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Uzbekistan: New Pro-Russian Youth Movement Launched

(RFE/RL) Soviet catchphrases like "elder brother" and slogans declaring Russians and Uzbeks "brother nations" have largely faded from the public consciousness in Uzbekistan's 15 years of independence. But the organizers of a new youth movement called Our Russia-Uzbekistan (Nashi Rossiya-Uzbekistan) could jar memories in this post-Soviet republic. They claim Uzbekistan's path is with Russia, and have called for closer ties to Moscow. In light of strongman President Islam Karimov's vigorous courting of Russia, it is unsurprising that some independent observers see the Uzbek government's hand in the creation of the group.

PRAGUE, July 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Ruslan Murakov is an ethnic Russian and a student at Uzbekistan National University. He's also an ambitious leader of the nascent Nashi Rossiya-Uzbekistan movement.

While the movement has yet to officially register, he says it has gathered momentum since the initiative emerged in April. It held its first informal meeting on July 8 in the capital, Tashkent.

'Russia's Leadership'

Murakov tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the movement already has more than 100 activists and up to 1,000 followers in Tashkent alone:

"We are Russian-oriented youth who love Uzbekistan and believe that Uzbekistan's future is in cooperation with Russia only -- not China, not America, not Europe, but only with Russia. Russia is [our] elder brother," Murakov says. "We stand for Uzbekistan's leadership in the Central Asian region and at the same time for Russia's leadership in general in the future."

Murakov stresses that Nashi Rossiya-Uzbekistan opposes attempts to restore the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan should maintain its independence and pursue its own path of development -- which he adds quickly "should be parallel to Russia's path."

"The priority for us is strengthening friendly ties between generations of our states -- Russia and Uzbekistan," Murakov says. "As our partners in Russia, the Nashi movement is antifascist. Thank God, there is no fascism in Uzbekistan, but there is some nationalism -- [and] we oppose it. We stand for friendship, for strengthening ties, for international cooperation."

Mutual Affinity

Murakov says Nashi Rossyia-Uzbekistan supports Karimov and his "course on rapprochement with Russia."

Much like its near-namesake in Russia, the Kremlin-friendly Nashi movement. Murakov and other Nashi Rossiya-Uzbekistan activists traveled to Russia to meet with Nashi leaders to prepare the launch of their own movement.

Formed in February 2005, Russia's Nashi movement is vocal in its support of President Vladimir Putin. It calls itself a "democratic antifascist youth movement." But it is widely regarded as an attempt to counter Kremlin critics and ensure against the kind of "colored revolutions" that shook establishments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Sergey Belokonev, the head of Russia's Nashi movement in Russia, says he "was very pleased" to learn about the birth of Nashi Rossyia-Uzbekistan. "Uzbeks and Russians are a single nation," he says.

"We have a common history [and] common tragedies in which we stood together -- like achieving a common victory [over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45]," Belokonev says. "It unites us more than anything else unites any other states or nations."

Russia's Nashi movement is not without its critics. Its ties to xenophobic and racist groups have prompted some to denounce it as a group of modern Russian "brownshirts," a reference to Nazi Germany's paramilitary "stormtroops."

Nashi activities in Russia have expanded from simple marches and sing-alongs praising Putin to book-burning and physical assault on Kremlin critics like former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Government Involvement?

Independent observers in Uzbekistan suspect that -- like Russia's Nashi -- Nashi Rossiya-Uzbekistan is being sanctioned by the government.

Azam Tursunov is a Tashkent-based human rights activist. He notes that the new movement emerged after Uzbek foreign policy orientation shifted away from the West -- which was critical of the bloody crackdown in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon -- and toward Moscow.

"If anyone wanted to form another, more independent -- or absolutely independent -- organization with a clear stance, authorities would never let it happen," Tursunov says.

Belokonev and Murakov insist that there was no official impetus for Nashi Rossiya-Uzbekistan. They also deny that it receives any funding from the Uzbek government.

Potential Membership

It is too early to tell how much of a following Nashi-Rossiya-Uzbekistan will attract. The ethnic Russian community composes just 5 percent of the population, and native Russian speakers are mostly concentrated in the capital.

More importantly, the decade and a half since the collapse of the USSR has seen the emergence of a new generation of Uzbeks with little or no memory of the country's Soviet past.

One Uzbek university student who asked RFE/RL not to use his name had this to say about relations between Moscow and Tashkent.

"Uzbek-Russian relations should be strong, that's right," he said. "But Europe and other countries should not be excluded. Relations with all countries should be the same and equal. Look what's happening now: Uzbekistan sold off some strategic assets in oil, gas, and some other sectors to Russia. I didn't want that to happen. I believe this [trend] will not end well."

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If Nashi Rossiya-Uzbekistan is granted registration, it will become only the country's second officially recognized youth group. After the Soviet collapse and the demise of the Communist Youth Union (Komsomol), Uzbek authorities launched an organization called "Kamolot" -- translated as "Perfection." It had the stated aim of promoting the political and cultural rights of the country's youth.

Other prospective organizers have fared more poorly. Inspired by the role of young people in the revolutions of nearby Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005), an unregistered political party, the Free Peasants (Ozod Dehqonlar), reportedly tried to form the Breakthrough (Shiddat) youth organization in early 2005. Its brief activities included distributing leaflets and organizing an antigovernment protest outside the U.S. Embassy in September. By the end of the year, its presumed leader, Ibragim Mirzajonov, had been tried and sentenced to a prison term.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

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