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Uzbekistan's Long-Distance Opposition Faces 'Crisis Of Legitimacy' 


We Are Not Afraid started in August 2014 as an online flash mob with about 50 participants who took pictures of themselves holding a sign saying, "I am not afraid."

Two years ago, at an arena in Tashkent, 16 corrupt Uzbek traffic cops were dismissed after being made to sit uncomfortably -- alongside thousands of colleagues -- through a screening of their misdeeds caught on video.

The clips on display at Interior Minister Adham Ahmedbaev's cautionary show for other police officers were mostly supplied by drivers whose dashboard cameras recorded bribery and extortion by police.

Rights activists celebrated the sackings as a rare victory against police abuses in a country where the rule of law frequently carries little weight.

The moment soon turned bittersweet, however, when police officials appeared to declare the use of "dashcams" illegal in Uzbekistan.

But emboldened by a conclusion from a U.S.-based organization of diaspora lawyers that dispenses legal advice pro bono to people in Uzbekistan, which argued that dashcams remained legal under Uzbek law, motorists continued to use them to expose police graft in that Central Asian police state.

That group, Tashabbus (Initiative), and the Qorqmaymiz (We Are Not Afraid) movement are two of a number of organizations that have cropped up online in recent years as a way for Uzbeks living abroad to show their opposition to the long reign of the late President Islam Karimov and frustration with the "old guard" of the Uzbek dissident movement.

"We started these things because we no longer believed in any...of what we call the 'dinosaur opposition,'" says Mirrakhmat Muminov, an early member of We Are Not Afraid and a frequent contributor to its Facebook page, which has more than 15,000 members.

Karimov was accused by Western governments and rights groups of routinely punishing his critics with detention and torture.

Despite hopes for reform under successor Shavkat Mirziyaev, who was sworn in as president on December 14, it is far too early to know whether Karimov's longtime prime minister might opt for even mild democratic reforms or greater commitment to rule of law for Uzbekistan's 30 million or so people.

"With the departure of Karimov and the arrival of Mirziyaev, social disappointment has changed to social expectations," Kamoliddin Rabbimov, a Paris-based, independent analyst of Uzbek affairs tells RFE/RL. "So there is now the start of a crisis of legitimacy for the Uzbek opposition."

We Are Not Afraid's Muminov -- who was granted political asylum in the United States in 2006 after being harassed by Uzbek officials once he returned from his university studies in Britain -- insists that since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan's dissident opposition leaders "haven't done anything."

"They've lost their legitimacy," he insists in an allusion to Uzbek dissidents abroad. "It's time for them to accept that."​

We Are Not Afraid started in August 2014 as an online flash mob with about 50 participants who took pictures of themselves holding a sign saying, "I am not afraid."

"We did it to support freedom of expression in Uzbekistan and to show the government that we are not afraid of them," says Dilobar Erkinzoda, an Uzbek expat in Sweden and founding member of the We Are Not Afraid page on Facebook.

Thousands of Uzbeks -- most of them living abroad but many inside Uzbekistan -- subsequently posted similar photos and took part in debates and discussions about social and political issues on the Qorqmaymiz Facebook page, making statements and posting articles that would in many cases be prohibited in Uzbekistan.

While the Qorqmaymiz movement has a political bent to it, Tashabbus (tashabbus.com) and Uzbek-expat-run social-media sites such as the Anti-Corruption Foundation and Public Control focus on publicizing people's grievances, exposing corruption by government officials, and resolving local problems in Uzbekistan.

Those latter sites appear to skirt politics in favor of confronting problems within post-Soviet Uzbekistan -- whose strongman president ruled for more than two decades until his death three months ago -- from the bottom up.

"We have no [political] affiliation," says Dilorom Abdullaeva, a founder and current president of Tashabbus. "We just help people realize and gain access to justice and the rule of law -- our mission is to...empower citizens with a legal education so that they can know about their rights and basic freedoms and start demanding their rights."

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev has made small moves to open Uzbek society, such as granting visa-free travel to visitors from 27 countries.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev has made small moves to open Uzbek society, such as granting visa-free travel to visitors from 27 countries.

Mirziyaev, who won November's carefully orchestrated presidential election to succeed Karimov after a disputed term as acting leader, has sought to supplant such grassroots sites -- setting up of a phone line and online complaint box for Uzbeks to alert the government to problems.

The official grievance sites have received tens of thousands of messages and prompted public discussions in some cases, and even led to the resolution of some specific problems. At least one lower-level official lost his job after a complaint.

While Qorqmaymiz has flashed hints that it would like to replace more established generations of Uzbek opposition leaders represented by people like longtime exiled Erk Democratic Party leader Muhammad Salih, it does not seem to be in any position to do so.

The group has avoided establishing a strict leadership structure despite what some members describe as internal calls for a hierarchy or an organizational meeting of its membership to establish a set of political goals.

"The Qorqmaymiz people are not afraid -- on Facebook," an Uzbek expatriate who wants to remain anonymous tells RFE/RL. "But they aren't standing in Uzbekistan saying they have no fear. It's not an active opposition group."

The social-media-borne Uzbek opposition abroad is largely made up of individuals who matured politically after Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991. It has provided forums for open dialogue, helpful legal advice, exposed corruption, and allowed Uzbeks to poke a finger in the eye of government, political analyst Rabbimov says, but it is not a threat to spark the kind of action that could transform Uzbekistan's autocratic system.

"The authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan has been and remains tough enough to stop by force any attempted coup," he adds.

Pointing to recent moves by Mirziyaev to open up Uzbek society, such as granting visa-free travel to visitors from 27 countries and suggesting that local and regional officials should be elected instead of appointed, Rabbimov says that Uzbekistan's external opposition may soon find itself marginalized by the new regime.

"We did it to support freedom of expression in Uzbekistan and to show the government that we are not afraid of them," says Dilobar Erkinzoda, an Uzbek expat in Sweden and founding member of the We Are Not Afraid page on Facebook.
"We did it to support freedom of expression in Uzbekistan and to show the government that we are not afraid of them," says Dilobar Erkinzoda, an Uzbek expat in Sweden and founding member of the We Are Not Afraid page on Facebook.

With reporting by Alisher Siddique and Noah Tucker of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
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