General patriotic support for the national campaign to repulse the invaders was matched by analysis in the independent press that was critical of the government's lack of preparation and recognized grievances the IMU had against the authoritarian regime of Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov. As one Batken author, whose summer home had been occupied by the attackers, put it in a television interview: "It is wrong to label these people 'religious extremists and fundamentalists'- they are ordinary folk who have fled oppression in Uzbekistan."
The general reaction was illustrated by a fundraising music concert entitled: "Don't cry, I'll sing for you, my Batken." Including one bard's caricatures of the responses of different regional presidents, it was a mixture of patriotism, politics, humor and traditional music.
The response in Uzbekistan was markedly different, devoid of both humor and free debate. The state linked the IMU with deadly explosions in the capital Tashkent in February. This led to a heavy-handed crackdown on what it called 'religious extremists,' causing great alarm to human rights organizations.
While the fighting caused Uzbekistan, like Kyrgyzstan, to initiate military reforms, it has gone much further down the road of a militarization of society. The state-controlled media has given increasing prominence to the military. From video montages of special forces in operation to images of soldiers guarding tightly sealed-off borders, the armed forces are more prominent in society. The sense of a nation under threat from enemies within and without is daily bombarding the populace at large.
This trend has even affected popular music. Under strong government encouragement it has taken a profound 'patriotic turn,' with artists releasing numerous songs eulogizing homeland and nation. An example is provided by the 'Spice Girls' type pop-group Setora. The video for their recent hit song 'You're There' portrays the singer recalling times strolling with her lover, a handsome soldier killed while fighting dastardly Islamic-looking terrorists who have kidnapped women and children.
Such singers were brought together in what was called a 'Military-Patriotic Song Festival' at a stadium in Tashkent on July 1st this year, packed out with 15,000 young people. Involving military displays, sporting heroism and songs, it was named "I will give you up to no-one, Uzbekistan," the title of a song by leading singer Yulduz Osmonova. Once forced into exile abroad after making disparaging remarks about her country, she has since been reborn as a true patriot in line with the all-pervading ideology of state nationalism.
The event was highly charged. One weeping spectator said, "I am a guy, I have never cried... however for some reason, when listening to the songs at this festival, tears ran down from my eyes. I did not hide my tears. With my heart bursting over and together with all my comrades, I sang 'I will give you to no-one, Uzbekistan.'" A journalist for the popular youth magazine Darakchi wrote solemnly, "It started on July 1st. It will continue for ever." Amidst scenes of mass emotion and flag-waving televised across the country, a festival organizer declared triumphantly, "I believe our nation is a very strong nation. There will never be a nation like it."
The differences between this concert and the Kyrgyz one last autumn are illustrative of the way the two societies have responded to the war in Batken. Both governments have taken steps to strengthen their military and assess the impact of the conflict. While in Kyrgyzstan this has been done along with the type of critical debate possible in the relatively more open society, Uzbekistan has tied militarism to its existing program of authoritarian nationalism. This is creating a tense mix of patriotism and paranoia, which could prove explosive in a country home to sizable national minorities and struggling to cope with substantial economic difficulties.
Nick Megoran is a PhD candidate at
the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. Responses
to this article can be sent to him at [email protected]