Uzbekistan: Muhammad Salikh is working on an Orange Revolution
Political immigrant and Erk party leader Muhammad Salikh proclaimed the beginning of unification of the Uzbek opposition in early December. It is common knowledge meanwhile that all previous attempts at consolidation ended with nothing to show for the effort. Ferghana.Ru asked Sanobar Shermatova, an expert on Central Asia, to phone Salikh for comments on the prospects of the opposition.
Sanobar Shermatova: The last time you suggested unification was in 2005 when the events in Andijan had revived foreign interest (first and foremost, that in the United States and Europe) in the Uzbek opposition. What caused your latest call then? Has something else happened?
Muhammad Salikh: The difference is that we are not uniting on the basis of any organization as before but at the level of personalities and groups operating in Uzbekistan. People are better aware of our objectives, these days. "We think the way you do" is what they say. All of that because their hopes for Islam Karimov's resignation are frustrated. Very many expected Karimov to step down. They were even prepared to accept his daughter as the new leader. People expected the regime to ease its grip on the country and society after Andijan... I'm talking of the hopes and expectations of the people who surround Karimov, of course.
Well, what they had expected never happened. To all appearances, Karimov solidified his positions through rapprochement with Russia and China. The European Union has all but lifted sanctions off the Uzbek regime...
As a matter of fact, certain processes are taking place all the same. There has always been a vacuum around Karimov, and this vacuum is expanding. That's the regime's weak spot, that's what we should play on. The term "unification" is probably somewhat misleading because what is currently under way is consolidation of anti-Karimov forces.
Sanobar Shermatova: What forces exactly? Ones abroad or in Uzbekistan itself?
Muhammad Salikh: Opposition leaders and activists abroad pool efforts with the organizations, informal groups, and jamoats in Uzbekistan.
Sanobar Shermatova: Are we talking about religious jamoats?
Muhammad Salikh: Yes, Moslem communities. They never call themselves the opposition. They have nothing to do with the government but they do command certain respect. Whenever jamoats are mentioned, people automatically recall Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party outlawed in Central Asian republics and Russia - Ferghana.Ru news agency), but we are not talking radicals. As for Hizb-ut-Tahrir, we have nothing to do with it. Our objectives are too different to warrant a liaison.
Sanobar Shermatova: You are here in the West and they are over there in Uzbekistan. How do you manage to stay in touch?
Muhammad Salikh: We do stay in touch. We maintain a dialogue with these people. Never official members of our party (apparently the Erk party - Ferghana.Ru news agency), they nevertheless help us with publicity events. I'd even call these people our sympathizers in the government, among the faithful, in the business community, and even in the army.
Sanobar Shermatova: So, how do you plan to bring President Karimov's resignation about?
Muhammad Salikh: Let's deal with this particular problem when the time is ripe. For the time being, we are focused on an active dialogue and aid to one another. When the platform is ready and installed, when our supporters are finally in the streets... we'll see then. There is no point in expecting Karimov to step down democratically. He may only be toppled the way Kuchma and Akayev were toppled (presidents of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan displaced in the course of mass riots - Ferghana.Ru news agency). We need crowds in the street for a bloodless revolution.
Sanobar Shermatova: Do you really believe that a revolution in Uzbekistan may be bloodless?
Muhammad Salikh: I do. I hear lots of speculations on the matter. People say that something like what happened in Kyrgyzstan will certainly foment a bloodshed in Uzbekistan. Well, we can draw on the experience of organization of mass actions during the perestroika. Our rallies then were civilized and well-disciplined...
Sanobar Shermatova: Life itself was different then.
Muhammad Salikh: ... despite provocations staged by the KGB.
Sanobar Shermatova: Are you saying that the National Security Service in sovereign Uzbekistan is weaker than the Soviet KGB was?
