to get firearms, and procured more from a nearby army barracks. From there, they launched an assault on a city prison where, apparently, the guards lacked sufficient ammunition.
The mob were no Gandhis: they slaughtered virtually all the prison’s guards — more than 50 men and women — and released some 2,000 prisoners, including the businessmen.
After that, the protesters occupied more government buildings and effectively held control of the town as dawn broke on May 13.
After a tense half-day, during which Uzbekistan’s army and secret police carried out reconnaissance, soldiers in armoured personnel carriers rolled into the crowds of protesters and opened fire with APC-mounted machine guns. Troops on foot later carried out summary executions and finished off many of the wounded protesters with single bullets to the head.
The death toll is estimated at some 500 men, women and children in Andijan, plus another 200 or so in the surrounding area, including refugees who were caught fleeing eastward towards Kyrgyzstan.
Following the incident, there were reports of the government hiding corpses of women and children, intimidating witnesses, and cutting off access to outsiders.
The Uzbekistani government continues to blame the Andijan insurrection on HuT, seemingly in order to decouple the events from the post-Soviet democratization movement.
During the last 18 months, three leaders of former Soviet republics — Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine and Aslan Akayev in Kyrgyzstan — have all been swept from power after deciding not to use troops against large groups of protesters.
Uzbekistan’s Karimov eyed this particular trend and clearly turned to the Tiananmen Square model to retain power. (Indeed, Karimov promptly headed to China after the massacre, perhaps to pick up a few pointers on his next move.)
While Uzbekistan is largely unknown to most Westerners, miners recognize it as home to a colossus of the gold world — the Muruntau gold mine, situated in the country’s mid-western Kyzylkum desert, 400 kilometres west of the capital Tashkent and 700 kilometres west of the Ferghana Valley.
Muruntau, meaning “hilly place,” was built by the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, and the Muruntau pit now exceeds four kilometres in length, two-and-a-half kilometres in width and nearly 400 metres in depth. Muruntau’s output is a state secret, but London-based GFMS reckons the mine produced 1.7 million ounces of gold last year.
Next door to Muruntau, Newmont Mining is actively producing gold at its Zarafshan project, a joint venture with the State Committee for Geology and Mineral Resources (Goskomgeologia), and the government-owned Navoi Mining and Metallurgical Combine.
Using heap-leaching, the joint venture has been reprocessing a large, low-grade stockpile of Muruntau oxide ore since 1995, and intends to continue until mid-2011.
Newmont derives about 40,000 equity ounces of gold from Zarafshan quarterly, though production dropped six per cent in 2004, owing to lower grades and tonnages of mined material.
Also in the region is the new, low-cost Amantaytau gold mine, a fifty-fifty joint venture between London-based Oxus Gold and the Uzbek government. The mine successfully began commercial production in February 2004 and generated almost 150,000 ounces gold last year.
With Amantaytau coming online, GFMS estimates Uzbekistan’s total gold output in 2004 at 2.7 million ounces, up 5 per cent year-over-year.
Following news of the massacre, Oxus shares dropped to UK45p from UK56p, before rebounding somewhat. Oxus management insists that mining operations in the western desert are “totally unaffected” from the turmoil in the east, and it’s business as usual in Tashkent.
Generally, the two Western gold miners in the country are keeping low profiles and attempting to be apolitical. They look to the example of Centerra Gold’s large Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan, which managed to continue operating despite the dramatic change in power at the top levels of government earlier this year.
The Western miners in Uzbekistan are hoping their good relations with the local communities and the lower-level government technocrats will hold them in good stead no matter which way the political winds blow.
The West has a growing presence in Uzbekistan, with the U.S. building a major airbase in the south from which to battle Islamic militants — a complement to the permanent military bases it operates in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
All together, these bases also help the U.S. dominate the entire Central Asian oil-producing region and safeguard potential pipeline routes.
Officially at least, the U.S. is using its airbase in Uzbekistan without charge, and is in negotiations to make the arrangement permanent, at which time the U.S. would start making official lease payments.
These airbase negotiations offer the best hope to put pressure on Karimov to accept a full, independent, international investigation of the events at Andijan. (Karimov has already rejected United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan’s proposal for an international investigation.)
The Karimov regime has witnessed a steady reduction in U.S. cash flowing to it: last July, the U.S. government cut most direct government-to-government assistance, including military aid, to Uzbekistan because of the country’s human rights abuses.
While the U.S. Defense Department has continued to provide some counter-terrorism funding, under U.S. law, this aid must be suspended
if the recipients are participating in gross human rights violations.
The European Union also holds some influence, as it could suspend a major trade agreement with the Uzbek government until a full inquiry is held.
If we in the West become so obsessed with security and oil that we push aside the desires of Central Asians for political justice and human rights, then people will correctly see the hypocrisy in Westerners’ speeches extolling the virtues of democracy and freedom.
If these vital issues are not addressed, there will be no stability in Central Asia, and it will become even more difficult for the West’s miners to do business there.