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CyberChaikhana’s Uzbekistan chapter: “The Long Loud Silence”

Written by on Wednesday, 8 September 2010
CyberChaikhana, Uzbekistan
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Photograph by Flickr usr Ko An (CC-usage).

Photograph by Flickr usr Ko An (CC-usage).

Up next is Uzbekistan, an enigmatic country if ever there was one, and sometimes as much for the people inside of it as out. Originally we were going to entitle it, “The Enigma,” but Ben and I came to the conclusion that, “The Long Loud Silence” best fits the conundrum Uzbekistan presents to the world — and to itself.

The Long Loud Silence

Imagine you find a book that is missing several chapters and its introduction.  You can read the remnant and gain a sense of some of the characters and ideas, but overall, you won’t be able to figure out the story.  Such is the case with Uzbekistan.

Authoritarian?  Definitely.  Un-democratic?  Certainly.  But what do such easy categories really tell us about this country?  Not that much.

Yes, Uzbekistan is nasty.  The “one true fact” that people seem to cite about it if they know anything about it at all is that they have a weekly dissident boil out on the president’s lawn.

Nathan

The problem fundamentally lies with media, and it’s two sided.  Internally, news is white-washed.  Graduates of university journalism programs must take a solemn oath of loyalty to the president and suffer other professional deprivations, as neweurasia’s Musafirbek explains:

Hell hides behind the headlines—The media situation in Uzbekistan is at such a low point that no self-respecting journalist decides to work for the public sector, or any other kind of mass media there.  The reason is because working in these sectors just won’t allow them to grow professionally.  A colleague who is a former employee of a metropolitan newspaper wrote the following to me in a recent e-mail.  For security reasons, I cannot disclose his identity.

“My salary was only 120,000 Sum [approximately 65 USD]—and I was not a rookie.  My editor obliged me to write nothing that included reasonable criticism of the president or the government; no analysis of social policy; not a negative word about the president’s family (indeed, don’t say nothing at all unless it’s about his famous daughter, Gulnara); and God be with you if you dare report on the activities of opposition parties.  Do otherwise and you’ll get fired for a long time.”

In other words, the news must always be paradisic.  Indeed, from what I have seen myself, if journalists are critical about anything in the country, not just the government and its policies, then, first, their article will be immediately rejected by the editor, and second, they will be denounced as a parvenu, or worse, blacklisted.  Blacklisting in Uzbekistan is very serious: the journalist becomes deemed an “enemy of the state” and their families are shunned from normal community life.

So, any sane employee of the Uzbek media will write laudatory articles, submitting himself to official “guidance”.  Yet, praise for articles that are considered “good” isn’t given to the journalists who write them, but to only one man, the president himself!  It’s crazy: journalists must endure humiliation and poverty but cannot even enjoy the simplest joy of reporting—the byline.

Musafirbek

The tones emanating from the country are complex.  When we look closely at blog posts the content of which is as seemingly innocent as fashion, we get a glimpse at the murkiness of life under the present regime.

The bride’s wearing bin Laden… The fashion industry of Samarkand is the most interesting fabric culture/business that has flourished in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  There exist two fashion trends in the city, which influence the life (or at least the appearance) of the majority of Samarkandi ladies: European and National.  Both are imported from Turkey, Dubai, Russia, and even South Korea; the difference between the two trends is that the European is ready-made, while the National is pure fabric and made here in the city.

National fashion has a dynamic nature and hilarious branding culture. Products usually carry names of soap opera heroes, political leaders, or historical characters, like Osama bin Laden, Marianna, and newer ones like Putin, the “Eyebrows of Emomalii Rahmon”, and the “Tears of Shahrukh Khan”.  Imagine street conversations: “Hey!  Nargiza is wearing Putin”, “Madina bought Osama bin Laden”.  Osama bin Laden, terrorist and fabric extraordinaire, is particularly popular for weddings.