Muhammad Salikh: No, I'm not saying it. In some instances, the National Security Service is even better organized. Still, we have no other options. We are working now on securing loyalty of the National Security Service and other security structures. I do not mean that we expect all of the army and all security structures on our side of the fence, of course. Even some parts of them, however, will be sufficient to prevent provocations. With parts of the army and secret services on their side, anti-Karimov forces will be considerably better off.
Sanobar Shermatova: So, you think that the so called siloviki from the National Security Service might end up on the side of the opposition, right?
Muhammad Salikh: Right. Appearances notwithstanding, there are people in Uzbekistan ready for action. A proper organization is all they need.
Sanobar Shermatova: Does this organization have a name?
Muhammad Salikh: I cannot be more specific as I'm sure you understand because even the name will attract the forces that would like to see us split and divided.
Sanobar Shermatova: And you are talking on behalf of this organization, right?
Muhammad Salikh: Yes, on its behalf and in the capacity of one of its founding fathers.
Sanobar Shermatova: Any prominent people in its ranks? Could you give their names?
Muhammad Salikh: No names, not even the names of whoever lives abroad. It's a secret for the time being.
Sanobar Shermatova: Does it make the organization an underground structure?
Muhammad Salikh: Yes, it does. Unfortunately, Karimov has a lot of eyes and ears even in Europe.
Sanobar Shermatova: You mentioned the events in Kyrgyzstan that toppled Akayev's regime. Some vast sums were invested in the revolution there. How are you from the financial standpoint?
Muhammad Salikh: We have some money. Not enough of course, but it'll do for starters. Actually, we have no plans to use any capitals at this point. When the point of no return is reached, when people see that we are strong indeed, we'll have lots of assistants. There were youth organizations in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. We have some young men working for us who participated in the events in these countries.
Sanobar Shermatova: That's Orange Revolution you are talking about. Experts, some of them Western, are convinced that revolutions are impossible in countries like Uzbekistan lacking the opposition and independent media outlets.
Muhammad Salikh: We'll see. I do not trust Western experts, you know. I spent 20 years hoping and expecting the West to back the opposition. I have no illusions on that score anymore. People's support is all I crave. We intend to correct the mistakes once made. We intend to work in such a manner as to win the people over. Also importantly, we intend to accomplish it on our own.
Sanobar Shermatova: Revolutions usually require participation of the media - among other things, of course. Considering the information vacuum, how do you hope to promote your ideas?
Muhammad Salikh: We are working on it. We even have a special studio now. We will reach the people through distribution of flyers and CDs. During phase two, we will make use of mobile radio transmitters. That's how we plan to begin.
Sanobar Shermatova: You've never used the term "palace revolution". All the same, your answers are vague enough to leave the impression that a split in Karimov's inner circles is what you really count on. Do you?
Muhammad Salikh: That's really beyond us, you know. People close to Karimov lack a leader or political program. They are divided. I'm convinced that they will join our movement when they see our strength.
Sanobar Shermatova: I.e. they will join you only when you've essentially done what needs be done. A spark will kindle a flame and so on?
Muhammad Salikh: That's too simplified. I'm not sure at all that we will oust Karimov within a year, give or take several months. Anyway, we are working on it, and I mean it. These are not just words. All I can say is this, "It's not over yet, regardless what Karimov's propagandists might be saying."
Sanobar Shermatova: Sanjar Umarov planned to engineer Karimov's resignation too. He set up the Solar Coalition after the events in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. A prominent businessman, Umarov had never been with the opposition before that. Still, he decided he could pull off the reforms. It cost him his freedom.
Muhammad Salikh: I know. Umarov walked into a trap. He was tricked and left to his own devices. It was a mistake to rely only on Karimov's inner circle and on the West. This latter has done nothing at all to help Umarov.
Sanobar Shermatova: Do you plan a return to Uzbekistan?
Muhammad Salikh: Impossible. They'll arrest me right on arrival. There was a period when I did not want to leave the country, when I was prepared to spend five years behind the bars. It's different now. It's life and death struggle.