We should welcome change in Asia

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Hard on the heels of the protests which unseated the president of the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan only last month have come the mass demonstrations against the even more dictatorial regime in neighbouring Uzbekistan. The protests, against the imprisonment of local Islamic fundamentalists, have been developing in the eastern town of Andijan over several months. Yesterday, they broke out in a riot which saw the local jail emptied of its prisoners, the shooting by police of around a dozen protesters and the ringing of the entire city by the army.

Hard on the heels of the protests which unseated the president of the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan only last month have come the mass demonstrations against the even more dictatorial regime in neighbouring Uzbekistan. The protests, against the imprisonment of local Islamic fundamentalists, have been developing in the eastern town of Andijan over several months. Yesterday, they broke out in a riot which saw the local jail emptied of its prisoners, the shooting by police of around a dozen protesters and the ringing of the entire city by the army.

The tectonic plates of the former Soviet republics of central Asia are shifting, just as they have done in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine. And for similar reasons. Global communication, together with a general climate of change, is raising the expectations of ordinary people around the world and lowering their tolerance of traditional rule. Few would doubt, either, that change is long overdue in this particularly oppressed neck of the Asian woods, where the former communist apparatchik, Islam Karimov, has ruled with an iron hand and a ready resort to torture since the republic became independent 14 years ago.

There are differences, however, between central Asia and the western republics of the former Soviet Union. The revolts in Uzbekistan, as in Kyrgyzstan, are largely economic rather than political, the result of generations of impoverishment of the specific regions where they have broken out. Russian influence is both more proximate and more powerful. And they are also countries whose regimes have been specifically endorsed by the US and the UK for security reasons. There are new US bases in both Uzbekistan annd Kyrgyzstan. Hence the silence yesterday from Washington and the British Foreign Office, which only recently relieved its ambassador, Craig Murray, from his post for speaking out on Karimov's tyranny.

Their silence is mistaken. It's not for the West to claim proprietorship of every revolt that suits its rhetoric of freedom. But it is for the West to speak out in favour of any movement that could unseat so vile a dictatorship. The winds of political change are blowing through central Asia and we should welcome this.

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