These brand names really stick.  Re-branding just doesn’t seem to happen: you can find “Osama bin Laden” as far as Bukhara. Within Uzbekistan, the Tajik cities (sorry for those who will be mad now, saying that these cities are Uzbek, I do not deny it they are situated within Uzbekistan’s territory, but the population of the cities identify themselves as Tajik in cultural terms), such as Samarkand and Bukhara, have the strongest dress-of-national-fabric culture in Uzbekistan.

Nafisa

Uzbekistan gives fur-lined undies the slip, banning the lingerie after authorities deemed it “too sexy”.  They believe that soft fur can arouse erotic fantasies.  LOL

I would like to make you guys familiar with the media situation in Uzbekistan.  Even after independence the most popular television channels are still Russian ORT, RTR, STS, etc. Erotic movies and films with adult content are shown on these channels very often, but the authorities are very strict regarding on-screen nudity. So, viewers can watch such movies, but when it comes to those interesting moments (love scenes), the authorities just cut them off and play some local commercials instead. Once the love scene is finished, the movie continues. I remember once when, during the “hot scenes”, they would cut off the picture—but you could still hear what was going on! That was really ridiculous, but believe me, we could not do anything to stop that nonsense.

Such practices were invented to protect the morals of citizens. I think such polices are the legacy of the Soviet Union; just as there was “no sex” during communism, there is “no sex” after communism, either.

Rumil

Ali, 24.01.2006: Things are seldom done without purpose in Uzbekistan. I bet someone is making a lot of money thanks to this ban :)

Nostradamus, 29.01.2006: To prohibit the sale of an article of clothing may have a purpose we don’t understand.  Yet, to prohibit the use of an obviously harmless item (that no-one would know is in use anyway) does seem ludicrous.  Banning farting in public would be equally ridiculous, but at least THAT bothers or offends people! Nice to know that “The Pressing Issues” of the country are being “A-Dressed”!

Qirol, 12.03.2006: Maybe, we should think about it from a different perspective. Maybe Uzbekistan is trying to protect itself from the dirt of Hollywood and Western civilization. Why do we think that something allowed one place should be allowed everywhere?

Politics seeps into every facet of life of Uzbekistan, to the point that it infects even holidays, as the next post describes:

He who controls the calendar controls the past—It’s amazing how zealously our government is trying to eradicate the memory of our Soviet past.  Even the calendar is getting changed.  For example, Fatherland Defenders’ Day (23 February) is now being celebrated as “Uzbek Army Day” (14 January).  Also, Valentine’s Day (14 February), which is celebrated around the world, has been denounced as an ideological strategy on the part of the West to spread vulgarity among Uzbek youth.

Frankly, I don’t see the logic of the power-holders; as always, it seems to be in a faraway place.  Interestingly, New Year’s is an event so popular that not even our omnipotent president would be able to cancel it.  International Women’s Day (8 March) is another one we have kept.  Evidently, our government’s ideologists can’t do anything about this one, either.

Provincialka

Alisher, 04.05.2008: Labor Day (1 May), which is celebrated in capitalist countries, is also celebrated here.  We have three days off, from 30 April to 2 May.  Victory Day (9 May), which has been renamed “Sorrow Day”, is another they haven’t completely gotten rid of yet.  That’s because it marks something concrete—the end of a real war, the demise of fascism, and Germany’s capitulation.  My grandfather died in 1943 during Stalingrad.  Every year this day my family raises a toast to him and to all participants of the Great Patriotic War—not the “Second World War”, as Karimov likes to call it nowadays.  I’m sure when Karimov is dead it will return to Victory Day.

By the way, independent journalists celebrate Freedom of Speech Day (3 May), but not the official Press Day (27 June).  That’s because there is nothing “fourth estate” about journalism in a censored state such as ours.  Only censorship lovers and those who serve power-holders celebrate 27 June.

Musafirbek, 05.05.2008: Much to my surprise, Freedom of Speech Day was recently celebrated in bordering countries, but I hardly saw anyone celebrate it in our country.    I talked with 30 reporters, and none of them knew about it, nor seemed to remember 27 June.

