The role of Russia and the Russian language in post-Karimov Uzbekistan

There is a heated debate in Uzbekistan over its relations with Russia, which has suddenly sparked new debates over history, language and other issues neglected over the past thirty years. The deliberations on a possible membership of the Eurasian Economic Union of Russia (UEEU) sparked disputes over Uzbek language policy and the role, if any, of the Russian language in society.

The discussion is surprising because it pits the vast Uzbek majority against a straw man: a very small Russian-speaking minority, including many Uzbeks – especially those in the capital – who are still struggling with the Uzbek. These deliberations also reveal attitudes toward raising awareness of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Moscow after the death of his longtime predecessor in 2016, Islam Karimov, who deeply distrusted Russia. Growing anti-Russian sentiment could limit the Mirziyoyev government as it seeks to move closer to Moscow. More importantly, these events reveal the unconventional growth of civil society in Uzbekistan, much of which has emerged online.

These questions highlight a changing Uzbekistan. First, the hardening of language policy to the detriment of the Russian language is a significant reversal from Karimov’s tacit encouragement of pluralism. Second, events show a growing public voice in foreign policy decision-making. Third, it demonstrates the growing role of civil society on the Internet, which has become the most significant public square in Uzbekistan.

President Karimov has kept Russia at bay and has never seriously considered joining the EAEU. In contrast, Mirziyoyev opened Uzbekistan’s relations with many countries, including the United States, and opened Uzbekistan to cooperation with Russia in a way not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Trade between the two countries has exploded in recent years, cemented by a deal with RosAtom to build a controversial nuclear power plant just outside Tashkent.

Another sign of the return of Russia, including the return of the oligarchs, are the Uzbek “oligarchs,” who got rich in Russia and had little to do with their home country after independence. Alisher Usmanov and Pattokh Chodiev. They are, now, heavily involved in a range of business ventures, as well as charitable efforts. Usmanov and Chodiev have donated millions to help both Uzbekistan’s fight against COVID-19 and Mirziyoyev’s iconic rural development program Obod Qishloq. As former classmates of the Soviet Union’s prestigious Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGMIO), they joined forces last year to fund a branch of MGMIO in Tashkent.

Last year it seemed almost certain that Uzbekistan would join the EAEU, with most of the Uzbek political parties contending in the December 2019 parliamentary elections favoring membership. After the start of the new parliamentary session, the newly elected MPs began to speak out against membership, reflecting the growing debates in the previously inactive Uzbek parliament (it may also be true that American reservations – expressed the last fall by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross – played a role). On April 28, Parliament ratified the Council of Ministers’ proposal of March 6 to join EAEU as an observer rather than a full member.

These debates are representative of new discussions on social media about the Soviet legacy in Uzbekistan. For example, freelance journalist Karim Bahriev wrote a viral article on the taboo subject of “Russian chauvinism”. This article has linked Uzbekistan’s historical ties with Russia with a diminished role of the Uzbek language. Well-known blogger, Shaxnoza Soatova has become a strong advocate for strengthening the Uzbek language. She was recently appointed state language adviser to the justice ministry, which recently issued new decrees promoting Uzbek, arguing that the language has not developed since independence.

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On May 14, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry advised Tashkent against adopting this bill. This was greeted with a swift response by Uzbek politicians, who warned Russia not to interfere in their internal affairs.

Discouraging ethnic tensions was at the heart of President Karimov’s authoritarian and anti-conflict ideology. He feared what he perceived as nationalist-inspired chaos in neighboring republics. Moreover, the only political party that challenged Karimov, Erk (Freedom), had what many saw as a nationalist agenda. Led by Mohammad Solih, the party prioritized the revitalization of the Uzbek language. Solih launched an unsuccessful presidential campaign against Karimov in 1991 and was forced to flee the country soon after. His escape marked the end of the discussion about the role of the Uzbek language in society.

Karimov had a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude towards the language in order to deter tension. The 1995 Official Language Law, which recognizes Uzbek as the only official language and requires government work to be done only in Uzbek, has never been enforced. Government documents today continue to be written in Russian. In Tashkent and other cities where Russian speakers live, you will find shops with signs in Russian. The choice of language was left to store owners or ministry officials.

Karimov discouraged nationalism with another pillar of his ethnic policy: rejecting foreign policy entanglements with ethnic Uzbeks in neighboring republics. This, combined with laxity in the application of the language, allowed Uzbekistan to remain relatively free from ethnic tensions, both internal and external, for many years.

The debates on the Uzbek language have been quite public and intense, most of which took place online.

Mirziyoyev removed most restrictions on the internet, sparking long, suppressed debates on the once taboo subject: language. In a shocking video that made the rounds on social media in 2018, the director of the International Press Center and rector of the University of Journalism was filmed lambasting a Russian-speaking woman for not speaking Uzbek. Some Russian-speaking Uzbeks have risen up to defend Russian, drafting a petition calling for Russian to have official status alongside Uzbek. Others have argued that the Kremlin sponsored efforts to elevate Russian. This growing discussion of the Uzbek language highlights the absence of an Uzbek identity, which could encompass all groups in society.

For the very first time, Uzbekistan has the political space to have deeply painful but meaningful debates on the role of the Uzbek language in society, which are inextricably linked to foreign policy considerations. You will not find these issues discussed on national television or in the print media. You’ll find them on Telegram channels, Facebook pages, and booming internet media. This is indicative of the unconventional growth of Uzbek civil society, where a vibrant public square has sprung up on the Internet.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili is Director of the Center for Governance and Markets and Associate Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili

Image: A man votes next to a portrait of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev during parliamentary elections in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on December 22, 2019. REUTERS / Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov / File Photo

Sylvester L. Goldfarb

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