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Uzbekistan: Andijon And The 'Information War'

Four months later, what are the effects of the Andijon events? The horrific violence that struck Andijon in May unfolded in the space of 24 hours. But the struggle to define the event -- to reveal the facts and to explain their significance -- continues. Inside Uzbekistan, the struggle to define Andijon has been fierce, pitting Uzbek officialdom and the media and means at its disposal against a limited number of nongovernment media and a small community of activists who have no other access to the broader public. The result has been, to quote Uzbek President Islam Karimov, an "information war" that has already claimed its first casualties and is poised to provide the troubling backdrop to whatever will happen next in Uzbekistan.

As presented by President Karimov, government spokespeople, and journalists in state-controlled media, the core of the official story is that a group of armed religious extremists tried to foment an Islamist coup in Andijon. The terrorists seized government buildings, took hostages, tortured and murdered officials, and finally initiated a violent confrontation with the security forces that had surrounded them. The ensuing bloodshed claimed 187 lives, the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office maintains.

'Individuals With Evil Intentions'

From the outset, the official story has interpreted the violence in Andijon as a threat to Uzbekistan's sovereignty and chosen path of development. As RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 16 May, state-controlled Uzbek television noted in the immediate aftermath of the unrest on 12-13 May, "One thing is clear -- all attempts by individuals with evil intentions to block our nation's ever-strengthening movement toward its great future will fail." Other statements have hinted at foreign involvement and imputed envious motives to Uzbekistan's enemies. In an address on 31 August reported by official news agency UzA, Karimov tied these strands together: "In this dangerous situation, all of us must maintain constant vigilance and further strengthen our independence in the face of forces near and far that will stop at nothing in their destructive and loathsome strivings, eye us with evil intent, and cannot stand the sight of our peaceful life and our assiduous efforts to build a new society."

The insinuations of ill-intentioned foreign meddling have focused in particular on the United States and U.S.-funded organizations (see "Karimov Battens Down the Hatches,", 1 August 2005). As official media kept up a drumbeat of reports on U.S. efforts to undermine Uzbek sovereignty with a Trojan horse of democratization, replete with insinuations that extremists may lurk within the horse's belly, the Foreign Ministry on 29 July gave the United States 180 days to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base it has used since 2001.
In any government-directed assault on nonstate media, the real question is not why the state does what it does, but rather why the state does not do certain things that it could.

The decision coincided with the airlift of 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania, a move that greatly angered the Uzbek government. Moreover, it came amid a gathering rapprochement with Russia, leading some observers to trot out the "Great Game" metaphors that treat actions in Central Asia as reactions to great-power stimuli. But the real reason for the eviction of the U.S. contingent from Karshi-Khanabad lay elsewhere. If Karimov initially believed when he allowed the establishment of a U.S. base in Uzbekistan that closer ties with the United States would shore up his power, he had come to fear -- influenced, no doubt, by regime changes in Georgia, Ukraine, and neighboring Kyrgyzstan that the Uzbek government has sided with the Kremlin in viewing as little more than Western-sponsored coups -- that the alliance might now perform the opposite function.

In Moscow, where even a cursory perusal of commentary on state-controlled television and in the pro-Kremlin press reveals a diehard attachment to the zero-sum great-power rivalry that fueled the Great Game and persisted in the Cold War, the Uzbek move elicited considerable satisfaction. But there is little evidence to indicate a causal connection. In foreign policy, Karimov has a successful record both of maneuvering opportunistically between East and West and, perhaps more importantly, resisting attempts by foreign actors to influence domestic policy. The ongoing rapprochement with Russia, which began in earnest in 2004 after years of chilly relations, rests not on the dynamics of patron and client, but rather on the temporarily firm footing of common cause, the natural affinity of political elites that have come to view Western pressure for democratization as an insidious threat to their power.

'Information Attacks'

The official Uzbek version of events in Andijon, then, explicitly states that religious extremists attacked state power and blames terrorists for virtually all of the violence. It implicitly suggests that the extremists enjoyed foreign support. And it has increasingly stressed that while the active phrase of the battle for Uzbek sovereignty ceased when security forces overcame the extremists in Andijon, it continues on another front. As Karimov said on 31 August, "After the Andijon events, after the terrorist assault on us, the biggest damage and the biggest attack on us has been an information war, information attacks started against us, ignoring the fact that many people died and pretending it was something normal."

