In the first decade or so after the fall of communism, Uzbekistan dwelled in relative obscurity. Landlocked and devoid of natural resource wealth and a developed economy, the country was mainly an afterthought – a run of the mill, Central Asian, moderate majority Muslim former Soviet socialist republic. That was before president Islam Karimov decided to start poking his finger in some pretty big eyes, drawing attention to himself and his growing nation from which he would later recoil.
Karimov has alternately allied himself with the West and the Kremlin, depending on the needs of the moment, but he has never loosened his control over the Uzbek people. During the run up to the United States invasion of Afghanistan, Karimov angered Uzbekistan’s former Russian masters by leasing a major air base to the U.S., thereby enabling the invasion and gaining Uzbekistan credibility in the West, not to mention $500 million in U.S. aid. His troops joined the coalitions fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and partnered with the U.S. in anti-terrorist initiatives.
Karimov then angered Washington by kicking U.S. forces off the base in retaliation for the West’s condemnation of the crackdown in Andizhan, during which Karimov ordered an armored advance against lightly armed demonstrators. Firing at anything that moved, women and children included, Uzbek troops killed more than 500 people, according to an eyewitness quoted by the BBC. The exact number of those killed is not known because Uzbek authorities refused to release the bodies of women and children to their families, and hurriedly buried many victims in mass graves. It was the biggest government massacre of its own people since the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. When Western capitals called for an investigation, Karimov gave U.S. troops six months to leave the country.
As if the United States and Russia were not dangerous enough, Karimov seems determined now to take on a foe so sinister and so ruthless that one wrong move could spell the end of his rule. The new mortal threat to Uzbekistan’s existence is none other than…Facebook.
No, really. Uzbek state television aired a documentary recently decrying the evils of the Internet and likening social network users to terrorists.
“It is not a secret now that social networks have been the weapon of outside forces in all the color revolutions [Georgia, Ukraine, etc.] which [sic] happened in recent years. The Internet is now a weapon of the future, leaving machine guns and nuclear bombs in history,” the program preached. A pro-government “expert” went on to explain the danger inherent in popular expression. “What is the difference between a terrorist and a page or blog owner on a social network who posts nude images? If terrorists kill people using guns and bombs, these Internet users will eventually kill you using ‘sweet words’. There is an immediate danger from this kind of mass culture to our state policy and our sovereignty.”
Mark Zuckerberg, call your office.
Helpfully, Karimov’s government has licensed a “safe” social network called YouFace. No, really. Uzbeks can express themselves freely there – that is so long as they don’t expect to get any independent news or opinions and don’t mind government minders collecting their information and perusing their writings for nefarious intent. Another approved site, Muloqot.uz, doesn’t allow anonymous users, the better to keep people from engaging in thoughtcrime.
Karimov’s campaign against modernity, wrapped in the thin guise of protecting the people from themselves, is of course not at all about the dangers of the Internet, or nudity, or terrorism. It is about control. Landlocked, lacking in natural wealth and a developed economy, but holding the largest population among the Central Asian nations, the last thing Karimov can afford is dangerous ideas like free market economics, democratic governance, and the rule of law not men stirring the masses.
More than opportunity and advancement for his people – the true bringers of stability – Karimov, like the Commissars of old, seeks stability through power, control, and enforced loyalty. What he is likely to get is the grudging acquiescence of Uzbeks that inevitably reaches a breaking point. There is time, however, for Karimov to avoid the fate of strongmen in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia, if he can only stop poking his fingers in his people’s eyes, and open up his own.