Online Commentary in Uzbekistan Divided on Crimea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 82

(Source: uzdaily.com)

The official mass media in Uzbekistan is not discussing or analyzing the situation surrounding Crimea. Therefore, from the outside, it is difficult to discern the local people’s perspectives on this issue. Nevertheless, an analysis of the online comments on local websites reveals that pro-Russian sentiment only somewhat surpasses anti-Russian sentiment regarding the turbulent situation in southeastern Ukraine. This might come as a surprise considering the lack or even absence of local debate, as well as the dominance of Russian TV channels and Russian online news in Uzbekistan’s media space.

To date, the government of Uzbekistan issued two statements on the Ukraine crisis: on March 4 and March 25, with the latter statement reconfirming the earlier one. In the statements, the government called for the respect of state sovereignty, a non-military resolution to the conflict, and the start of negotiations. The statements, though vaguely worded, sent a message of concern about the developments in Ukraine and Crimea’s March 16 referendum, which quickly led to the peninsula’s annexation by Russia on March 18 (http://www.jahonnews.uz/eng/sections/politics/the_position_of_the_republic_of_uzbekistan_on_the_situation_in_ukraine_and_the_crimean_issue-54454.mgr; http://www.jahonnews.uz/eng/sections/politics/statement_of_the_information_agency_jahon_on_the_events_in_ukraine-4646464664.mgr).

The Uzbekistani authorities’ statements stimulated no analysis or discussion in the local Uzbek mass media due to heavy government interference and self-censorship in the country’s news outlets. Therefore, such local online news sites as uz24.uz, 12news.uz and gazeta.uz did not go beyond just posting the official statements. Print publications in Uzbekistan, as well as TV and radio, also avoided going any further than just repeating the official government message. Nevertheless, the discussions in the comments sections of these three aforementioned websites, although not representative and not verifiable, can give some insight into what Uzbekistan’s people think about the situation.

Out of the 173 comments that appeared underneath the five news reports published by uz24.uz, 12news.uz and gazeta.uz about Tashkent’s official statements on the Ukraine crisis, 75 comments expressed a clear pro- or anti-Russian position. A little more than half of the comments, 40, accepted or espoused Moscow’s narrative of the events in Ukraine and Crimea, whereas 35 were anti-Russian (12news.uz, March 4, 19, 25; uz24.uz, gazeta.uz, March 25). The only slight predominance of pro-Russian sentiment is surprising for three reasons. First, ethnic Russians appear more likely to write online comments than ethnic Uzbeks (most online commentary on these Uzbekistani sites are in Russian, with only occasional comments in Uzbek). Second, Russian TV channels and online news from Russian sources dominate the media space in Uzbekistan. Third, more than two million Uzbekistani migrants residing in Russia are most probably feeding pro-Russian news back to their relatives still in their home country.

In terms of the substance of the surveyed online commentary, the discussants say that Uzbekistan’s official March 25 statement was unclear and was designed to stay neutral (uz24.uz, gazeta.uz, March 25). “Even Kyrgyzstan has a stronger stance,” said a commentator named Ivan Ivanov. Another commentator, identified as Igor Tsoy, said “[Kazakhstan’s statement] gave unambiguous evaluation of the Crimea situation [compared with Uzbekistan’s]” (gazeta.uz, March 25). Commenting on Tashkent’s calls for the conflicting parties to engage in direct communication to solve the impasse, some pro-Russian discussants asked who should be involved in these negotiations since, they maintained, the new government in Ukraine was “illegal” (gazeta.uz, March 25). Across the three online news websites, the discussants consistently brought up the Republic of Karakalpakstan—an autonomous region in Uzbekistan’s northwest—referring to it as a sore point that will backfire if Uzbekistan recognizes Crimea’s referendum results or any other separatist movements. One commentator even suggested that the 2010 pogroms in southern Kyrgyzstan were orchestrated by Moscow to offer it an excuse to bring Russian troops into Uzbekistan (12news.uz, March 25).

In comparison, the comments in Russian social media show that Uzbekistan’s official statements as well as its abstention in the March 27 General Assembly vote on the status of Crimea were not welcomed by the Russian public. The comments clearly indicate that support from Russia’s former fellow Soviet republic was expected. In general, Russian social media users were surprised and seemingly almost took offense at Uzbekistan’s reaction. The commentators called the Uzbeks traitors and other derogatory names and called for speedy retaliation—in particular, by denying entrance for new and returning migrants from Uzbekistan, deporting the migrants currently living and working in the Russian Federation, and introducing a visa regime for the Central Asian republic (http://rusanalit.livejournal.com/1838920.htmll; http://polemika.com.ua/news-142023.html; http://www.opentown.org/news/30853/; http://vadimb.livejournal.com/2123477.html; http://ykristianna.livejournal.com/1562327.html).

The personal Facebook page of Odil Ruzaliev—one of the leaders of the Uzbek community in the United States—commonly generates a lot of online discussion, including on the situation in Ukraine. A case in point was a March 6 discussion thread regarding news of the participation of an Uzbek citizen, Shavkat Muhammadqulov, in the EuroMaidan protests in Kyiv, who served as a cook and assisted in providing security on the square (http://www.amerikaovozi.com/content/maydan-uzbek/1866547.html). Ruzaliev’s Facebook post about this story attracted a spirited online discussion about the story. Many disapproved of the Muhammadqulov participation in the Kyiv protests. The discussants defended Russia’s policy toward Ukraine by saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to preserve Slavic unity and fight neo-Nazi groups. However, the anti-Russian commentators on Ruzaliev’s Facebook page warned that Putin was next eyeing the Central Asian republics. They even brought up a similar historical case from the 19th century when the Russian Empire invaded the Bukhara Emirate and Khiva Khanate under the pretext of protecting and liberating the ethnic-Russian population (Facebook discussions on March 16, 18–20, 27).

It is clearly difficult to gauge just how representative the above survey of independent online commentary is of Uzbekistani opinion about the Ukrainian conflict. However, analysis of these Internet discussions suggests that sentiment is divided and not all pro-Russian. This is particularly surprising considering how dominant Russian television and online news outlets are in Uzbekistan, where the country’s domestic media has kept silent on the government’s official response to the Crimean crisis.