LEADERS of the struggling democratic movement in the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan charge that the government is carrying out a wave of repression against democratic and Islamic opponents.
The democratic activists warn that suppression of democratic rights will only breed further resistance and strengthen the more extreme Islamic fundamentalist wing of the antigovernment movement. They point to the example of neighboring Tajikistan where civil war continues to rage even after the recent overthrow of the former Communist-led government by a coalition of democratic and Islamic groups.
"In a half a year, we will have the same situation as Tajikistan," predicts Abdul Rahim Pulatov, co-chairman of Birlik (Unity), the largest democratic organization.
The events in Tajikistan have clearly shaken the Uzbek government of former Communist leader Islam Karimov. He has spoken frequently about the danger of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to the other Muslim-populated Central Asian republics. The Uzbek border has been closed to refugees from the Tajik civil war, and Uzbek troops have been dispatched to join Russian soldiers in trying to stem the flood of arms and Islamic guerrillas across the Afghan-Tajik border. Spread of conflict
Uzbekistan, the largest of the Central Asian states with a population of 18.5 million, is considered particularly vulnerable to the spread of the Tajik events. More than a million Tajiks live within its borders and Islamic belief is strongly entrenched, especially in rural areas where the underground fundamentalist movement is rapidly gaining adherents.
The Birlik movement advocates Western-style democracy and is oriented toward the more secular model of Turkey. But Birlik, like its democratic allies in Tajikistan, is cooperating with the banned Islamic Revival Party.
Birlik leader Pulatov, however, distinguishes between more moderate elements of the Islamic movement and its fundamentalist wing. He argues that the Islamic movement has far more opportunity to reach people through the mosques than the democratic movement, which is effectively barred from public activity.
"People who have already lost faith in the Communist regime are afraid to join the democrats but not afraid to join the Islamic movement," Mr. Pulatov explained to reporters at a press conference last week in Moscow.
"The Communists are trying to excuse tough measures against the democratic and Islamic movements by citing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism," he said. "But by these steps, they are pushing people into Islamic fundamentalism."
Pulatov charged that the government of President Karimov is perpetuating the former Communist Party rule. "Power is still in the hands of the Communist structure, though they have taken on a different tint," he says. The same party officials, the same party elite, the same secret police continue to function, he adds. Restricting opposition
Since the violent suppression of student demonstrations in January, the Karimov government has moved to severely restrict the activity of opposition groups. Human rights activists point to a pattern of illegal arrests, searches of homes, firings from jobs, and physical attacks on activists. Former Soviet parliament member and Birlik leader Pulat Akhunov and former political prisoner Babur Shakirov were arrested in late July and mid-August respectively, the latter held on charges of trying to overthrow th e government, human rights activists say.
Following a wave of antigovernment demonstrations in Tajikistan in April, the government crackdown intensified. Erk, a moderate democratic party which had at times cooperated with the Karimov government, was effectively closed down, its newspaper banned and its bank accounts frozen. The Erk leader, Mohammed Salih, resigned from parliament in July when he was barred from addressing the assembly.
Pulatov and fellow Birlik leader Miralim Adylov were severely beaten by men with iron pipes in an attack just outside the prosecutor's office on June 29. Birlik charges that government officials looked on and that the assault was government-inspired.
"This attack added to our concern for the safety and well-being of political opposition activists in Uabekistan," Jerry Lieber, executive director of Helsinki Watch wrote to Karimov in July.