Uzbekistan

By Corey J. PohlmeyerFlag_of_Uzbekistan.svg

Introduction

The land of the Central Asian steppes has been an area contested throughout history by many empires. It is one of the collision points between civilizations, and as such, has been influenced by many cultures throughout history. Situated south of the now desolate Aral Sea and east of the Caspian Sea lies the Republic of Uzbekistan, a relatively new country (in the temporal perspective) which achieved its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. Since its founding, Uzbekistan has been ruled by Islam Karimov, its de facto dictator. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan’s free speech and press rights have suffered greatly. According to Reporters Without Borders, the country ranks number 166 on its World Press Freedom Index, behind Sri Lanka and just above Equatorial Guinea, which is atrocious in light of the fact that there are only 180 countries on the list. In relation to Freedom House, a group which oversees the legal environment of countries, Uzbekistan ranks 95 out of 100 on its press freedom score, with 0 being the best number. Its legal environment is a 30 (worst score possible) out of 30, and its political environment ranks 37 out of 40 (worst) (Freedom House, 2015). Throughout its history, Uzbekistan’s record has been tarnished by incidents such as “the Andijan Massacre” and various political imprisonments, which casts long shadows on the country’s reputation.  Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since its founding, and as such, the country’s basic human liberties in general, which Western societies protect substantially, are sparse at best. As Karimov’s power wanes due to his increasing age, time will only tell what will happen to the country upon his death, but as of 2016, the situation is dire. (Reporters Without Borders, 2015)

Historical Background

Uzbekistan itself is populated mostly by people of Uzbek ethnicity along with pockets of Russian, Tajik, and other Central Asian cultures. The citizens’ religious following consists of 88 percent Sunni Muslim, nine percent following Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and three percent “other.” The country’s economy is relatively productive (as most of its citizens work in the service industry), but it has had various problems concerning its economy in its short history (C.I.A., 2016).

The area which now consists of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan has been influenced by both Western and Eastern civilization since the time it was populated by various nomadic tribes. The legendary Silk Road, which connected European and Chinese traders, ran through the region, making it a vital hub for wary travelers and merchants, with cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva becoming major urban and trade nodes. In 1865, Tashkent, the current capital of Uzbekistan, was captured by the Russian Tsar Alexander II (not leading the army, just ordering the capture) after a series of conquests in the region overthrowing the Muslim khanates. After this fate, a provisionary government was created by the Russians, and in 1885, the final destruction of any resistance allowed the Russians to have complete control over the entirety of the Central Asian Steppes. When the October Revolution occurred in 1917, the area tried to split away from the Soviets, but the attempt proved fruitless, and in 1920, the area was formally integrated into the Soviet Union as one of the autonomous Soviet states. In 1925, the Soviets split up the region into the various nations the world knows now. Under Russian and Soviet control, the Uzbeks and other ethnicities were dominated by Russian culture, and as such, were slowly morphed through processes of Russification (although they were not as greatly affected as other regions) and the spread of communist ideology.

Throughout its legacy in the Soviet Union, the population resisted at every turn, and as such, animosity formed between Moscow and Tashkent. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the country of the Republic of Uzbekistan became officially independent in 1991, led by Islam Karimov, under whom the country was doomed to suffer. (Kalter, Pavaloi 1997)

Islam Karimov, the one and only president of Uzbekistan has been in power since the country’s founding in 1991. He originally obtained political prominence when the Soviet Union still existed, and upon its collapse, he used the wave of nationalistic fervor to declare support for an independent Uzbekistan. The country proceeded to hold a formal election to determine its president, but it was a sham at the very most as his most powerful opponent was blocked from running, and the entire nations’ political machine swayed votes his way. Essentially, the system was rigged (Hiro, 2009, pg. 143-148). Upon Karimov’s entry into office, he declared his wish to open good relations with the United States, solidifying his legitimacy as the president of Uzbekistan in the world’s eyes. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Karimov did as much as he could to consolidate power under his control using the guise of an existential threat to his people: Islamist terrorism. After bombings in the nation’s capital, the country soon evolved into a true totalitarian state determined to keep its power by any means necessary. While many human rights violations were committed under Karimov, those concerning free speech and press are some of the most appalling. (Hiro, 2009, pg. 125-191)

