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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stuck Between Karimov and Radical Islam

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The events in eastern Uzbekistan raise a tangled knot of questions for Russia and the United States -- as the main international players in Central Asia -- about the war on terror, the role of Islam and the balance between a concern for human rights and a desire for stability.

But two things are clear. One, after the unrest and slaughter in the Fergana Valley city of Andijan last week, Uzbekistan is on the brink of widespread political instability that could threaten the entire region.

The bloody crackdown, in which hundreds died while thousands fled the country, likely signals the beginning of a cycle of violence. People are desperate after years of economic mismanagement and state terror, and President Islam Karimov vows to give them no quarter, attributing the downfall of Askar Akayev to the Kyrgyz president's own weakness.

Two, unlike his fallen counterparts in the CIS, Karimov is unlikely to face any international pressure to step down. Russia would rather have the devil it knows in Central Asia than a wild-card newcomer. Although the United States reached out to the opposition in the recent color revolutions, it would be uninterested in doing so in Uzbekistan, where the only opposition with any teeth left is religious. The United States would prefer a secular despot to any Islamic leader.

Yet if Karimov remains in power and faces a strong challenge, both Russia and the West will face a dilemma. While Karimov seems to be the only guarantor of stability, he is a ruthless dictator. Uncritically backing him in exchange for his support in the war on terror, besides being morally reprehensible, could backfire.

As the U.S. experience in Iran shows, cuddling up to despots who are wiping out Islamic opponents, both real and imagined, can come back to haunt you. If Karimov eventually falls, both Russia and the United States would be extremely unpopular with Uzbekistan's new leadership. Russia does not need another Islamic hotspot at its doorstep, and the United States has enough enemies to contend with in the Muslim world.

Russia and the West need to carefully gauge their policies to prevent more bloodshed. They should act in concert to pressure Karimov to avoid an escalation of violence and to loosen his gang's stranglehold on economic activity. Though he may appear to be the only hope for stability at the moment, his policies of persecution in the name of fighting radicalism are at the source of the unrest. If Karimov keeps pressing, Uzbekistan could explode.