Violence Flares in Former Republics of Georgia, Uzbekistan
MOSCOW — CLASHES between police and students protesting recent price increases have left at least six dead and 100 wounded in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, prompting hard-line authorities to launch a crackdown on opposition movements.
Officials in Georgia say, meanwhile, that they have contained an insurrection led by ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who returned to the Transcaucasian republic late last week following a brief exile in Armenia. But as Mr. Gamsakhurdia's comeback bid was collapsing, a new threat to stability was emerging in the disputed enclave of South Ossetia, which is agitating to secede from Georgia and unite with neighboring Russia.
The casualties in Uzbekistan were the first deaths related to price hikes in the Commonwealth of Independent States since reforms were implemented early this month. The violence started Thursday night when university students in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, protested the liberalization of prices, the Interfax news agency reported. Police tried to disperse the students by firing warning shots in the air, but later they opened fire on the crowd.
"Uzbekistan is a state where the old Communists are still in power," says Tair Tairov, a Central Asia expert at the Moscow Institute For Foreign Relations. "It's not the first time force has been used against a democratic opposition."
Attempting to prevent further demonstrations, authorities have canceled classes and ordered students to go on vacation, "deporting" those who continue protests in the capital, Interfax reported Sunday. In addition, the government has forced Birlik, a broad-based democratic movement in Uzbekistan, to vacate its Tashkent office, Interfax said.
There have been protests in other commonwealth states but none has resulted in violence. There is little immediate danger the incident in Uzbekistan will be repeated in other former Soviet republics, Mr. Tairov says.
"Demonstrations aren't illegal in Russia," Tairov adds. "Russia is a democratic state, while Uzbekistan is still totalitarian."
But unrest could spread within Uzbekistan. Already, students are calling for the resignation of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
"This could be the start of a democratic revolution in one of the last Communist republics of the old Soviet Union," says Tairov. "But it's difficult to say how much the population will follow the students. It's a very backward society."
In Georgia, the threat of a full-scale civil war seems to have disappeared since Gamsakhurdia has failed to attract supporters. The former Georgian leader launched his insurrection Thursday in the western part of the republic, vowing to raise an army and march on Tbilisi, the capital.
The power struggle in Georgia already has claimed hundreds of lives. The violence started in late December when the then-opposition launched its military effort to drive Gamsakhurdia from power, saying the president had become a dictator. Gamsakhurdia first fled the republic two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, South Ossetia held a referendum Sunday in which residents were asked if they favored the region's secession from Georgia and union with Russia, the region's northern neighbor. Preliminary results indicated an overwhelming majority of residents approved of the move, the Tass news agency said.
Georgians and Ossetians have been battling over the tiny South Ossetian enclave, located in the northern part of the republic, for almost a year.
The Georgian provisional government has vowed to defend the "territorial integrity" of the state if Ossetian nationalists continue efforts to unite with Russia.