Uzbekistan: Russian Politician Spreads False Rumors of Unrest
The Rapture didn't take place on May 21 as some believers had scheduled it -- and the Facebook revolution didn't take place in Uzbekistan last week, either.
A Russian politician in Moscow blogging a false story of "10,000 citizens on the streets of Tashkent, and 15,000 in Andijan and Ferghana" set off a wave of speculation on Russian and Uzbek news sites, but reputable outlets such as fergananews.com immediately denied the rumor, citing their own reporters who found nothing happening. Local human rights activists also reported that no demonstrations were taking place, and later some Western diplomats confirmed that no crowds were forming on the streets -- that many people would not go unnoticed.
Aleksei Mitrofanov, described as a Russian nationalist, is a former parliamentary member formerly from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia headed by the controversial Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and is now active in Just Russia, a center-left party supportive of the current Russian leadership. His brief blog entry on one of Russia's few independent media sites, Ekho Mosvky, doesn't explain where he got the story.
The involvement of a Russian politician in spreading such an obviously false story immediately fueled hateful commentary and fears that possibly Russia was meddling in Uzbekistan's internal affairs. The independent Uzbek news site uznews.net cited an unnamed "Western observer" who saw the rumor of mass demonstrations "as likely to be part of a long-term strategy adopted by Russia to foment popular unrest in Uzbekistan. He suggested that Mitrofanov was unlikely to be acting without the knowledge of his political allies – the Just Russia party, created by Vladimir Putin."
It doesn't seem likely that the Kremlin would deliberately start trouble with an ally with whom it has sometimes testy relations. Yet Mitrofanov's blog asks a question that the Kremlin no doubt asks itself privately, even if this week's story proved untrue: how will Moscow react if unrest breaks out in Central Asian republics, as it did in April 2010 when then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled? Whom will it support?
And conspiracy theorists could also ask whether the aim of such rumors is ultimately to discredit the very idea of social movements appearing authentically in Uzbekistan, despite the real grievances people have there, seeing them inevitably only as instruments of outside forces -- and thereby making people suspicious even when protest is genuine. It's in the interests of the Karimov regime to pretend that it maintains social peace with ever-rising GNP numbers published by the IMF, but the lengths to which the Uzbek government goes to silence dissent betray the concerns under the facade.
Last week, for example, Tatyana Dovlatova, a human rights activist who appeared in a Russian film critical of the treatment of the Russian minority in Uzbekistan was fined $4,000 on libel charges.
It's at times when the regime doles out one political prisoner, tortured, broken, and with the sentence against him still in effect, as it did with Uzbek poet Yusuf Juma this week, that we are reminded of thousands of others who remain behind bars not benefiting from such bargaining with the West.
The wave of demonstrations in the "Arab Spring" in the Middle East has naturally provoked debate as to whether such developments could happen in Central Asia, where, like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Uzbekistan's President Karimov has maintained an oppressive rule for 22 years, jailing numerous human rights activists, political opponents and religious believers. And as in Egypt, there have now been at least some calls for people to gather in Tashkent's central Mustakillik (Independence) Square July 1.
Recently, the appearance of a new political movement named Uzbekiston Halk Harakati (Popular Movement of Uzbekistan or PMU), made up of activists from the older opposition party Erk and various Andijan justice groups operating outside and inside Uzbekistan, has prompted further speculation of Facebook and Twitter revolutions. The Halk Harakati Facebook community group page in the Uzbek language has only 302 "likes" currently -- but that's 302 more than can meet openly in a hall or club in Tashkent to organize opposition activities.
The PMU has already begun to stage demonstrations, such as one in Dusseldorf demanding justice for the Andijan massacre, and seems determined to go further than some past emigre groups that have been splintered and ineffective.
The group says that demanding democracy makes as little sense as "preaching to a wild boar that attacks you" and plans to incite civil disobedience, fergananews.com reported. The activists say the opposition has tried for 20 years to fight tyranny by engaging in elections, but it is facing an anti-democratic dictator, and now must move to another form of struggle.
The PMU plans to convene next week in Berlin, and has asked Uzbek Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov, visiting German May 24-26, to meet with them.
A group of four German parliamentarians has appealed to Norov for the release of Azkam Turgunov and 12 other human rights defenders in Uzbekistan, Freedom Now, an advocacy group for prisoners of conscience, reported.