As the Kremlin sides with Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov over the recent uprising in the Central Asian state, official Russian media outlets have linked up to back this point of view. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Karimov discussed the situation by telephone on May 14 and expressed “serious concern” over the possible destabilization of Central Asia. But other comments by both politicians and media analysts range from unconditional support to strong criticism of the recent Uzbek crackdown on protesters in Andijan.
Russian politicians appear split over the situation in Uzbekistan. Dmitry Rogozin, head of Rodina party, claimed that Karimov became a target of radical Islamists when he allowed U.S. military bases on Uzbek soil. Konstantin Zatulin of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party argued that Karimov “did it all right” to forestall destabilization. Alexei Mitrofanov, deputy of the Liberal-Democratic party, blamed U.S. interference in Afghanistan for general destabilization across Central Asia.
Yet, Sergei Mitrokhin of Yabloko warned against Russian support for the Karimov regime, which could trigger civil war in Uzbekistan. Boris Nemtsov, of the Union of Right Forces, picked up this notion and argued that the Karimov regime was doomed and that by supporting Karimov the Kremlin had picked a loosing scenario, as it had in Ukraine.
Karimov defended his heavy-handed response and accused radical Islamists of a terrorist attack. He strongly denied that Uzbek troops had targeted civilians in Andijan. Also on May 17, he lashed out at what he described biased media coverage by international and Russian media. Karimov specifically criticized Russia’s NTV channel and accused it of intentionally inflating casualty figures.
Russian media outlets were divided over the Andijan crisis. Some, like NTV and RenTV channels, were critical of Karimov’s crackdown and questioned the wisdom of the Kremlin’s support of Karimov. The second group, notably official media outlets, tacitly backed Uzbek authorities and suggested continued Russian support of Karimov’s “secular regime.” The third group highlighted broader geopolitical maneuverings as crucial factors behind the Uzbek riots.
Initially, the mainstream media in Russia, notably First Channel and RTR television, appeared to be siding with Karimov and interpreted the events in Uzbekistan mainly as a plot by Islamic extremists.
The one-sided view seen on Russia’s major television channels earned a measure of criticism from other Russian media outlets. Izvestiya ran a series of articles, headlined: “Events in Uzbekistan: Popular revolt or extremist rebellion?” The daily described events in Andijan as a revolution, adding that the coverage by Russian official media outlets was somewhat detached from reality. Izvestiya specifically criticized Russian First Channel, which merely followed Uzbek official statements, described Uzbek protesters as extremists, and ignored alternative versions of the Andijan events (Izvestiya, May 17).
Presumably responding to such criticism, the First Channel on Tuesday reported not only the official death toll of 169 for Andijan, but also mentioned unofficial estimate of 745 fatalities (TV First Channel, May 17).
Izvestiya wrote that the riots were sparked by the “poverty fatigue” plaguing the destitute majority of the Uzbek population. The daily also interviewed a number of Russia’s newsmakers who happened to be split between strong criticism of atrocities in Uzbekistan and equally strong support of Karimov’s hard-line approach. The daily quoted actor Alexander Abdulov, who speculated that the Uzbek riots were probably provoked by the United States. He claimed that the events were the direct continuation of regime changes in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, adding that the ultimate goal of this stratagem was to encircle Russia (Izvestiya, May 17). Abdulov’s allegations remain a minority opinion.
However, Trud argued that events in Uzbekistan did not qualify as a revolution nor were they yet another “colored revolution.” The daily highlighted a leading role of radical Islamists in the Uzbek riots. Russia does not plan to drop its support of Karimov’s secular regime as a cornerstone of stability in Uzbekistan, according to Dmitry Polikanov, an analyst at VTsIOM, Russia’s leading polling agency (Trud, May 16).
Independent media outlets strongly criticized the Uzbek crackdown. The Uzbek rebellion was quelled with unprecedented cruelty, wrote Vremya novostei in an article entitled “Andijan slaughter.” There is little hope of learning the true scale of the Andijan tragedy from independent sources, because Uzbek authorities did their best not to have witnesses on the scene of the crackdown (Vremya novostei, May 16).
Kommersant (May 16) commented that the Russian authorities strongly supported the bloodshed in Andijan because someone had to stop the popular revolutions from spreading. Meanwhile, Nezavisimaya gazeta (May 17) wrote that Karimov was not going to repeat Kyrgyzstan’s President Askar Akayev’s failures, adding that neither the United States nor Russia was interested in a victory by radical Islamists. The daily speculated that some high-ranking Uzbek officials might have opposed Karimov and had secret contacts with the opposition, thus indicating the possibility of a coup in Uzbekistan.
Geopolitical maneuverings were also cited as factors behind Uzbek troubles. Karimov’s policies were torn between the United States and Russia, according to Andrei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center of Political Technologies. Uzbekistan made its choice just a week ago when Tashkent announced its decision to quit the regional cooperation organization, GUUAM. Now Karimov needs Russia’s political support more than ever hence Uzbekistan could even join Russia-dominated the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth groupings, Makarkin said (Gazeta, May 17).
The official Russian government mouthpiece, Rossiiskaya gazeta, wrote that U.S. diplomacy was in a strange position, as Uzbekistan remained Washington’s strategic partner. The Khanabad air base is important for the United States in terms of the “greater Middle East” strategy, the daily claimed (Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 18).
Russia is concerned over the destabilization of Central Asia and would back Karimov’s regime. His argument that the uprising against the Uzbek regime was engineered by radical Islamists is difficult to confirm. But the dissenting critical voices raised by liberal politicians and some Russian media outlets are unlikely to affect Moscow’s position.