Happy Birthday, Uzbekistan

by Sarah Kendzior on 9/1/2011 · 5 comments

Uzbekistan and I share a birthday. On September 1, 1991, I turned thirteen years old, while on the other side of the world, the Republic of Uzbekistan was born. I was oblivious to this development at the time, having derived all knowledge of post-Soviet foreign policy from the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” video. My mother would occasionally fill me in – “There’s no more Soviet Union,” she told me one day, in that tone of amazement and amusement reserved for a generation who practiced protecting themselves from nuclear fallout by hiding under their desks – but I was unimpressed. The Soviet Union seemed like something only adults were dumb enough to fear, like horror movies or rap music. Of course it collapsed, I said, rolling my eyes like a little Fukuyama in training.

And for the next decade it was change, change, change, rearranging the destinations on my Carmen Sandiego games, injecting unforeseen contention into Trivial Pursuit (“No pie — it says Leningrad“). New nations, religious revivals, discarded ideologies – the region traded in irony and nostalgia, its fallen icons exhumed in statue graveyards for Westerners like me to see. For Russia, the transformation was billed as a “rebirth”, for Central Asia, it was “reinvention”, a sidebar to the perennial argument (thankfully faded) over whether Central Asian nations like Uzbekistan were “real”. Analysts of the region fretted that things were moving too fast,  that everything was artificial and constructed, that nothing was stable – not the Marx statue knocked down to make room for Timur, not the state-sanctioned mosques built to supplant communist creeds, not even the alphabet. Central Asia was portrayed as tumultuous, but what they should have feared, at least for Uzbekistan, was that it was not tumultuous enough.

A few weeks ago, I gave an interview to a journalist who wanted to know the three biggest changes that had taken place in Uzbekistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I told him that if you want to understand Uzbekistan, you need to look at the things that haven’t changed. For a whole generation of Uzbeks, many of the most important things haven’t changed at all.

How has Uzbekistan changed in the past twenty years? An atheist regime that jailed independently practicing Muslims became a pro-Islam regime that jails independently practicing Muslims; a Soviet system that stifled free speech, media and commerce became a “democratic” system that stifles free speech, media and commerce; a country stalked by the KGB became a country stalked by the SNB; a nation ruled by Islam Karimov became a nation ruled by…Islam Karimov.

Change that is illusory is more stifling than no change at all. How do you fight for what you are already supposed to have? In the 1990s, Uzbekistan began advertising itself as a “great state of the future”. Uzbek activists seem to be fighting less for that future than for the lost promise of the past – for the precepts of the constitution that were never honored in practice, for the dreamy life pictured in  propaganda that never materialized on the ground. It is hard to rally for change when the practices that separate the fantasy of Uzbekistan from the reality – corruption, bureaucracy, surveillance, fear – are unspoken and seem intractable.

The Uzbeks who turned thirteen in 1991 are now raising their own children in a more oppressive version of the Soviet system in which they were born. This, to me, is the biggest story of Uzbekistan’s twenty years of independence: the story of wasted potential. Everyone in my unlucky generation can tell this story in one form or another, but there is something particularly sad about Uzbekistan, where the state co-opts and cheapens imagined alternatives, where citizens are punished for acting on the ideals that they are told to uphold.  Happy birthday, Uzbekistan. May you get the great future you deserve.

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– author of 21 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research has been published in many academic journals and media outlets, including American Ethnologist, Central Asian Survey, Demokratizatsiya and the Atlantic. She is currently an instructor at Washington University, where she teaches a course called "The Internet, Politics, and Society." Follow her on Twitter.

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Turgai Sangar September 1, 2011 at 9:17 am

“Happy birthday, Uzbekistan. May you get the great future you deserve.”

Indeed. And for that may you first get rid of the 3 Karimovs.

KP September 1, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Don’t forget having to “fix” all the maps in the social studies room…

DW September 1, 2011 at 5:01 pm

You know, in a way, the madcap flurry of destruction, reconstruction, stray-dog rounding up and whitewashing over the last year could almost be read as an anticipatory response to this exact criticism. HOW CAN YOU SAY NOTHING HAS CHANGED? LOOK AT ALL THESE SHINY BUILDINGS AND PALACES OF CONSTITUTIONS AND VERY SHORT PINE TREES AND PARKING LOTS AND ULTRA-MODERN HYPERMARKETS!!!

sher September 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Uzbekistan was not born in September 1, 1991. It became independant. There is a difference girl.

Metin September 2, 2011 at 7:46 am

20 years are pretty long period for change not to happen. One of the areas that changed significantly is economy. The country is no more dependent on cotton as its primary source of revenue; now it produces more value added products such as machinery, chemicals and services. Economy is growing and growth seems to have strong foundation.

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