Sunday, May 15, 2005

Ferment in Ferghana

Ferghana.Ru Information Agency

It's difficult to know how many were killed when Uzbek security forces retook the city of Andijan in the Ferghana valley on Friday. New reports are mentioning numbers up to 500 killed and several thousand wounded in thre fighting.

It is highly likely to have been a very brutal operation.

President Kamirov is among the most brutal and authoritarian of leaders of Central Asia, and he is likely to authorize whatever violence he believes it takes to prevent a repetition in Uzbekistan of what happened recently in Kyrgyzstan.

Indeed, the sequence of events that lead to the fall of the regime there started in the city of Osh, which just happens to be very nearby Andijan in the Ferghana valley.

The Ferghana valley has always been important. Once upon a time, it was a key part of the Silk Road between China and Europe. Later, the fertility of its soil drew invaders and empire-builders of all sorts.

It was conquered by Russia in the 1870's, and then forcibly incorporated in the Soviet Union. Stalin dedided to split the valley between three republics, and with the demise of the Soviet Union they become independent states. Most of the valley, however, is in Uzbekistan.

Its mix of nationalities and traditions has made it vulnerable to ethnic strife, and there have been outbursts of national violence during also the past decades. The Soviet Union had a crack airborne division stationed there - just in case.

The last decade has seen the economic situation in the valley deterioating. There are reports of unemployment well over 50 %. At the same time the population is increasing very fast.

Add to that an amount of Islamist agitation linked to groups that also acquired prominence during the wars in nearby Afghanistan. And note that some of the drug networks from that country is passing through the valley.

It doesn't require much to get a mix like that to start being explosive in an ethnically mixed place like the Ferghana valley.

We are now likely to see a phase of extreme repression setting in throughout Uzbekistan - as if things weren't bad before. Moscow is likely to approve and support, and Washington might well have difficulties deciding which leg to stand on.

Hard repression might work - for a while.

Or it might not - in which case the valley and the region has better fasten the seat bealts...