Free Speech

To start off with issues concerning free speech in Uzbekistan, it is important to begin with one of the greatest atrocities committed by any governmental regime in the twenty-first century: “The Andijan Massacre.” In 2004, a new governor was appointed in an Uzbek province by the name of Saidulla Begaliyev. Within a month, the governor had arrested 23 businessmen under the charge of association with Islamic terrorism. In 2005, after tensions in the city of Andijan reached its breaking point, a prison break occurred, releasing the businessmen. The next day, the same people who staged the prison escape took the regional administrative office in Andijan hostage, and called for Karimov to resign. Within twenty-four hours, protestors gathered outside the building demanding the same thing. What happened next shocked the world, as 12,000 military personnel came in and opened fire on the crowd in order to disperse it. No mercy was given to anyone there. The official report has stated that 187 people were killed in the incident, and that the situation was caused by a group of Islamic extremists and that the military answered in return. Witnesses stated that thousands were actually killed, and in the following days, a mass exodus occurred as people fled to Kyrgyzstan and surrounding countries out of fear for their lives. The result of this incident permanently stained Uzbekistan’s reputation with the rest of the world, as many countries have since denounced the government. (Hiro, 2009, pg. 188-190)

While some of the protestors were not necessarily peaceful, the majority of them were, and the massacre has led to thousands of voices being silenced due to fear. Not only is this a massive violation of human rights, this is a massive violation of freedom of speech in the highest grievance.

While this incident may be the worst, it is not a sole event in Uzbekistan’s free speech record. As stated by Martha Brill Olcott in Worst of the Worst, “Uzbekistan certainly has more political prisoners (both in relative and absolute numbers) than Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, or Belarus. As of 2006, there were several thousand political prisoners in the country and a large proportion of them were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), or Jama’at, an IMU offspring.” The government of Uzbekistan, under the guise of fighting terrorism and radical Islam, arrested thousands of people as political prisoners and dissenters, preventing their opinions from being heard by their fellow countrymen. In a case presented by Hiro in Inside Central Asia, in 1999 multiple explosions rocked the Uzbek capital Tashkent, specifically targeting government buildings. The explosions were blamed on Islamic extremists, and in the wake of the attack, hundreds of arrests were made all across central Asia. The accused were given near-phony trials, as they had all “confessed”, and they were all found guilty. Many of them were given death sentences. (Rotberg, Olcott, 2007) (Hiro, 2009, pg. 168-171)

In more recent history, the government has used the same methods to combat freedom of speech taking place on the internet. According to Freedom House, “In September 2014, the government [of Uzbekistan] passed a law banning online content that is extremist, inaccurate, separatist, pornographic, or untrue, among other things. Several important provisions of the law are loosely worded, allowing for broad and arbitrary interpretations.” This law, in its very essence, has stifled an outlet for political and social expression among the Uzbek peoples. More than likely, with Karimov still in power, these types of laws will continue to be passed.  (Freedom House, 2015)

Free Press

Uzbekistan’s record with freedom of the press is equally as atrocious as its freedom of speech record. According to Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and Shahram Akbarzadeh, writer of Uzbekistan and the United States: Authoritarianism, Islamism & Washington’s Security Agenda, Uzbekistan on many, many occasions has arrested journalists and other political dissidents, protestors, and writers. In many cases, such as one reported on by Human Rights Watch in a report titled Uzbekistan: Journalist’s Conviction Threatens Freedom of Speech, the government has imprisoned people not on charges pertaining to the actual essays they wrote, but on bogus charges such as “criminal defamation, insult, and preparing or distributing materials that threaten public security and order.” In the article presented, the person was not convicted but was heavily fined.  (Human Rights Watch, 2010) (Freedom House, 2015) (Akbarzadeh, 2005, pg. 99-103).

In addition to the large amount of political and journalistic prisoners, Uzbekistan also has a record for censorship in its media. According to Shahram Akbarzadeh, stated in his book Uzbekistan and the United States, Uzbekistan has for the majority of its history had its finger in the media pie. The government has regularly told its state-owned media what to say and how to say it. But in 2002, the government passed a law effectively ending this policy. The law strictly stated that all censorship by the government is “strictly prohibited.” But while this is a great step forward for the freedom of the press, it was only to a certain extent, as the government still regularly imprisons journalists in its country.  Even after the implementation of the law, according to Akbarzadeh, “A systematic campaign of harassment and persecution appears to have been unleashed in early 2003 to remind journalists of the ever-present perils of filing reports critical of the ruling regime and its office holders.” (Akbarzadeh, 2005, pg. 99-103)

