On July 23, the website Uznews.net reported that 2000 people had taken to the streets in Andijon, Uzbekistan – the site of a massive May 2005 protest in which the Uzbek government shot to death over 700 people. Uznews claimed that this was the second demonstration in two weeks, and that Andijon authorities were working to help rectify the problem at hand: homelessness caused by city reconstruction. The article portrayed an Uzbekistan of repentance and resolve – an Uzbekistan that does not exist.
Within hours, Uzbeks from Andijon were online affirming that no protest had taken place. “We are all quiet and peaceful, you agitators!” wrote one; “Are you crazy? Everything is quiet,” wrote another. Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, an activist from Andijon, described the calls he received from people all over the world, asking for his take on the thousands of protesters and troops. “Maybe it happened after I got home?” he wondered. He rode his bike around the city, looking for clues. But still the same silence: no sign of strife in Andijon, a city under unceasing surveillance for seven years.
This was not the first time a false revolution came to Andijon. In May 2011, Russian politician Aleksey Mitrofanov announced that a revolution was taking place. “What I said years ago would happen is finally happening – unfortunately,” he wrote on his blog for the radio station Echo Moscow. “On May 18, ten thousand people in Tashkent and fifteen thousand in Ferghana and Andijon took to the streets. In Andijon and Ferghana, people were shot. The exact number of victims is not known…External signals have been received. The internal pressure is phenomenal. Everything is ready to explode.”
And again, nothing happened. But false news prompts real reactions: “Of course nothing will happen, the Uzbeks are weak! There are more agents of the national security services than there are people!” one Uzbek reader wrote in the comments section of Ferghana.ru, which, then as now, had picked up the story. The 2012 fake revolution has prompted not just denials, but vitriol. From the Uznews forums: “All the current so-called Uzbek elite should hang!”
I have written many times about the role of rumor in Uzbekistan, how the assumption that all information is unreliable, and all sources biased, has had the perverse effect of ensuring that all rumor is taken seriously. The authoritarian conditions that cause the reliance on rumor have proven a challenge for Andijon activists, who struggle to bring evidence to light and keep the story alive. Uznews’s editor, Galima Bukharbaeva, paid for her reporting of the 2005 events with exile. The activist currently denying the veracity of Uznews’s claims, Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, paid for his reporting of the 2005 events with jail. The Andijon story drags on and on, the same parties trapped in the same narrative of hope, and rumor, and rancor.
What can we learn from the fake Andijon revolutions? To some degree, they serve as a litmus test of how Uzbeks would feel if an uprising actually came to pass – a subject that is usually not openly discussed. Internet forums are not representative of public opinion in a country with relatively low (but steadily increasing) internet access, but what these discussions show is that there is no representative opinion. When you look at the online reaction to the quasi-revolution, you see a range of conflicting emotion: rage, doubt, exhilaration, and fear. You see people wanting things to change, and not wanting to pay the price for it.
But most of all, the Andijon reports show how difficult it is going to be to understand what is happening inside Uzbekistan should political unrest actually occur. No major international news outlet has a reporter in the region, and even those that have sources – like Uznews and Ferghana.ru – struggle to get the story right. The internet will likely be the only source of information, beaming a constant stream of unreliable narration to Uzbekistan and abroad – until the government cuts it off. In Uzbekistan, the real revolution may be written in retrospect.
Photo by Adam Jones