Observation: Shallow Perhaps, But One’s Own

by Laurence Jarvik on 8/13/2004 · 2 comments

Excerpts from:

Alexander Baunov, Russian Newsweek
Exclusive for Ferghana.Ru news agency, August 11, 2004

Click here to read entire article.


There is no cult of personality or superficial signs of totalitarianism in Uzbekistan. No portraits of or quotes from Islam Karimov – save for in his native Samarkand perhaps. In the early 1990’s, Karimov himself initiated the law banning superficial tokens of exaltation. Upon hearing of the latest development in nearby Turkmenistan, the realm of Super Murat as he is colloquially called here, residents of Tashkent let out a sigh of relief and ponder on how lucky they are. Of course, Karimov is not exactly legitimate from the point of view of European democracy. He ran against a bona fide rival in the first presidential race only. In the second, his rival voted for Karimov himself in front of TV cameras. The third campaign never took place because a referendum extended Karimov’s term of office until 2007. So far, speculations concerning the successor have been quite flaccid. Strange as it undoubtedly is, even local liberals all too frequently come to the conclusion that a ruling dynasty is not that bad a thing. Karimov’s daughter Gulnara (she is an adviser to the embassy in Moscow nowadays) is known for several liberal phrases and regarded therefore as a modern and quite reasonable a woman. What locals I talked to do not think much of Karimov himself. All the same, nobody is more popular with the locals than the president. Islamists have the sympathies of a minority and are feared by the majority. Their parties and organizations are banned indeed, but the impression is that nobody really objects to the ban. In fact, the impression is that the country is at a crossroads: several wrong moves is all it will take to spark a chain reaction of radical Islam.

Non-Islamic opposition is in a state of limbo. In Tashkent, there are offices of old parties of the opposition (Erk and Birlik) and new ones like Free Dekhans [Peasants]. The offices are staffed, the parties convene congresses, journalists go there for interviews and the population for help – nobody drives them away, much less imprisons them. And yet, nobody grants them official registration and, consequently, permission to participate in elections. Moreover, the authorities cajoled a lot of leaders of secular opposition to leave the country, and foreign countries are not from where real politics may be indulged in. Sometimes, the cajoling is quite stiff. Muhammed Salikh lives in Norway. Back in Uzbekistan, he was sentenced – in absentia – to 15 years imprisonment. Five or six loyal parties are permitted to run in elections. Parties of the opposition attack one another more often and with more gusto than they do the regime. Go to Erk if you want to know who are the real bastards in Tashkent. Go elsewhere if you want Erk itself evaluated.

Human rights activists in Uzbekistan are like the secular opposition. Nobody imprisons them. They write their reports, communicate with international organizations, receive the anguished, and even have cards – so and so (the name), a human rights activist. On the other hand, they are extremely unlikely to be permitted to go on the air or organize a rally. As for relations among human rights activists and organizations, they are even worse than the relations among parties of the opposition. Approach one and he will inevitably ask, “Did you meet with so and so before me?” Never minding that he is talking to a journalist from Moscow, he will then use expletives with regard to the colleague. What is more, the whole diatribe boils down to the following: this impostor is but misusing Western grants that could have been spent better than that. In the meantime, all of them use PCs of a similar brand and type – probably bought on one and the same grant.


Radical Islam did not appear out of thin air. It is common knowledge that in the early 1990’s Uzbekistan was inundated by foreign preachers drawn by the post-Soviet ideological vacuum. It was like Russia of the early 1990’s. In Russia, however, it was mostly American Methodists, Korean Protestants, Churches of Christ, and Centers of the Mother of God. In Uzbekistan, it was mostly Islamists. Local imams call them sectarians, they eagerly cooperated with the regime to avoid trouble and serious rivals. All the same, the latter did have converts. There is the impression that there is already the critical mass of the locals ready to use violence to promote some cause or other. They constitute a minority.

Still, Tajikistan nearby is a perfect example of how it does not even take a majority to spark an all-out war and plunge the country into chaos. Islam that knows its place and accepts the rules set by the local directorate for religious affairs knows no problems. I talked to disciples of the operating medrese [religious college]. Thousands flock to the mosque on Fridays. On Thursdays, pilau is cooked near mosques and aromatic spices are sold for the weekly observance of marital functions so pleasing to Allah. Religious brochures and cassettes (video and audio) of preachers – probably moderate – are freely available. In fact, local Islam – Khanifit Sunnism – is fairly mild. The ward of Messiah Daniil’s tomb in Samarkand (when told that I’m from Moscow) prayed in the Arab language first and proceeded to tell me in Russian how Patriarch Aleksii II had worked a miracle here. Aleksii prayed to the Messiah (Daniil, that is), watered the pistachio-tree nearby, and it turned green that same year. In other words, Uzbek Islam has two faces, and the legal one is undeniably more attractive.

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Nathan August 13, 2004 at 5:46 pm


I’d been meaning to post that, but I’ve been in a positively foul mood all day (which made me more productive at work…)

Alisher August 14, 2004 at 6:08 am

As for Gulnara Karimova, I have seen her just once at the UWED, where she used to teach in the International Law faculty, but I have friends who were in her class, and even one friend whose bachelor degree paper she supervised. Even in quite informal circumstamces, they were telling that she was a quite westernized and liberal person. All other things being equal, she is not a very bad candidate. And besides, she has one more advantage in securing my vote, she is a woman. And I do belive that over patriarchal Uzbek society needs a more mellowing feminine touch.

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