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.