If one phrase could convey how Uzbekistan's leadership now views its relations with the West, it would be "information war."
Uzbek President Islam Karimov made that very clear at a news conference on March 20. "Today the nation is under an information attack by many Western countries," he said, an "information war...so unscrupulous that it's impossible to find another word to describe it."
One country in particular is propagating the war but, he said, "I won't name it."
Earlier statements by Uzbek officials have put a name on that country, arguing that the unrest in May 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon, in which -- officially -- 187 people died, was the result of a U.S.-funded attempt by foreigners to foment a coup using radical Islamists.
It may have been the United States that Karimov had in mind when he said on March 20 that "the Andijon events and everything that followed revealed who is who and how they plan to carry out their far-reaching geopolitical and geostrategic plans on Uzbek territory."
Faced with a perceived threat to the country's stability and security, Karimov defended the system he has established.
"We want to live as all of Europe lives. We want to live like all democratic countries," the Uzbek president said.
But, in remarks apparently addressed to the West, he warned: "Your model of democracy is absolutely inappropriate for us. Your model and your values are absolutely unacceptable because we live in Uzbekistan, where 85 percent of the population is Muslim. These are people who profess Islam. And our values are naturally different from the values that we call Western values."
Karimov did not illuminate the difference between Western values and the values he feels are more appropriate to Uzbekistan.
Weapons In The Information War
However, recent actions by Karimov's government do provide some insight into what organizations Uzbekistan believes are engaged in the "information war."
One group are foreign information providers. The government has therefore recently changed the rules of engagement for foreign media. One new rule is that unaccredited Uzbeks cannot engage in "professional activities" for a foreign media outlet. The Foreign Ministry was quick to show that even those with accreditation can easily find it removed: on March 15, it stripped Deutsche Welle correspondent Obid Shabanov of his accreditation for what it termed an untrue story, produced on February 1, about a fatal bus accident.
Tashkent's campaign to convey a true version of events has resulted in a steady drumbeat of stories in officially approved Uzbek media pillorying foreign reporting. For example, press-uz.info -- a young news website produced by, as it says, by a "club of journalists" -- blasted the BBC on March 18. "While employees of the BBC and others like them pretend to be objective and neutral are in fact genuine aggressors in an ideological war," it said. (RFE/RL was forced to close down its office in Uzbekistan in late 2005.)
Another foreign organization to come under fire is the World Bank. In his March 20 press conference, Karimov lambasted the bank for a report that estimated inflation in Uzbekistan at 31 percent and unemployment at 20 percent. Asserting that an International Monetary Fund commission in December 2005 estimated inflation at seven percent, Karimov concluded that the World Bank was not merely wrong, but that it "crossed out these figures in an attempt to discredit Uzbekistan." Days earlier, the World Bank had suspended lending to Uzbekistan.
Even as Karimov was unmasking the World Bank's malign intentions, his government was turning attention to the activities of the United Nations. On the same day, March 20, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry had shown it the door. Tashkent says the UNHCR has "fully implemented its tasks and there are no evident reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan"; the UNHCR, while promising to comply, noted that 2,000 Afghan refugees in Uzbekistan depend on its assistance. The UNHCR had angered the Uzbek government by, in 2005, helping to airlift 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch believes the UNHCR's expulsion may be connected with that.
The U.S. State Department has criticized Uzbekistan's decision to force the UNHCR out of the country. But with the Uzbek government digging ever deeper trenches in its information war, a siege mentality seems to be winning the day.