Even the arts and entertainment industry finds itself in murky territory, as exhibited by  the mysterious murder of a major figure in Uzbekistan’s theater:

The play’s the thing… It is truly a sad day. Late last night Mark Weil, a great man, playwright, innovator and just fun guy was found beaten to death. I first met Mark seven years ago at a local Tashkent event held in the Ilkhom Theater, which he created and was to become a mainstay of my cultural life in Tashkent.

I cannot say that Mark and I were close friends, or that I was of his inner circle, but we did have over the years several great conversations, sharing opinions, often involving a contemporary drama comparison between the Black Swan Ashland and Ilkhom, or about life in general in Uzbekistan. It was through him and the theater that I was able to explore more interesting nuances of Uzbekistan’s politics, history, and purpose, as well as a personal sense of self.

Mark was the main force behind me taking the leap from academic and technical writing to fiction, providing me cultural historical gems about Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva and connecting me to interesting people. Last night we were finalizing an article about the upcoming season at Ilkhom for Uzbekistan Today.  Several hours later, the founder of this great centerpiece of innovative drama was brutally murdered.

To me this signifies a rising evil in Tashkent which, until recently, was a place of calm, for Mark was loved by all in the city—always the faithful son, exploring uncomfortable subjects through his art, often with humor and drama.  He never threatened anyone in any political, business, social, or cultural sense.

Mark, you will be truly missed as a person and an inspiration for the people of Tashkent and Uzbekistan.  May you rest in peace.

Rowan Wagner

Weil’s death occurred on the opening of his theater’s production of The Oresteia, an ancient Greek tragedy that dramatizes the shift from monarchy to democratic rule of law.  Was he just a victim of random crime, or was he murdered because of political metaphor?  It is doubtful that we’ll ever know the truth because, as the next post shows, some topics of conversation are simply understood to be forbidden:

The long, loud silence—Once, I was riding in a marshrutka in which the passengers were discussing their worries about inflation, when a woman whispered, “It has to do with the coming elections.”  A man beside her chided, “We don’t wish to speak about politics,” at which point the driver turned on the radio and the minibus fell silent.

In universities, neither professors, nor students, nor their parents wish to research political issues.  You are permitted to research weddings, literature of the 11th century, sports—anything except the dreaded topic of politics.

To many ordinary people, the words “human rights” and “democracy” are homophones for “politics”, which in Uzbekistan is taken to be another way of saying “anti-government”; for this reason, it’s better not to talk about these topics.

Moreover, for many “politics” is seen as being the same as crime.  Therefore, anyone who involves him or herself with it are criminals.  But if everyone thinks they will be punished for getting involved in politics, when on earth there will be a civil society in Uzbekistan?!

Nafisa

Sometimes it seems as if the international community not only cannot hear the deafening silence emanating from Uzbekistan, but they cannot translate it, as well.  Take for example the issue of the annual cotton harvest, which uses child and student labor and about which there has been great outcry from the West but with little of the kind of insight as Nafisa provides in the next post.

I used to pick cotton and enjoyed it—In 2007, the minimum picking requirement for harvesters is 30-40 kg at 40-50 Sums per kilo, totaling 2000 Sums (slightly more than a dollar a day).  Teachers are obliged to force their students to go out into the field with them. According to foreign media reports, one school group picked 42,000 kg.  Let me tell you about my experience growing up with the harvests.

During the first months of the academic year there are almost no classes, so it’s a very relaxed time.  For all of September you are waiting for the harvest.  When the long awaited news arrives, some students immediately run to the hospital to buy a medical excuse from a doctor (doctors make a lot of money, by the way, selling false diagnoses), but others run around shops buying warm clothes and food, a lot food.  It’s like preparing for a picnic that lasts for two months.

Living conditions in the fields are close to terrible.  Schools are shut down and used as dormitories.  Students are packed into the sports halls and classes, usually sixteen to one room or even more, boys and girls separated.  You must bring your own bed and sheets.  Sometimes the windows have no glass and it can be freezing cold, and if you want to take a shower you have to pay the nearby villagers for the service.

