“In a system of ubiquitous spying,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote, “everybody may be a police agent and each individual feels himself under constant surveillance.” Arendt was writing about Stalin’s totalitarian regime, but her description is equally apt for authoritarian post-Soviet states like Uzbekistan, whose national security services (SNB) are the literal and figurative heirs to the KGB. Uzbeks fear the frequent and arbitrary arrests of SNB agents, who, operating under no legal oversight, comprise the most powerful internal security force in Central Asia. In recent years, the SNB has been expanded to hold jurisdiction over the Ministry of the Interior, which operates the national guard and special forces, and the ubiquitous militsiya which patrol Uzbekistan’s streets.
The internet, at first glance, would seem to offer sanctuary from the repression of the state. On the internet, Uzbeks can access censored information and debate controversial topics like politics and religion – though not without awareness that they are being watched. They can operate in relative secrecy, cloaking themselves in anonymous avatars, or connect through semi-closed social media networks. What they find harder is shaking the SNB’s long shadow, its psychic hold. The SNB inhibits whatever space it inhabits – physical, psychological, and virtual.
Last week, Registan editor Nathan Hamm reported on the story of Dmitriy Nurullayev, a citizen of Uzbekistan living abroad who was interrogated and threatened by SNB agents upon returning home. The SNB informed Nurullayev that the only way he could escape them was to work for them as an agent. Out of desperation, Nurullayev signed a “statement acknowledging he now works for the SNB, is willingly under their watch, that he will report significant life changes to them, that he will find and report to them any information they demand, and that disclosing this agreement to U.S. officials would result in him being sentenced to 17 years in prison in Uzbekistan.” Nurullayev returned to the U.S., reported his story to U.S. officials, and contacted Nathan, who wrote about it on Registan.
People who follow political affairs in Uzbekistan will find Nurullayev’s story familiar. You can find similar accounts on Uzbek dissident websites, in human rights organizations’s reports, and in the stories told by those who decided not to take the SNB up on their offer – like Alisher Saipov, the Uzbek journalist from Kyrgyzstan who was later murdered for his critical reporting. The frequency of accounts of SNB persecution raises the question – why is skepticism the default reaction online? The majority of comments I have seen about Nurullayev’s story – here at Registan, on Twitter, and on other websites – have been guarded and skeptical, and a few are outright dismissive.
There are practical reasons for caution. One is that, in rare cases, people have fabricated claims of SNB abuse in order to discredit others or promote their own agendas, as seen in the contrived tale of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova, and no one wants to fall victim to a similar scheme. Another reason stems from the fear that Uzbeks seeking asylum will make false claims about SNB intimidation in order to obtain residency abroad, thereby trivializing the real plight of persecuted individuals. This concern, while understandable, nonetheless reflects the paranoid mentality of Uzbekistan’s political system, in which – as one Uzbek exile once put it to me – “‘suspicious’ is the same as ‘guilty’”.
This brings me to a more complicated point: that the default skepticism toward SNB persecution stories shows how deeply ingrained the SNB has become in Uzbekistan’s political culture. It is hard to prove one was persecuted by the SNB, because it is hard to prove anything about the SNB. This makes any discussion of SNB actions inherently politicized, because simply discussing the affair inserts the spectator into the story. When state crimes are rampant yet difficult to prove, when rumor functions as fact and loyalties are constantly questioned, people are left with little recourse but to argue their position from the perspective of personal experience.
Assessing whether a story about the SNB is true means you are not assessing evidence – since evidence about the SNB is in short supply – but the individual. The individual is the evidence. To believe his story is to vouch for the existence of a crime that probably can never be proven. To disbelieve his story is to impugn the character of a person you do not know on the basis of absent proof. Weighing in, at all, puts one in a vulnerable position in which they will be subject to accusations of bias, subterfuge or naiveté.
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about assessing a case in a legal system. I’m talking about how we talk about the SNB online. Discussions of SNB action invariably include the flip side of the suspicion that someone is faking their persecution – the suspicion that someone is an undercover SNB agent, an allegation equally difficult to prove. One sees this accusation all over Uzbek-language political websites, and lately on English-language websites covering Central Asia. Like everything related to the SNB, it is an accusation that emphasizes character in the absence of concrete evidence, and often attempts to impugn character as a means of delegitimizing another’s perspective.
For the record, I believe that Dmitriy Nurullayev’s story is true and should be taken seriously. I do not believe that those who disagree with my view are therefore agents of the regime. If belief without proof is unfounded, then suspicion without proof should be equally unfounded. The internet may be a prime venue for SNB manipulation, but it is also the only place where people like Dmitriy can tell their stories and where citizens of Uzbekistan can read and debate them. We have an opportunity to ask questions and push a shadowy organization into the light. Trusting people’s motives or self-presentation online may seem unwise, even dangerous. But so is the alternative.