As a tense calm returned to Uzbekistan Sunday in the wake of weekend clashes that killed hundreds of protesters, speculation mounted about President Islam Karimov's ability to maintain his grip on power.
The violence in the eastern city of Andijon, sparked by charges of "religious extremism" against 23 businessmen, was the worst in a string of reprisals over the past year against those trying to air political and economic grievances.
Experts say Mr. Karimov's tough, secular dictatorship has jailed thousands of dissidents in recent years on such charges even as the country's 26 million people have faced economic hardships. But its authority may be starting to crack under the weight of a popular revolt in March in neighboring Kyrgyzstan as well as pro-democracy rhetoric from President Bush during a swing through the former Soviet Union last week.
"On Saturday, President Karimov admitted for the first time that there is corruption in government, and a lot of social problems," says Marina Pikulina, a Tashkent-based expert with the independent Conflict Studies Research Center. "That is a clear sign that he sees the situation as very grave."
Uzbek authorities allege that Islamic terrorists are behind a wave of bombings, riots, and spontaneous protests in the former Soviet republic. But experts say the picture is far more complex. "Popular discontent has been growing in Uzbekistan for a long time, mainly caused by unsolved deep social problems," says Viktor Korgun, a specialist with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "The Fergana Valley is a knot of problems: it has the highest population density, severe water shortages, the highest level of unemployment, and some growth of Islamic extremism. People there feel themselves in a desperate situation."
The Andijon upheaval was triggered by the trial last week of the businessmen - the biggest employers in the impoverished city of 300,000.
On Friday morning, crowds that included armed men stormed Andijon's jail, releasing 2,000 prisoners - including the defendants.
Sketchy reports from the town said many of the escapees subsequently holed up in a government building, while thousands of supporters gathered peacefully on the square outside. Troops poured in and, amid sporadic armed resistance and some rioting, opened fire.
Some reports put the death toll as high as 500. Hundreds more were reportedly trying to cross the border into neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
At a press conference, Karimov blamed the violence on Islamic militants. "No one ordered security forces to fire at [the protesters]," he said. But "to accept [the demonstrators'] terms would mean that we are setting the precedent that no other country in the world would accept."
Experts say evidence against those charged with religious extremism is often flimsy and sometimes fabricated. "Sometimes they arrest people who have little to do with Islamic ideas, maybe because they were not supportive enough of the regime," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Moscow.
Authorities claimed that the defendants were leaders of a shadowy Islamic group called Akramia, named for local Muslim activist, Akram Yuldashev, who's been in jail for years. Prosecutors charged that Akramia is a of Huzb-ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic party based in London that calls for a worldwide Muslim caliphate.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which covered the trial, said the defendants denied all charges, including the very existence of Akramia.
"We were tormented morally and physically," IWPR quoted defendant Abdulbois Ibrahimov as saying in court last week. "Now we are charged with belonging to Akramia. Surely it's clear that Akramia is just a myth."
Hizb-ut-Tahrir was blamed for several deadly bombings in Tashkent last year, though the group denies any connection and says it renounces violence. On its website, it rejected allegations that it organized the uprising as "another futile attempt by a weak and ailing regime" to evade blame for its own failings.
Another potential threat is the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, with leaders trained in former Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, which is said to maintain strong underground cells throughout the country and whose fighters have cropped up in Chechnya and Pakistan. "If the regime crumbles, it's quite possible that Islamist elements will come to the fore in Uzbekistan," says Mr. Naumkin. "No one can imagine a liberal democracy of the Western type emerging there."
Andijon is just 24 miles from the Kyrgyz town of Osh, where the revolution that overthrew President Askar Akayev began. Experts say the pro-democracy uprisings around the former Soviet Union, most recently in Kyrgyzstan, may have helped spur Andijon residents to stand up to police and troops.
Another impulse may have come from President Bush, who hailed Georgia's Rose Revolution before cheering crowds in Tbilisi, and suggested its influence could reach more broadly: "Now, across the Caucasus, in Central Asia and in the broader Middle East, we see the same desire for liberty burning in the hearts of young people," Bush said. "They are demanding their freedom - and they will have it."
Uzbekistan has been a key antiterrorism ally of the United States since 9/11, and hosts a large US military base at Karshi-Khanabad, near the long border with Afghanistan. The US cut some military and economic aid last year to protest severe human rights abuses. But the US has also faced allegations that it has sent suspected terrorists to the country for interrogation.
The US, which enthusiastically greeted earlier revolts in post-Soviet Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, has reacted more cautiously to events in Uzbekistan.
"We have had concerns about human rights in Uzbekistan, but we are concerned about the outbreak of violence, particularly by some members of a terrorist group that were freed from prison," in Andijon, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Russia regards the Karimov regime as one of its dwindling number of post-Soviet allies. News agencies said President Vladimir Putin spoke with Karimov Saturday to convey "serious concern" about the dangers of instability and Islamic resurgence in Central Asia. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation was provoked by extremist groups similar to Afghanistan's Taliban.
The military blockaded Andijon for much of the weekend and few journalists were able to reach the scene. Reporters Without Borders charged that the government has jammed foreign news broadcasts. It was also impossible to access websites.