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Uzbekistan: Russia's Image On The Rise In Central Asia (Part 1)

The beginning of perestroika in the late 1980s prompted a wave of national awareness to sweep through many of the Soviet republics. It was a period of high anti-Russian sentiment, with republics expressing for the first time their resentment over communist-era repressions and the tsarist colonization that preceded them. But in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, the past decade of independence has seen Russia's image on the upswing. In the first of a three-part series on Russia's reemerging influence in Central Asia, RFE/RL talks to analysts and ordinary citizens in Uzbekistan.

Prague, 12 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Uzbek government has worked hard over the past decade to promote the political, economic, and spiritual independence of the nation. But despite such efforts, a different perspective appears to be gaining force: Russophilia is on the rise in Uzbekistan.

Russia, once the self-imposed center of a sometimes restive Soviet universe, has today become a magnet for millions of citizens of independent Uzbekistan. Economically and militarily stronger, Russia appears to offer the prosperity and security that many Uzbeks have failed to find at home.

Malik Abdurazzoqov is an Uzbek political analyst. He said living standards for a vast majority of Uzbeks have been on the decline over the past few years, leaving many people nostalgic for the relative comfort of the Soviet era: "Roughly speaking, people [in Uzbekistan] are becoming more and more Russophilic, despite the fact that a majority of the Russian-speaking population has left the country. The first and main reason for this is that the Uzbek government failed to create and implement a reform program during the past 10 years of independence. Secondly, we are still getting information from, and about, the outside world through the Russian language. That's why Russian TV channels and other mass media are still very important tools in defining public conscience."

A sagging economy and skyrocketing unemployment have pushed more and more Uzbeks to migrate to Russia, where they are better able to find jobs, most often in manual labor or other low-qualification employment. Russia's relatively strong and dynamic market economy has made a favorable impression on many young Uzbeks, including 27-year-old Sevara, who described her attitude toward Russia this way: "I don't know. It seems to me that somehow we Uzbeks are living today thanks to Russia. It is painful to admit, but it seems that half of Bukhara and all of Tashkent are working in Russia these days. My own brothers work in Russia, for example. I have always had a good attitude toward Russia, because we used to go there so often. It's a pity I can't go now [because it is so expensive to travel there]."

Marat Khadjimukhamedov is deputy director of the Ijtimoiy Fikr public opinion center based in Tashkent. He said that Russia's new, positive image among Uzbeks is primarily tied to its economic strength: "Citizens of Uzbekistan look at Russia first as a labor market, second as a consumer market for their products, and third as a market where they can buy goods that are in high demand here in Uzbekistan. These natural economic and social relations have created a positive image of Russia in the eyes of Uzbek citizens."

Another reason behind Russia's improving image in Uzbekistan, Khadjimukhamedov said, is concern over security issues. The Uzbek government has fought to suppress the spread of Islamic groups it describes as extremist and says pose a threat to regional security. But many Uzbeks see Tashkent as incapable of maintaining peace and stability, and worry it would be powerless in case of an armed incursion or other outside threat. As a result, Uzbeks look to Russia as a kind of protective neighbor.

Khadjimukhamedov said a recent Ijtimoiy Fikr opinion poll indicates that, despite the current U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia, the majority of Uzbeks still look at Russia as the most reliable ally in security issues. "We asked a question: In the case that there is a military threat to the Central Asian states, and in particular to Uzbekistan, which country should they rely on and which country they should ask help from? The majority of respondents said Russia. In the social mind-set, Russia is not seen as some faraway country. It is a close neighbor, a powerful and big state. Naturally, the long-time coexistence in the same [Soviet] country can't be overcome overnight."

But analyst Abdurazzoqov argues that nostalgia for the Soviet past is not the only element responsible for Uzbek's growing interest in Russia. He said the decade of independence, rather than invigorating the country, has left many Uzbeks feeling hopeless about their prospects for the future. In Russia they see an opportunity to change their fate for the better. "This [Russophilia] is not only due to the inertia [of the Soviet past]. It's also because people are tired; they see no light at the end of the tunnel, and there is no alternative. People now understand there have been no reforms at all [in Uzbekistan]. That's why they have now begun seeing their future as lying with some large outside force; they are ready to accept America or Russia as a big brother, because they have lost any hope for the future. This is not nostalgia, but a new phenomenon. There is a belief that a big outside force can guarantee some positive changes in the lives of ordinary people."

Khadjimukhamedov says the United States, despite its economic prosperity, cannot act as the "guarantor" of such positive change because of its geographic distance from Central Asia. Russia, as it gains in economic strength, has easily taken on the big-brother role in the eyes of many Uzbeks.

Another key to Russia's growing popularity in Uzbekistan is its president, Vladimir Putin. Rasul, a teacher, said Russia's economic and political image has become clear and strong since Putin replaced former President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin: "In my opinion, Russia's image in Uzbekistan improved considerably after Putin came to power, because he took the road of cooperation with civilized world, not the old pattern of antagonism or hostility toward the West. The Uzbek public is happy with that, because now we've got an opportunity to enter the civilized world through Russia."

During the first years of independence, the Uzbek government and state-controlled mass media launched a strong anti-Russia campaign, focusing on the nation's hardships under 140 years of Russian and Soviet control and praising the advantages of sovereignty.

But now -- as government officials and President Islam Karimov move closer to Soviet-style authoritarianism in their political model -- there is less and less interest among Uzbek citizens in remembering the dark side of life under colonial and communist rule. Marat Khadjimukhamedov of the Ijtimoiy Fikr public opinion center said that while Uzbeks have not forgotten about their colonial past, they do not appear to fear that history will repeat itself.

"There is an understanding among the population that Uzbekistan -- and in general, Central Asia -- had been conquered by the Russian Empire, and it is impossible to sweep these years away from history. But these years serve in the social mind-set, in public opinion, as a big lesson -- a lesson that says Uzbekistan must not be under any kind of dependence, colonial or economic. It must remain an independent state. But the image of an enemy, or the image of an enemy state, is not applied to Russia. Public opinion holds no such notion."

But other observers, like Malik Abdurazzoqov, say that if the Uzbek government continues to hold back on economic and social reforms, Uzbeks will turn in ever-greater numbers to Russia, where they see at least some chance for economic survival and self-determination.

(This is the first in a three-part series this week looking at an increase in Russian influence in Central Asia.)