Will Ukraine's Orange Revolution have an effect in Central Asia's most closed regimes?
Young people in Uzbekistan watched closely as events unfolded in Kyrgyzstan that led to the ouster of long-time President Askar Akaev. The repressive regime in Tashkent leaves Uzbek youth with few options for similar political expression. In Turkmenistan, the most tightly controlled of the Central Asian nations, young people have virtually no options at all -- except to rely on movements run by Turkmen youth abroad. For more on the rise of political youth groups, see RFE/RL's special website "The Power of Youth." --> /specials/youth/
Prague, 11 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-year-old Hussan is a student in the Uzbek capital Tashkent.
After following the events in Kyrgyzstan, he told RFE/RL that he is ready to see similar protests in his own country -- but only for an opposition movement that is truly determined to take Uzbekistan in a new direction.
"I'd support events [like those] in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan only if their result is good for the people," he said. "There have already been demonstrations and even violence here. But they're useless if they don't lead to the establishment of a government that will serve the people. There is always a risk. A person who calls on you to participate in an [antigovernment] rally can either work for the interests of the people, or become obsessed with power. I'd participate in a rally only if I trusted [the protest leaders]."
Unlike Hussan, young people in Turkmenistan have no opportunity to express their views on the events in Kyrgyzstan -- let alone political change in their own country.
There are, however, Turkmen youth groups abroad -- such as the exile organization Aydynlyk (Enlightenment). Members of that group have expressed their support for the Kyrgyz events on their website (http://www.nesil.org).
The leader of Aydynlyk said Turkmen youth can play a significant role in bringing political change to their notoriously closed and autocratic society. Vladimir, who prefers for safety reasons not to give his last name or country of residence, told RFE/RL that in this way, young Turkmens can play a similar role as the youth activists in Kyrgyzstan.
"Of course, [Turkmen] youth are able to play a similar role. Look at Kyrgyzstan. It used to be called an 'island of democracy.' But it's actually similar to Turkmenistan, because Akaev's portraits can be seen everywhere and people in the villages live in poverty -- and even because of the repression of the opposition. Of course, the scale of the repressions [in Kyrgyzstan] differs a lot from those in Turkmenistan, but still. Most Kyrgyz youth live in rural areas, so they haven't traditionally been very active in politics. But when the time came, the youth took to the streets and they won. So one shouldn't be fooled by the apparent calm [in Turkmenistan]."
From the early days of post-Soviet independence, the Uzbek and Turkmen governments have worked to exert control over their countries' youth. In Uzbekistan, authorities created a youth group called Kamolot (Perfection) that officially promotes the political and cultural rights of the nation's youth.
Hussan said he and several of his acquaintances were unwittingly admitted to Kamolot. But he said he has no interest in being a member of the group.
"I'm not satisfied with Kamolot's activity because it does nothing but advertise itself on radio and TV. We didn't know that we had been made members of Kamolot. We learned about our membership only a year after some people signed papers in our names. Kamolot reminds me of Komsomol [Union of Communist Youth], the organization that existed in the former Soviet Union," Hussan said.
Umid (Hope) was another organization established by Uzbek authorities with the aim of sending talented students to Western universities. Umid was closed last year. Observers say the rise of opposition politicians like Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who himself was educated in the West, may have cooled Tashkent's enthusiasm for sending students abroad.
Uzbekistan began to restrict the activities of foreign nongovernmental organizations for the same reason. The Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute was closed in Uzbekistan in early 2004. The international media group Internews had its operations suspended several months later.
Both groups are believed to have supported the Georgian opposition during the 2003 Rose Revolution there.
In both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the government has restricted television news access to state-controlled channels. Print media is also subject to rigid censorship, and school curriculum is dictated by the state as well.
In Turkmenistan, parents complain that even the most rudimentary educational subjects have been replaced by state propaganda. Nearly all school curriculum is based on "Rukhnama," President Saparmurat Niyazov's book detailing his history and personal philosophy. No critical thinking is tolerated.
In Uzbekistan, numerous books by President Islam Karimov are also included in higher-education curricula. Students looking to enter university or pursue a Ph.D. are expected to have a thorough knowledge of Karimov's texts.
Hussan said most teachers are afraid to criticize Tashkent's educational policies.
"[Some of] our classes are conducted in the form of free discussion with no censorship," he said. "We can express our opinions freely, but only in the classroom. Our professors agree with us, but they think they should say something positive about official Uzbek policy, and praise the Uzbek government, because [officials] told them to do so."
Students, Hussan added, can also face punishment if they criticize the government. "There are some professors who have a very biased opinion about Uzbek government policy," he said. "They have only praise for it. If we disagree, we get lower marks. That's why we have to be silent during lectures given by those professors. Unfortunately, we have this kind of professor."
The result, for many Uzbek youth, is a general apathy and lack of political involvement. Nearly all young people are sidelined from political life, except when they are included in state-controlled election campaigns for pro-government candidates.
Kamron Aliev is an independent political analyst based in Tashkent. He says currently, there is no visible youth movement in Uzbekistan -- but there could be in the future.
"As for the situation in Uzbekistan, discontent among Uzbek youth is very strong," Aliev said. "It's impossible to discuss any issues [freely] in government institutions, impossible to solve any problems because of corruption. So people are dissatisfied. However, there are forces that could unite people and organize them, that are now in an embryonic state."
Nigora Hidoyatova is the head of Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants), an unregistered Uzbek opposition party. In a March interview with RFE/RL, she said a new youth organization, Shiddat, was recently formed in Uzbekistan.
"Shiddat means 'breakthrough.' Members of this organization are now working actively. It's very hard to work with youth, because there should be some ways to attract [young people]. Youth need to have hope about the future. Today, the only goal our youth have is to go abroad. The difference between rural youth and young people in Tashkent is that rural youth want to live in Tashkent, and Tashkent youth want to live abroad. Young people need an idea that will give them hope for the future and hope that they will be able to be proud of their country, to live here and be proud of it," Hidoyatova said.
Hidoyatova believes Shiddat could evolve into an organization similar to Kmara, Pora, or KelKel -- the youth groups involved in the recent revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
Hussan, the 20-year-old student, hasn't heard of Shiddat. But he knows that change is needed in Uzbekistan, and that youth "must be at the center of it."
(Yovshan Annagurban of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)