Politics as Usual for Uzbeks: Communists Stay in Power : Soviet Union: Hard-line leaders stir fears of Islamic fundamentalism to keep a tight grip on the region.


A democratic revolution may have swept through Moscow, but here in Soviet Central Asia it is politics as usual--a distinctive brand of Muslim political intrigue that has, at least for now, left this land safe for communism.

But bubbling just below the surface is the same sort of militant nationalism that has fueled revolutions in Iran and other nearby Muslim nations. Leaders here warn that the same could happen in Soviet Central Asia, where Moscow’s heavy hand has long suppressed the region’s 20 million Muslims.

Politics, Central Asian style, has been dubbed “the Great Game,” and no one plays it better than Communist Party leader Islam Karimov, the strongman president of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.


Riding the crest of the nationalistic wave that has washed over the Soviet Union, Karimov declared Uzbekistan’s independence on Aug. 31.

However, he continually cites the risk of a fundamentalist uprising as justification for continuing his authoritarian Communist rule. Otherwise, he asserts, Uzbekistan will collapse in the anarchy of competing pressures--pressures that he, in fact, helped create.

“This divide-and-rule game, I think it is our national specialty here,” said Shukhrat Ismatullaev, a co-chairman of Birlik, a Muslim opposition group. “It has been the system throughout the whole Soviet Union.

“Of course, it has failed now in the Ukraine and in the Baltic republics. But here, we have no democratic traditions, and the backwardness of our culture, our politics and our economy combine to make this tactic much more effective.”

Even as anti-Communists in Moscow were gaining what proved to be unstoppable momentum in recent years, Karimov effectively split the burgeoning pro-democracy movement in his own bailiwick.

The opposition, founded in 1988 by a firebrand scientist named Abdul Rahim Pulatov, was a militant populist organization that advocated free, multi-party elections for Uzbekistan. The group was called Birlik, which, ironically, means Unity.


The Communist government promised Birlik legal status in 1989 if it would agree in writing not to hold public demonstrations. And there was another condition: Birlik would have to rid itself of Pulatov.

A fight ensued between Pulatov’s supporters and those of a rival leader who had emerged within Birlik. To save the organization, Pulatov voluntarily resigned and Birlik agreed not to organize public rallies.

Still, the Karimov regime refused to legalize the party. A year later Birlik split, with Pulatov resuming its chairmanship and his rival forming a competing, more conservative group called Erkh, the Uzbek word for freedom.

Erkh is now registered as a legal political party that can participate in the elections Karimov now promises to hold next year. Birlik, meanwhile, remains illegal and underground.

As Birlik co-chairman Ismatullaev pointed out, there is a long history of political intrigue in Uzbekistan, on the crossroads of Russia, China, India, Afghanistan and Iran.

In his historical account “Setting the East Ablaze,” British writer Peter Hopkirk details how the Russian czars, the Communists, the British secret service, Afghan kings, Persian shahs and even Uzbek mafia dons have exploited the region.


Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin, for example, used Tashkent as a training base for Indian revolutionaries in a plot to overthrow British colonial rule in nearby India. For their part, British intelligence agents planted false stories with Chinese authorities in nearby Kashgar to get them to reinforce their border against Bolshevik expansion.

But for pure political intrigue, the local Uzbek population takes second place to no group of interlopers. It takes only a visit to the courtyard of Tashkent’s central mosque to prove that.

Soon after last Friday’s prayers had ended, a stocky Uzbek with a mouthful of gold teeth and the body of a Mafia enforcer whispered to a visitor the latest intrigue about the ruling mufti, or Islamic priest, of all Central Asia.

The man was a tae kwan do instructor named Bakhmanyur Shakir. His remarks were aimed at Mohammed Sadik Mohammed Yussuf, the mufti of a region of more than 20 million Muslims.

“He is not a true believer,” Shakir whispered. He accused Sadik of using his position as ruling mufti to steal millions of dollars in foreign donations from the Central Asian Mosque Construction Fund. On the side, Shakir said, Sadik took Korans that had been donated by Saudi Arabia and sold them for 100 rubles (about $3) each.

And on top of that, according to Shakir, the ruling mufti worked secretly for years for the Communist Party and the KGB in a conspiracy to keep the long-oppressed Muslims in line.


“It is only my great teacher, the great mufti, Abdullah Aziz Mansouraf of Tashkent, who through his independence is a true leader of believers,” Shakir added, referring to the rival mufti who split from the Central Asian Islamic Board two weeks ago to form his own local power base in Tashkent.

But the very next day there was a photograph of Mansouraf in the Communist Party newspaper here, shaking hands with one of the hard-line Communist leaders who still rule Uzbekistan with an iron hand.

And later in the day, supporters of the mufti of Central Asia insisted that it was Mansouraf, not Sadik, who was the real agent of the local KGB, the Soviet intelligence and security agency.

Mansouraf himself told a reporter: “Of course, everybody here and every clerical official is thinking about these young radicals--especially President Karimov. We can only hope there will be changes for the better for us as believers.”

In the courtyard of the central mosque, young mullahs speak in hushed tones of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism among Uzbekistan’s youth, of illegal yet flourishing political movements called the Party of Islamic Renaissance and the Islamic Democratic Party. They warn of a return to the violent ways of the Basmatchi warriors, who fought a fierce but ill-fated battle against the Red Army in the 1920s.

For half a century, said a young radical who would not give his name, Islam was all but wiped out here, the Communists having sealed every mosque and banned all public worship. More recently, he said, the Communist leadership has opened new mosques under “loyal muftis” who try to keep the Muslims in line.


Uzbeks have been forced to learn Russian in school, and even their alphabet was taken from them. Today they write their own language in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

Ismatullaev said he could only hope that nonviolent organizations such as his could harness the young radicals before it is too late.

“Really, even we have no experience in political life--in such things as democracy,” Ismatullaev said. “This movement started from the soul, not from knowledge. And it will be trial and error. We just hope there will be as few errors as possible because we are very afraid for the state of our republic now.”

Ismatullaev warned that Karimov’s regime could not win over the radicals with such measures as his declaration of independence.

“If this regime remains in power behind a shield of false nationalism,” he said, “I am afraid the other forces will take over, and we will end up destroying ourselves.”