The "war," as he termed it, rages over the events that occurred in Andijon and what they mean. For if official media have portrayed a terrorist attack and concluded that Uzbekistan has dangerous enemies, media not subject to government control have provided a radically different account and drawn entirely separate conclusions. Relying heavily on independently recorded eyewitness accounts and reports by international rights groups (themselves buttressed by eyewitnesses accounts), nongovernment media have focused less on the initial violence perpetrated by armed militants and more on allegations that security forces massacred unarmed demonstrators who gathered in central Andijon on 13 May, after armed men seized the local administration building. Their two most important conclusions have been that social and economic conditions in Uzbekistan, and in the Ferghana Valley in particular, have produced a potentially explosive situation, and that Karimov and his entourage are willing to use any and all means to suppress dissent.

Government-controlled media in Uzbekistan have responded with a volley of attacks on their perceived foes in the "information war," reserving particular vitriol for foreign-funded outlets that broadcast in Uzbek, such as RFE/RL and the BBC. In late May, the Uzbek-language newspaper "Mahalla" published a lengthy attack on RFE/RL's Uzbek-language broadcasting entitled "So Many Lies..." Similar articles, often containing ad hominem broadsides against specific individuals, have continued to appear in the Uzbek press (see "Authorities Intensify State Propaganda On Andijon Tragedy,", 11 August 2005).

Arena (, a website with materials on free-speech issues in Uzbekistan, reported in a 10 June commentary that officers from the National Security Service bring diatribes against Western and Western-funded media to the editorial offices of Uzbek newspapers, where "no editor can refuse to publish [them]." Commenting on the "aggressive and professional" nature of the campaign, Sergei Yezhkov, an independent journalist from Uzbekistan who writes for Arena, has suggested that Russian spin doctors may have lent their poisoned pens to the fray (see "Is Russia Helping Tashkent Clean Up After Andijon?", 15 July 2005).

The ideological justification for this campaign is not merely that foreign-funded broadcasters are "spreading lies" when they report facts that contradict the official, government-endorsed version of events in Andijon. As a 2 September article in the government-run newspaper "Pravda Vostoka" explained with abundant commentary from a "Russian scholar" identified only as V. Smirnov, foreign-funded media are part and parcel of the same larger threat to Uzbek sovereignty represented by the "terrorists" in Andijon. The article stated: "In order to understand and properly appreciate the significance of the idea of national independence, one must take into account particular patterns in the sphere of ideas. Otherwise, various extremes are possible. We find evidence of this in the real experience of certain post-Soviet countries." Translated from insinuation to statement, the passage means that Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan are "evidence" of a loss of "national independence" after they failed to "take into account particular patterns in the sphere of ideas."

The article continues, "According to V. Smirnov, in many of [these post-Soviet countries], but not Uzbekistan, there was a failure to pay timely and sufficient attention to the activities of various international organizations and NGOs." We hear echoes here of President Karimov on 31 August, emphasizing that "all of us must maintain constant vigilance and further strengthen our independence in the face of forces near and far that will stop at nothing in their destructive and loathsome strivings...."

The article in "Pravda Vostoka" concludes, "Unfortunately, many foreign 'benefactors' are often engaged under various pretenses in activities intended to satisfy their personal or corporate interests." Translating once again from insinuation to statement, foreign-funded media are part of the plot that targets Uzbek statehood and sovereignty. Soldiers in the "information war," they are the enemy.

Caught In The 'Information War'

The martial context is more than a metaphor. As a string of post-Andijon incidents shows, the Uzbek government's perception of imminent peril and its commitment to "information warfare" have combined to produce for nongovernment journalists -- and rights activists, who are often involved in disseminating reports that run counter to officially approved truths -- a daily reality of harassment, expulsion, assault, imprisonment, and worse.

International media watchdog organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), as well as RFE/RL's Uzbek Service have documented both the general obstructions facing nongovernment media in Uzbekistan and specific actions against individuals.

CPJ noted in a 16 May news alert that in the immediate aftermath of Andijon, "Uzbek authorities maintained a virtual blockade today on news coverage of civil unrest in the northeastern city of Andijon, expelling journalists from the town and obstructing foreign television news broadcasts." When RFE/RL queried Tashkent residents on 14 May, they said: "Television isn't showing anything. Russian channels are cut off." RFE/RL reported on 14 May that news broadcasts on Russian television channels carried by Uzbek cable were replaced either by still pictures or entertainment programs.