The state provides students with some food as well, such as tea, bread, salt, sugar, potatoes, carrots, and onions.  I don’t remember if we received some meat (officially we did).  We also were supposed to receive butter and eggs, but I remember these products never reached our kitchen. But the food is not for free: you have to pay for it by picking at least 25 kg per day.  We had to organize cooking teams from among ourselves to prepare food for everyone.

Milk and other dairy products can be purchased from villagers.  Parents visit their children weekly and bring food, usually in huge amounts for the whole army of students. This is a good tradition, a large cauldron of plov, for example, makes many students feel good about the harvest.

Students aren’t an effective workforce for picking cotton because they simply can’t pick it well or just can’t be bothered to do it at all. There are ways to cheat.  For example, you can double the official amount of your pickings by measuring your yield twice.  Some sneak stones into their pickings to increase the weight, and others buy cotton from the villagers, who are way better at picking.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the harvest is, because students can’t always pick or cheat the daily minimum, they return home with debts.  This situation is aggravated by the fact that the monthly stipend promised to you by the government—which varies according to grades, so in 2004 it was 14,000 Sum for excellent work, 11,000 for good work, and 9,000 for fair work—is often paid late by several months.  (By the way, older folks who worked the fields during the Soviet era remember that it was quite profitable for students; the debt problem is unique to independence.)

The truth is, the cotton harvest is too big an event in Uzbekistan to describe as “good” or “bad”.  Everyone benefits and everyone struggles.  Doctors, deans, and other university officials can earn extra money from bribes usually from parents; students make life-long friendships, have wild discos, fall in love, fight, and generally have a great adventure; and villages earn a lot of extra income from the students.  In fact, because many villagers would be totally poor if it wasn’t for the students, I think this is the most positive aspect of the harvest.  Although working the harvest is technically non-obligatory, all of Uzbekistan seems to hinge upon the efforts of the students.

Nafisa

There is much in the above post to give pause before condemning everything the Uzbekistan government does.  At the same time, however, Michael at Registan.net makes a strong point when he writes,

Children, of course, have their own opinions on child labor.  But this isn’t something you can compare to letting children vacuum or wash the dishes, especially considering that the “choice” to pick cotton is mostly an illusion, where such a choice is said to exist.  Children might like the chance to get out from under their parents’ eyes, get out in the fresh air, and spend time with their classmates.  That’s all well and good—but it’s not something that requires 10-hour-days and 40 kg quotas.

Michael

Yet, such disagreement goes to the very heart of the enigma that is Uzbekistan.  Even if the labor is physically taxing, why shouldn’t children work in the cotton fields?  Why can’t authoritarianism be an equally valid form of government as democracy?  Are the concepts of “human rights” and “democracy” the West’s alone to define?

These questions are at the heart of the debate about how people inside and outside the country should respond to the tragic events that occurred when Uzbekistan violently suppressed an uprising in the city of Andijan.  neweurasia’s own bloggers were torn by a recent controversial decision made by the EU a few years after the bloodshed…

Is diplomacy impotent? The decision of the EU to abolish sanctions on Uzbekistan, introduced after the Andijan events, proves that, unfortunately, European politicians are ready to ignore systematic and brutal violation of human rights in this republic for the sake of geopolitical interests.

Oh, but wait, the Council isn’t totally heartless to the plight of Uzbekistan’s oppressed population.  In their announcement, they write, “At the same time, the EU remains seriously concerned about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, and encourages the Uzbek authorities to implement fully its international obligations in this area.”  Huh?

To remind everyone, the EU originally imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in November 2005 because the country refused to investigate the violent suppression of a protest of economic conditions in Andijan in which as many as 700 people may have died. The sanctions were pretty comprehensive: suspending a cooperation accord, imposing an arms embargo, cutting aid to the country, and banning some Uzbek officials from traveling to Western Europe.

