Under Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union had "engineers of human souls," writers whose task it was to instill a staunch belief in the building of a glorious communist future.
What was once the Soviet Union is today a more pragmatic place, where moneyed elites have no truck with the glorious future but a deep-seated interest in the perpetuation of the status quo. The new engineers are "political technologists" -- and their task is to keep the cogs and gears of authoritarian "managed democracy" whirring from predictable election to predictable election behind a presentable public-relations facade.
It was somehow fitting that a visit to Uzbekistan by a group of Russia's most prominent specialists in political public relations should coincide with the first anniversary of a treaty that established a new alliance between the two countries.
The Russian delegation that visited Tashkent and Samarqand on November 13-16 included Gleb Pavlovsky, director of the Effective Politics Foundation; Modest Kolerov, head of a Kremlin department in charge of relations with the CIS; Yevgeny Kozhokin, director of the Strategic Studies Institute; Andranik Migranyan, chairman of the Commission on Issues of Globalization and National Development Strategy in the Public Chamber; Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies; and other notables.
Most of the Russian visitors warranted a Kremlin-tinged description, from "Kremlin insider" (Pavlovsky) to "Kremlin official" (Kolerov) to "pro-Kremlin" (Kozhokin, Migranyan, Markov).
'The Russian/Uzbek Experience'
The substantive portion of the visit, which was organized by Pavlovsky's Effective Politics Foundation and Uzbekistan's Regional Policy Foundation, consisted of roundtable discussions in Tashkent and Samarqand.
A website run by Pavlovsky's Foundation, kreml.org, enumerated the topics as 1) Deepening the process of democratic, socioeconomic, and social and political reforms: the experience of Uzbekistan and Russia; 2) Current condition and prospects for development of democratic institutions and processes: the experience of Uzbekistan and Russia; and 3) Challenges and threats to the development of civil-society institutions and how to overcome them.
The visit and roundtables received extensive coverage in official and semi-official Uzbek media. In particular, one pro-government website, press-uz.info, provided numerous quotes from the discussions between the Russian experts and their Uzbek colleagues.
Western discourse on such topics frequently stresses civil society's watchdog role as a counterweight to the dangers of excessive state power. But the tone in Tashkent and Samarqand was somewhat different.
Importance Of The State
For example, quoted comments about civil society placed an odd emphasis on the importance of the state. One of the Russian visitors, Strategic Studies Institute head Kozhokin, noted that "the state and civil society are parts of a single whole." Kozhokin then went on to say that "it is precisely strong state power that can create the conditions for constructing a market economy and the transition to a developed democratic system."
The state was also a looming presence in the discussion of democratic institutions. One participant in the roundtable on the "development of democratic institutions and processes" suggested that those processes "should first and foremost ensure the flourishing of the state, the creation of a reliable system for defending national interests, and the country's security."
National sovereignty and the menace of malign foreign influence were another leitmotif. Press-uz.info noted that "particular stress was placed on the need not only to build civil society, but also to ensure an unshakable foundation of state independence." The Russia-based Regnum news agency reported that participants at one point stressed that "democracy cannot be brought in from the outside." Press-uz.info explained that democracy is more local than universal.
Roundtable participants were said to have noted that "democracy assuredly has requirements and principles that are common to all." But they went on to add that, "nevertheless, democratic transformations in each country should take into account a people's mentality, history, traditions, and other specific elements that are inherent only to that society."
Participants suggested that pernicious foreign influence seemingly manifests itself not only in attempts to install democracy from without. Foreign media are a source of distortions. That was a conclusion implied by a discussion of "the necessity of objective coverage by foreign media of socioeconomic and social and political transformations in Uzbekistan, and the implementation of the latest foreign-policy initiatives of the country's leadership."
Praising The State
The message that emerged from the discussion as reported by press-uz.info was clear: The state must remain in firm control; democracy is whatever political system is described as democratic by an individual state in line with its officially recognized national traditions; outside involvement in internal affairs is unwelcome; and, finally, foreign media coverage that deviates from these postulates is not objective.
That message fits in perfectly with recent Uzbek government policy. Officials in Tashkent have touted state control, rejected Western models of democratic reform, evicted the majority of Western-funded NGOs, and used the government-controlled press to pillory foreign media coverage of Uzbekistan that calls attention to these phenomena.
Sending this message was not the only purpose of the Russian delegation's visit. Praise for Uzbekistan's leadership and the affirmation of Russian-Uzbek friendship were also present in abundance. As press-uz.info reported, the Russian experts described the success of Uzbekistan's reforms as a result of what they called "the optimal choice of strategy and tactics of democratic transformations."
The visiting chairman of the Commission on Issues of Globalization and National Development Strategy in Russia's Public Chamber (Andranik Migranyan) was more succinct. He stated bluntly that Uzbekistan is "on the right path," ferghana.ru reported.
Meanwhile, Gleb Pavlovsky positively gushed that what he called Uzbekistan's "ongoing construction of stable social institutions forms a unique experience that can be applied not only in other states in the region, but on other continents."
On friendship, Kolerov, the head of the Kremlin's CIS department, stressed that Russia "will always stand beside Uzbekistan as it carries out its important political and state tasks," according to uzmetronom.com, a website run by independent Uzbek journalist Sergei Yezhkov.
All of these messages received approval at the highest level in Uzbekistan. On November 16, President Islam Karimov received Pavlovsky and the other members of the Russian delegation, the official news agency UzA reported. And it was Pavlovsky who delivered what may have been the most potent characterization of Uzbek-Russian partnership at the current juncture, uzmetronom.com reported. A key Kremlin adviser, Pavlovsky remarked that recent reforms in Uzbekistan "are bringing our political systems closer together."
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