As revolutions sweep across the Middle East, the authoritarian leadership in the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan is cracking down on any hint of dissent. In recent weeks, the government has put new restrictions on cellular phone use and has increased surveillance of political activists.
In March, Uzbek cell phone and Internet providers were ordered to report any mass distributions of text messages that could indicate a coordinated revolt. The Uzbek agency that regulates telecommunications told providers that they must be prepared to shut down services on demand.
The new rule “seemed to be in direct response to what is happening in the Middle East,” said a Western official in Uzbekistan, who declined to be named for security reasons.
Push For Rights
The recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were almost completely ignored by Uzbekistan’s state media, which is tightly controlled and covers little beyond pro-government propaganda.
There is no plan for revolution in Uzbekistan. The relatively few activists in the country say they are focused on improving human rights and expanding personal freedom, even as they face immense pressure from authorities.
The last uprising in Uzbekistan came in 2005 when thousands of protesters gathered in the eastern city of Andijan. The government responded by shooting into the crowd, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. The massacre had a chilling effect on the country, which has experienced little public dissent since.
Uzbek authorities consider all activists and journalists a threat. Anyone who writes or speaks critically of the regime is viewed as a risk to stability and can be subject harassment and imprisonment, according to human rights experts.
“People are really, really scared and the government really controls the entire country,” Uzbek journalist Galima Bukharbaeva said by phone from neighboring Kazakhstan. She has been in exile since 2005.
Bukharbaeva writes and edits Uznews.net, one of many websites, including Ferghana News, Uznews.net and the BBC’s Uzbek, that have been blocked in Uzbekistan for years. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s website, recently was added to the list – a move Institute officials suspect was a reaction to its recent Middle East coverage.
“Currently I do not have access to foreign news,” said Kamina Kimsanov, an activist in the southeastern city of Karshi. “Before the Middle East events, I entered the sites through proxy sites, but then these were blocked.” Kimsanov added that she no longer can access Facebook and Twitter.
Activists like Kimsanov say that they are under regular surveillance, their phones are often tapped and they are regularly intimidated by authorities.
The authorities called Gulshan Karaeva, who works with the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, after a phone interview with this reporter in which she spoke about her work. Without specifying any charges, they asked her to report to their offices. When she refused, Karaeva said she was pressured further.
Karaeva believed the authorities had tapped her phone and were harassing her because she spoke out about human rights.
“I believe they are starting some sort of provocation against me, I do not know what,” she said by phone. Karaeva, who has been detained for her activism in the past, refused to respond to the summons and is determined to continue her work.
“I cannot just sit on my hands,” she said.
Experts on Uzbekistan say that the kind of monitoring Karaeva described has been going on in the country for some time. But Sukhrobjon Islmoilov, an activist in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, said the degree of surveillance has increased in recent months. “The way the authorities have started reacting to our materials critical about the social-political situation in the country has become harsher and more marked,” he said.
The government’s reaction is a response to the events in the Middle East, said Andrew Stroehlin, communications director of the International Crisis Group. But Uzbek activists, he said, are more concerned with attaining basic human rights and freedom of speech than rebellion.
While the experts generally agree that an uprising is unlikely, Stroehlin noted the same could have been said about Egypt, Tunisia or Libya six months ago.
“Who would have believed a couple months ago that [Hosni] Mubarak would be gone, that [Muammar] Gadhafi would be challenged so much, that [Zine el-Abidine Ben] Ali would be gone?”