UNREST in Uzbekistan, which has claimed more than 100 lives and generated over 15,000 refugees, is being officially described as a carefully planned operation involving both past and present members of the police and the local Communist Party. These allegations almost certainly refer to the powerful survivors of the political machine assembled by Sharaf Rashidov, Uzbekistan's ruler from 1959 to 1983.
The conflict in the Uzbek district of Fergana, which pitted ethnic Uzbeks against Meskhetian Turks, deported by Joseph Stalin from Georgia in 1944, highlights the explosive political and social situation in Soviet Central Asia. Party and government officials are alleged to have taken part in the attacks on Meskhetians, as are members of the police. The rioters were well paid and armed, and provided with precise details about the location of Meskhetian homes, official accounts claim.
Unrest in the Soviet south seems an aberration to many ordinary Russians. But some observers warn that it could soon spread to the rest of the country.
At a remarkable press conference Friday, five leading economists warned that the Soviet Union is facing imminent economic disaster. The government must implement more rapid and radical reforms, the economists said. Without major changes in agriculture the country will face hunger in the next one to two years, said agricultural economist Vladimir Tikhonov.
Leonid Abalkin, recently nominated deputy prime minister, demurred but issued his own grim warning: ``If in the course of the next one-and-a-half to two years the economy is not stabilized and an initial improvement is not achieved, a rightward shift by society is inevitable. And society will be destabilized.''
Destabilization and hunger have already come to Uzbekistan (population 19 million). Unemployment there is approaching the 1 million mark, according to an estimate in Moscow News last week. Infant mortality is increasing, malnutrition is rife, the land and its people are being destroyed by pesticides. Cotton, the republic's single crop, condemns its population to back-breaking labor for an income variously calculated at 30-50 rubles ($48-80) a month. Child labor is widespread, despite an official ban.
The economic, social, and ecological disaster is being compounded by Islamic fundamentalism.
``Fundamentalism has bared its teeth'' in Uzbekistan, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told journalists in West Germany last week, when they asked him about the violence. Rioters allegedly chanted slogans in praise of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Rashidov, a close friend of former leader Leonid Brezhnev, built a political machine that would be the envy of any dictator. Brezhnev proved a generous friend: More than 20 billion rubles ($32 billion) were poured into the republic, ostensibly for irrigation works, says writer Vasily Selyunin in the latest issue of the journal Novy Mir. Much of it, Soviet observers believe, went into officials' pockets. One of Rashidov's lieutenants, Adylov, allegedly governed Fergana from an air-conditioned palace complete with underground prison.
Brezhnev's son-in-law, Yuri Churbanov, was recently convicted for Uzbekistan-related corruption. But opposition deputies Telman Gdlyan and Nikolai Ivanov, both former prosecutors, allege that Politburo member Yegor Ligachev and other top leaders were involved. Mr. Ligachev denies this.
Many Soviet observers agree, however, that Mr. Gorbachev's reforms have hardly touched Central Asian feudal politics. ``Perestroika in the region (Central Asia) is a game,'' Mr. Selyunin writes, ``a game, moreover, that is very dangerous for reformers.''
Violence broke out in Fergana on May 23, but was reported in the central news media only two weeks later. At least one senior official, however, warned of growing unrest in February. Meskhetians in Moscow allege that the situation began to deteriorate at the end of last year.
In response to the violence, the government has begun to resettle the Meskhetians outside the republic. Fearing that this will result in the end of their ethnic and cultural identity, the Meskhetians have demonstrated in Moscow, calling for return to Georgia. The government has not yet made any decision on this.