When Uzbek émigrés created a new opposition group last May in Berlin called the Popular Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), they hoped it would mark the start of a process that replicated the experiences in North Africa and the Middle East and bring Uzbek leader Islam Karimov’s 22-year rule to an end. But the murder of one of the PMU’s founding members has stopped all talk among opposition activists, at least temporarily, about happy endings.
Fuad Rustamhojaev, a 38-year-old Uzbek émigré businessman who helped set up the PMU and who was actively involved in the organization, was gunned down in late September outside his home in Ivanovo, a city in western Russia. A native of Andijan, Rustamhojaev, obtained Russian citizenship in 2005. He was married with two young daughters, and earned a living as an importer of textiles from his homeland.
Fellow PMU members immediately suspected the involvement of the Uzbek secret police (SNB) in the murder. SNB agents are known to keep tabs on émigrés abroad. “We believe there are serious grounds to suppose that the trail of the murder leads in fact to Tashkent, to the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of National Security,” the PMU said in a statement. A month before his death, SNB agents reportedly visited Rustamhojaev’s home in Andijan and threatened reprisals if he continued his political activity abroad, the fergananews.com website reported.
Just a few days before his assassination, Rustamhojaev gave an interview to the Uzbek Service of the British Broadcasting Corp., defiantly stating that more and more Uzbeks were coming to Russia and even seeking Russian citizenship because conditions were oppressive at home. Tashkent’s relationship with Russia has become prickly in the last year, underscored by the removal of Russian street names in Uzbekistan, and Uzbek officials’ de facto boycott of the Moscow-dominated Collective Treaty Security Organization. Rustamhojaev’s frank comments may have rankled some in the Uzbek leadership.
PMU members are convinced that the crime was a politically motivated assassination. They add that the incident suggests that Karimov’s administration is concerned about the PMU’s potential to challenge its authority in Uzbekistan.
The PMU leadership comprises increasingly vocal refugees who fled Uzbekistan following the 2005 Andijan massacre, as well as members of the long-banned opposition Erk Party. The group’s first demonstration in Berlin was timed to the visit to Germany of Vladimir Norov, Uzbekistan's first deputy foreign minister, and coincided with the German government’s increasing unhappiness over difficulties for German firms in Uzbekistan.
The PMU has embraced more aggressive tactics in opposing the Karimov administration than other opposition groups. Trying to reason with Karimov and encourage the incumbent government to undertake reforms is futile, PMU activists believe. Engaging in dialogue with Karimov makes as little sense as “preaching to a wild boar that attacks you,” fergananews.com quoted a PMU representative as saying.
The PMU says it strives to commit acts of civil disobedience against Karimov’s government. Statements issued by the group have hinted that it has a significant presence inside Uzbekistan. “If, in response, the authorities resort to bloodshed as in Andijan, we dare say that we have enough power to rebuff,” the PMU’s political program states. Rumors of PMU-inspired demonstrations inside Uzbekistan have circulated on several occasions, but, amid the country’s tightly controlled media environment, the reports have never been independently verified. It thus remains doubtful whether PMU activists wield significant influence among Uzbeks in the Central Asian nation.
Since its establishment, the group’s Facebook page has attracted only about 500 followers. Its biggest success came in September, when some of its members living in the United States picketed New York’s Fashion Week to protest the presence of Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the president. The protests, along with scathing press coverage, created a PR disaster for Karimova.
Police investigators in Ivanovo say they are reviewing various hypotheses for the killing. But given the slow workings and opaque nature of both Russia’s and Uzbekistan’s justice systems, Uzbek opposition activists are not confident that Rustamhojaev’s killers will be brought to justice any time soon, or that the motive for the crime will come to light.
According to Nadezhda Sukhanova, a senior police official in Ivanovo, detectives are looking primarily at Rustamhojaev’s commercial and political activities in searching for clues that would help them identify suspects. They also say they are looking at possible religious motives. Last year, two Muslim clerics, including one from the Uzbek city of Namangan, were killed in another Russian provincial city, Novy Urengoy. Those murders were never solved.
In an interview with Radio Ozodlik, Bakhodir Rustamhojaev, brother of Fuad, challenged the notion of a business connection to the crime. He said his brother had never indicated that he was experiencing financial difficulties. “He never complained that he was threatened or had any conflict with local people. My brother only spoke openly about the injustices in our country,” Bakhodir told Radio Ozodlik.
Catherine A.Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer who covers human rights issues in Central Asia. She is the author of Eurasianet's Choihona and Sifting the Karakum blogs.