In the weeks after Andijon, individual reporters and specific organizations became targets of harassment. As RSF noted in a 1 August report, Tulqin Qoraev, a freelance correspondent for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), was forced to flee Uzbekistan in early July after a campaign of harassment that included arrest, detention, and house arrest. In early August, the U.S.-based media organization Internews announced that a court in Tashkent had convicted two of its Uzbek employees of a conspiracy to produce TV programming illegally. The employees escaped prison terms thanks to an amnesty, but Joshua Machleder, the regional director of Internews Network in Central Asia, said in a 4 August press release on the organization's website, "I think the Uzbek government’s ultimate goal is to close us down, and intimidating our staff in this way was just the first step."

In mid-August, Uzbek authorities deported Igor Rotar, a Russian journalist who had come to Uzbekistan on assignment for the Oslo-based religious-rights organization Forum 18. Rotar had arrived to cover reports that Protestants were encountering government harassment in Uzbekistan, but as CPJ noted in a 15 August press release drawing on an interview Rotar gave to, "He believes his detention was part of a broader government crackdown on the media following the 13 May massacre of antigovernment protesters in...Andijon."

Rights activists, and particularly those who spoke out through foreign media, also found themselves targeted in the wake of Andijon, as Human Rights Watch detailed in a 9 June report on the organization's website. In what is perhaps the best-known example, Saidjahon Zaynobiddinov, an Andijon-based rights activist who provided a number of international media outlets with eyewitness accounts of events in Andijon, was detained on 22 May and subsequently charged with defamation and "the preparation or distribution materials that pose a threat to security," as RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 17 August. As of mid-August, Zaynobiddinov's son told RFE/RL that his father was being held incommunicado at an unknown location in Tashkent.

Some incidents have been violent. In late May, an Andijon resident led RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Gofurjon Yoldoshev to the site of a mass grave. The next day, Yoldoshev's guide, a community elder named Juraboy Abdullaev, was stabbed to death. On 1 July, RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Lobar Qaynarova was attacked and beaten outside her apartment while returning home from covering a trial. Her attackers took away her audio equipment and recordings of the trial proceedings. And in late August, a court sentenced RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Nosir Zokirov to six months in jail for "insulting" an officer in the National Security Service after Zokirov called the official in early August to complain about the harassment of a local poet.

The list presented above is representative but hardly exhaustive. Numerous other incidents have occurred. But despite its brevity, the preceding enumeration, viewed against the backdrop of the official version of events in Andijon and the government's belief that it is engaged in an "information war," shows that a stark confrontation now marks relations between the apparatus of state power in Uzbekistan and those who would bring into the public sphere departures from the officially sanctioned general line.

How Far Will Repression Go?

The story does not end with this unsurprising conclusion. Uzbekistan's media environment has long been marked by conflict between the state and "others," and while the escalation of this conflict into a government-declared "information war" is significant, it brings with it several questions. To wit: What considerations govern the current dynamics and future development of this "information war"? Where is the truth? And what is its ultimate lesson?

In any government-directed assault on nonstate media, the real question is not why the state does what it does, but rather why the state does not do certain things that it could. As the preceding makes clear, Uzbekistan's ruling elite now feels that it is in danger, and it has identified control over the flow of information as a way to minimize that danger. The state's repressive mechanisms are capable of much more than targeted harassment. As neighboring Turkmenistan demonstrates, they can be used to shut off the country entirely and reduce the entire media environment to whatever the press office of the presidential administration wishes it to be. This has not yet happened in Uzbekistan. Why?
The state's policy toward media gadflies may also be more complex than it appears at first glance, aiming not simply to silence but to co-opt.

There are no hard and fast answers, but past and present experience suggest several reasons. For one, despite Uzbekistan's post-Andijon falling-out with the West, international prestige remains a consideration for President Karimov, who has always been acutely conscious of his role as the leader of a sovereign nation that is not only Central Asia's most populous, but also historically rooted in traditions of high statecraft and culture.