How did Uzbekistan respond to the West’s sanctions?  By turning eastward to Russia, China, and India, none of whom have especially good human rights records and all of whom declared their support for the Uzbek government.  It’s no surprise that they got natural resources in return.  Meanwhile, the Uzbek government ordered the closing of the United States air base in Karshi-Khanabad, not to mention the UNHCR office and the offices of other international organizations.

How can the West get leverage on a country like Uzbekistan when it has alternative friends?  Okay, it’s a tough call, but the Europeans seem to have chosen the expedient over right and wrong.  Oh, and by the way, Uzbekistan’s mass media was surprisingly silent despite this sort-of-diplomatic-victory.  It’s probably because they didn’t want to remind the population that the country has been living under four years of sanctions, not to mention the tragedy that caused the situation.

Musafirbek

Carrots, not sticks—My neweurasia colleague Musafirbek has been slamming the EU for moral bankruptcy, but I wonder if Brussels is not so hopeless after all.  I’ve talked with three sources in Uzbekistan, people who are actually “in the know”.  Here’s what they have to say.

A source at the UNDP in Uzbekistan feels that the EU wants to try the “carrot” instead of the “stick” with Uzbekistan.  The Council may be hoping that it would be more productive than sanctions.  In light of the fact that sanctions did nothing to improve the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, perhaps this is a good point.

Another source, this time at one of the Western embassies in Uzbekistan, said that the sanctions did not make any sense to start with.  Their symbolism was inconsequential: in reality, the sanctions were pretty much nominal and did not “hurt” the Uzbek government in any way.

Finally, a source with another international organization in Uzbekistan said that the lifting of sanctions may be a positive step toward integrating Uzbekistan into the global community. He offered the ICRC’s activities in Uzbekistan as an example of “productive” collaboration with the Uzbek government toward a “common goal.”

The ICRC has been conducting visits of penitentiary facilities in Uzbekistan with help from none other than the Uzbek government itself.  That simply would have been impossible had the ICRC joined the “crusade” against the country when the Andijan sanctions were first introduced back in 2005. In general, the ICRC has been reluctant to publicly criticize the Uzbek government and has tried everything to be perceived as “neutral.”  As a result, it has been allowed to stay and continue its work in the country.

I think everyone should also keep in mind that there’s reason to believe the EU has lifted the sanctions as part of a deal to get more troops into Afghanistan to back up American operations there.  So, it’s a classic case of moral crisis: two nations are at stake here—should Europe have stayed unyielding or should it have compromised?  Yes, it may have been a compromise with the devil, but in the world of politics perhaps the true saints are those who can make such choices.

Pravdin

To conclude, Uzbekistan is very much a country that poses a profound philosophical problem—one in which lives are at stake.  Confronted with such unapologetic and ruthless relativism, who can decide what is and isn’t true?

The high price of truth… Why did I become a journalist?  Like my peers, I originally had very naive and idealistic motivations.  Yet, I had never before confronted myself with the question: just what is Truth in Uzbekistan—and what does it take to be a journalist truly seeking it?  But then a few years ago, while interviewing for a job at an independent news agency, I had a conversation that exploded my vague preconceptions.

The editor-in-chief sat me down and asked me why I wanted to become a journalist, and I answered that I wanted to serve my society: to expose injustice, to make authorities accountable to civil society, and to help my countrymen during crises.  “Yes, but so do representatives of other professions,” he retorted.

I thought it over and realized that he was right: the desire to serve was not in itself a rationale for becoming a journalist. I felt a pressing need to give him an answer, and so I said, “I want to tell the truth to my countrymen.”

“Does a journalist have the capacity to determine what the truth is?” he asked.

Again, I realized he was right. Were journalists truth-speakers or truth-seekers? By what measure could we decide what is and isn’t reality?

Suddenly faced with a kind of existential crisis, my need to give him an answer became the need to give myself an answer. Desperate, I sputtered, “I want to be an independent journalist and report on a situation completely objectively, without any feeling of influence upon me whatsoever!”

He studied me for a moment, then calmly said, “Do you really want to be independent in whatever you do? Then, you should remember that the definition of independence is when everyone hates you.”

Musafirbek

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