Even if the country is trying to legally improve its treatment of the press, it is mostly shallow reforms at best. According to Freedom House, Uzbekistan’s libel and defamation laws are incredibly severe, especially when pertaining to critics of Karimov. Most trustworthy journalistic outlets have been put under lockdown by the government, as the majority of them are under the direct control of the state. The situation has created an atmosphere of fear, as journalists are afraid to speak the truth because of the ramifications their actions may have. These ramifications mostly pertain to governmental harassment or abuse, or worse: torture and imprisonment. (Freedom House, 2015)

In the present day, Uzbekistan still does these practices with extreme prejudice. If the government cannot imprison someone, they will put pressure on them to concede to the government’s demands, in any way possible. Journalists, human rights advocates, and other critics of the government are regularly tortured, harassed, and assaulted by government officials. As stated by Human Rights Watch in their yearly updates on countries, “The government has imprisoned thousands of people on politically motivated charges, mostly religious believers, but also human rights and opposition activists, journalists, and other perceived critics. Authorities frequently subject detainees to torture and arbitrarily extend their sentences…” (Human Rights Watch, 2015)

Critical Comparison

It is quite evident, by the history, politics, and actions presented, that the Republic of Uzbekistan is quite different from the United States of America. The difference between the two nations boils down to the fundamental core of the government. Uzbekistan is a totalitarian country ruled by one man who has stayed in power for over twenty years. The United States is a democratic society which if any of these actions were to occur, revolution would be swift and fierce. When asked the question “Is the United States the most free country in the world?” in comparison to Uzbekistan, it may as well be heaven itself. Throughout the entirety of United States history, even by the instances presented in Freedom for the Thought that We Hate by Anthony Lewis, the United States has never reached the level of corruption and indignity as Uzbekistan. The only things comparable to the incidents Uzbekistan has caused is the U.S. Supreme Court Cases Schenck v. United States,  Debs v United States and the related cases presented by Lewis in chapter 2. In either of those cases, the United States limited the extent at which free speech could be used, even in the instance of the Debs case in which the person arrested was a candidate for the office of president of the United States. In another such incident, the Kent State shooting is a close comparison to “the Andijan Massacre,” and even then there were incredibly steep ramifications in the wake of the incident. (Lewis, 2007, pg. 25-29)

As for the freedom of the press, it is clear that the United States has vastly different viewpoints on the importance of news. While Uzbekistan has created an atmosphere of fear for news outlets, the United States openly fosters journalistic integrity and reporting, even in situations where the journalist has come under scrutiny, such as explained by Lewis once again on pages 47-48 of chapter 4. The incident described was the Supreme Court case New York Times v. United States, otherwise known as the “Pentagon Papers” case, the court ruled in favor of the press to inform the people about what the government was really doing. There are no such protections in Uzbekistan. (Lewis, 2007, pg. 47-48)

Conclusion

When it comes to freedom of speech, the United States government has never killed hundreds of people for speaking their minds, imprisoned people for mainstream political ideologies, instituted mass censorship, regularly tortured its own citizens, outright banned large portions of the Internet, etc. But in Uzbekistan, it is quite the contrary. The people of Uzbekistan have suffered under their current regime for 25 years. Even though the government of Uzbekistan seems to be taking a proactive stance to improve its civil liberties, only time will tell if these are just charades the government uses to improve foreign relations.

 

 

References

Akbarzadeh, S. (2005). Uzbekistan and the united states: authoritarianism, islamism & washington’s security agenda. New York, NY: Zed Books.

Central Intelligence Agency. (2016, March 15). Uzbekistan. The World Factbook. Retrieved from Central Intelligence Agency website: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/uz.html

Freedom House. (2016). Uzbekistan. Freedom House. Retrieved from : https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2015/uzbekistan

Hiro, D. (2009).  Inside central asia. New York, NY: Overlook Duckworth, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.

Human Rights Watch. (14, October 2010). Uzbekistan: journalists conviction threatens freedom of speech. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from : https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/10/14/uzbekistan-journalists-conviction-threatens-freedom-speech

Human Rights Watch. (2016). Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from : https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/uzbekistan

Lewis, T. (2007). Freedom for the thought that we hate: a biography of the first amendment. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Olcott, M., & Rotberg, R. (Ed.). (2007). Worst of the worst. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Pavaloi, M., Gaube, H., Kurbanov, G., Brandt, K.J., Halm, H., Leisten, T., … Stadelbauer, J. & Kalter, J., Pavaloi, M. (Ed.). (1997). Uzbekistan: heirs to the silk road. New York, NY : Thames and Hudson, Inc.

World Press Freedom Index. (2015).  2015 world press freedom index. World Press Freedom Index.  Retrieved from : http://index.rsf.org/#!/

 

This was last updated April 30, 2016.

 

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