For Uzbekistan, the antiterrorism alliance with the United States that emerged after 11 September 2001 rested not so much on a shared commitment to democratization and reforms -- as the record of the past four years indicates -- but on a strong sense of a partnership with the world's remaining superpower. What this means in practical terms is that while Karimov will not yield to Western pressure on issues he sees as vital to his own security -- like the demand for an independent international inquiry into the events in Andijon -- he is unlikely to sanction a crackdown that irretrievably renders him a pariah.

Karimov Keeping His Options Open

Another factor in this equation is the multivector foreign policy that marks Central Asia's, and Uzbekistan's, relations with the outside world. Between 2001 and the advent of the post-Soviet political upheavals signaled by Georgia's Rose Revolution, the primary thrust of Uzbekistan's foreign policy was toward the West. But this was only one vector. Another ran East, with overtures toward Moscow allowing Tashkent to keep its Western partners on edge and its options open. With the primary vector now running East, the countervector will likely run in the opposite direction, bringing with it periodic relaxations of specific policies deemed particularly odious in Western capitals.

The state's policy toward media gadflies may also be more complex than it appears at first glance, aiming not simply to silence but to co-opt. For example, Yusuf Rasulov, an independent journalist and rights activist, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 30 June that he ran into problems with the authorities when he came to the defense of Sobirjon Yoqubov, a correspondent for the newspaper "Hurriyat" who was jailed in April. Noting that he is now under constant surveillance, Rasulov provided the following insight into his current plight: "I understood from what the prosecutor said that these [media-related] cases are linked to instructions from the top. They said that if I write an article through a friend who works at a local newspaper asking the president for forgiveness and condemning foreign media, I'll be fine."

One should also remember that the mechanisms of state power may not be in perfect working order. Karimov himself has railed at corruption, incompetence, and clan-based factionalism in government, and these should be understood as factors that can impair the successful execution of policy, including policy on the media. And finally, a generation of officials who, like Karimov, came of age in the Soviet Union may have some sense of the fatal paradox that afflicted Soviet media -- the more the state tried to monopolize the media environment, the less credibility official media had. And however the post-Soviet populace might view the event today, when the mighty empire finally tottered and swayed, no one at its core took to the streets to defend it.

The preceding, of course, are mitigating factors. They do not determine the current dynamic of media policy in Uzbekistan, which emerges from the concept of "information war" as defined by the president. They may, however, influence the future development of that dynamic.

What Did Happen In Andijon?

What, then, of the truth? For the key issue here is not some abstraction called "media policy," but an event that is about the very life and blood of a nation. Who is right about what happened in Andijon -- the government or its critics?

The initial violence in Andijon on the night of 12 May is murky, but the Uzbek government's charges of an assault on government institutions are well-founded, and its claims of religious extremists run amok at least plausible, if unproven. But the most important question is whether government security forces perpetrated a massacre against demonstrators who subsequently gathered in the city's central square.

On this count, the weight of independently recorded eyewitness testimony, both from the few journalists who were present and the many refugees who subsequently provided their accounts to international organizations, tips the scales toward the fact of a massacre and places the burden of proof on the Uzbek government. The government has not provided such proof. Instead, its adamant refusal to consider the possibility of wrongdoing by security forces, its rejection of any independent inquiry, and its efforts to stifle dissenting voices only tip the scales further.

This admittedly incomplete picture may open the door to various obfuscations, but the not-so-distant Cold War experience of ferreting out the truth from closed societies can still serve as a rough road map for today's efforts. Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" rested on fragmentary, and frequently unverifiable, eyewitness testimony conveyed in a tone of ill will toward the rulers of the Soviet Union. This emboldened his Soviet critics of the time, yet it robbed the work of none of its power and detracted little from its essential truth.

Finally, the broader lesson. It is a simple one, learned many times, perhaps most memorably during the long decline and precipitous fall of the Soviet Union. When a government views information as a weapon to be wielded as though in time of war, when it transforms the media environment into a battleground, it does so for the simple and pragmatic reason that it perceives a real and present danger. And while it fights within its own borders with an arsenal that its opponents cannot hope to match, and will surely win battle after battle, the victories may prove Pyrrhic, and the state's self-declared war may well end in sudden and calamitous defeat.

For complete coverage of the mid-May events in Andijon, see RFE/RL's "Unrest in Uzbekistan"

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