Three popular social media networks became available for use inside Uzbekistan this week, only for access to be cut again hours later.
Officials, who rarely comment on internet accessibility issues, appear to be torn between ambitions to take advantage of Russia’s tech exodus and the more traditional urge to censor.
Local internet users were celebrating late on March 16 when Russia’s Facebook-clone VKontakte, Chinese video-sharing service TikTok and microblogging platform Twitter all became available for the first time since last summer. But closer to midnight, access to all three became impossible without VPN software to dodge restrictions.
The lifting of the block came the same day that information technology and communications minister Sherzod Shermatov and other officials held online talks with TikTok’s leadership.
TikTok is wildly popular in Uzbekistan, but the antics it inspires have attracted criticism from officials including the president.
In a typical refrain, the third-largest party in the rubber stamp parliament complained in February that the “hysteria of TikTokerism” was having a detrimental effect on young people.
Officials like Tashkent mayor Jahongir Artikhodjayev, who has spoken against the block, appear to be in the minority for the moment.
Nevertheless, the communications ministry’s statement suggested the meeting with the TikTok delegation, headed by the company’s Vice President Theo Bertram, had been fruitful.
“Representatives of [TikTok] also expressed their readiness to work together to prevent the dissemination of materials that contradict the laws of Uzbekistan,” the statement read, noting that officials had invited the company to open a local office.
Uzbekistan’s social media blacklist – Skype has also been unavailable for the best part of a year – runs counter to plans to overhaul its IT sector as specialists in Russia and Belarus look to duck state repression and sanctions symptoms by fleeing abroad.
Next month Tashkent is expected to begin issuing expedited work visas for foreign investors in the sector.
Uzbek officials have said that IT companies will be granted a wide array of tax breaks as an additional inducement to relocate.
Tashkent faces stiff competition for the exiles from countries like Armenia, where the IT sector has seen rapid growth over an extended period.
But the sheer scale of Russia’s brain drain since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last month suggests that there are plenty of techies to go around, and as one of the world’s cheapest capitals, Tashkent has a competitive advantage.
One Russian IT specialist interviewed by Eurasianet referred to the city as “a transit point” for his company ahead of a longer-term relocation to Georgia. Minister Shermatov’s recent pledge to up Uzbekistan’s export of software products and services to $1 billion by 2028 indicates the country wants to be more than just a staging post.
Uzbek users of Telegram, a messaging service whose dominance has helped it avoid long-term blocks, had no doubts that the brief unblocking was for the benefit of foreigners.
“It’s to boost tourism and get the expats in,” wrote a user named Roman in a group where the move was being discussed.
The snap return of internet restrictions was met with howls of derision.
“And blocked again. What a circus!” wrote Tashkent blogger Nikita Makarenko in a Telegram post that included an image of the stalled loading signal that has become such a familiar sight to local users.
Restrictions on VKontakte might be especially jarring for incoming Russians accustomed to using it for their businesses.
But the high-octane debate in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan over Russia’s war offers Tashkent further reasons to fear free discussion.