The tightly controlled Uzbek media has trumpeted the dangers posed by terrorism, while revealing few details about the US military presence in Uzbekistan. So far, there has been no public opposition to Uzbekistan's anti-terrorism policies, including the country's military cooperation with the United States. But local observers suggest that the silence has more to do with popular cynicism than actual support for the government.
Uzbekistan, a country with a predominantly Muslim population, is engaging in close military cooperation with the United States. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Yet Uzbek authorities have been reluctant to reveal details about military ties, apparently out of concern that publicity could fuel anti-government sentiment. Over the last three years, President Islam Karimov's administration has battled an insurgency carried out by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and has cracked down heavily on all unauthorized religious expression.
A recent public opinion survey indicated that US-Uzbek cooperation is not a source of popular dissatisfaction. The poll, carried out in Tashkent by an independent public opinion center, Ijtimoyi Fikr, claimed that 93 percent of the population did not view the US-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan as targeting Islam. Meanwhile, over 80 percent voiced support for resolute fight against terrorism.
In recent weeks the Uzbek media has hammered away on these two themes: that the US blitz on Afghanistan is targeting terrorists, and not indiscriminately attacking Muslims; and that the terrorists, including IMU insurgents, pose a serious threat to stability in Uzbekistan. All over the country, officials have organized public meetings, publicizing the government view that terrorists are using Islam as a cover to achieve their own political aims.
Meanwhile, newspapers have sought to reinforce the official line. Some recent headlines have said; "Terrorism - a Treat to All Humanity;" "Peace and Stability - Our Common Goal;" and "Awareness and Vigilance." Media outlets have continually reminded Uzbeks about both the IMU insurgency and the February 1999 bomb blasts in Tashkent, an event portrayed by the government as an assassination attempt against Karimov. Media also repeatedly praise the government for being aware of the terrorist threat, and for its action to contain the danger of instability.
However, local political analysts say polling data does not necessarily indicate that people are paying attention to the government spin-control effort. "The essence of the problem is not explained [in mass media]. They [media outlets] just say this is right and that is wrong, and the only argument they can use to support their point is a quote from the president's speeches and remarks. People just pretend that they take it in, but in reality this kind of ideological appeal does not reach people," one observer said.
The government's rigid control over information is feeding popular cynicism, several analysts suggested. They pointed to media coverage that portrays the Uzbek economy as doing relatively well, despite extensive poverty and lagging production. The evident dichotomy -- between conditions as they are, and as they are portrayed by authorities -- sows doubt about state media.
One observer said Uzbeks are currently preoccupied with pressing social and economic problems. "There is very little cotton this year and this upsets people a lot, as it means they will not be able to earn anything," the observer said. He added that many people in rural areas live subsistence lifestyles, growing their own food. These people depend on their earnings from cotton picking to buy essential goods throughout the year. Thus, this year many face a drastic decline in purchasing power.
The most telling sign of serious problems with the cotton harvest this year is the absence daily updates in the media on how the harvest is going. Uzbekistan's economy greatly depends on cotton, as the country is the third largest cotton exporter in the world.
Given the government's crackdown on political and religious freedoms, polling results that show strong support for official policy is not unusual, observers said. Mass arrests of Islamic believers in recent years have had a chilling effect. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Few, if any, will dare speak publicly on religious topics. According to a journalist in the Ferghana Valley, Uzbekistan's densely populated agricultural heartland, local residents opposed to the US-led bombing campaign are afraid to voice opposition out of fear of government reprisals, including arrest.
Farida Harba is a freelance journalist based in Central Asia.