Despite a regulatory environment that makes it almost impossible for organizations to register, Uzbekistan’s civil society is more vibrant than at any time in the country’s young history. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the vitality of this sector has become wildly apparent as concerned citizens call out corruption but also fill in gaps in the social safety net as the pandemic stretches the state to its limits. Despite such dynamism, this burgeoning civic activism, which exists primarily online, has come under increased threat as the pandemic wears on. It is subject to the capriciousness of authorities who cannot seem to decide whether freedom of expression and association should be tolerated.
The changes taking place in Uzbekistan offer a glimmer into the future of civil society worldwide, where groups eschew brick and mortar and organize exclusively online. Over the past two years, we have seen how this nascent civil society has transformed from one focused on traditional tracks of civic activism and advocacy to one that is increasingly mobilized, online, to provide a social safety net to address both humanitarian and medical needs in response to this global pandemic. The viability of much of the fragile Uzbek civil society relies on toleration by authorities, because these groups exist in a legal gray zone: They are not registered, but they do not have to be.
Despite Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s call earlier this year to protect press and internet freedoms led by a new generation of “bloggers,” the leaders of the new civil society face increased threats and harassment by the government. In recent months, several bloggers have been interrogated for reporting on alleged malfeasance, leading to a chilling effect. Are these new liberties under threat?
A Blossoming Informal Civic Square
After the death of long-serving Uzbek President Islam Karimov in 2016, his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev introduced a whirlwind of reforms aiming to modernize the economy and generate employment for Uzbekistan’s young and growing population. Although there have been substantial economic reforms, the formal rules of politics remain the same. Nevertheless, changes in informal rules have facilitated the creation of a dynamic third sector. The story of Uzbekistan’s civic space will not be found in laws, but in an increased tolerance of negative rights. By rolling back censorship and providing citizens more space to organize and express themselves, Uzbekistan has a growing de facto freedom of expression.
After coming to power, Mirziyoyev quickly embraced the internet as a primary tool to reach citizens. Within a month after Karimov’s death, he set up “virtual citizen receptions” where people could raise issues and even complain about officials. As deep-rooted fear among citizens began to ease, people took their newfound liberties online — to places like Facebook and Telegram — where they set up groups and channels to discuss challenges, call out corruption, and organize social action. Many of these groups are based in large cities and have an urban bias, but because they live online, they aggregate reports and views of those in rural areas.
There was a brief period in the 1990s and the early 2000s when thousands of independent civil society groups could register and even receive funding from foreign donors. Most of these organizations were involved in service delivery and brought attention to vulnerable groups such as women, children, and the disabled. Despite large numbers, almost none were involved in advocacy. Many came to life as a result of donor projects and disappeared when aid evaporated. These organizations were shut down after the Andijan uprising in 2005.
Prior to 2016, the government kept a tight lid on the internet, restricting access to websites and monitoring conversations. Although there remain blocks on a few websites (e.g., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek Service and the Open Society Foundations), the internet is mostly free of government control. This loosening of controls unleashed a new generation of internet activists and commentators known locally as “bloggers.” Many of these bloggers gained nationwide followings and hundreds of thousands of followers. In addition, Facebook hosts advocacy groups boasting hundreds of thousands of members. These include: Xalq bilan Muloqot (“Dialogue with the People”) with 230,000 members, Xalq Fikri (“People’s Opinion”) with 175,000 members, and Antikorruptsiya Guruhi (“the Anti-corruption Group”) with 52,000 members. Often using video appeals, these groups have become a focal point for citizens to criticize authorities, discuss government reforms, and point out inadequacies with the government’s response to COVID-19.
A smaller but influential Facebook advocacy group is Tashkent-SNOS (“Tashkent-demolition,” boasting 23,000 members). Farida Charif established a portal where people could express grievances about housing demolitions and evictions that take place around the country. People use this space to sign petitions calling to preserve their homes and save buildings that have historical or cultural significance from the bulldozers of state-supported developers. They even provide legal advice to citizens.
In 2017, Irina Matvienko founded an independent project “nemolchi.uz” (“Don’t Be Silent Uzbekistan”) on Facebook, where she encouraged people to share their personal experiences with domestic violence and provide support to victims. In July of this year, a group of women from the online community Exponaut Art Gallery, staged the country’s first public protest in defense of women’s rights by organizing a flash mob to raise awareness of sexual harassment and gender violence. They posted photographs with hashtags in support of women’s rights on their social media pages. This triggered a firestorm of reactions and debates on social media about gender issues and women’s rights, generating the most heated public conversation on this issue in the country’s history.
All of this occurs online and amidst regulatory uncertainty. Its vitality depends not on any law, but on an expectation that government authorities are limiting their role in policing society.
A New Social Safety Net?
The first lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the maturity of these groups, who are moving from advocacy on individual issues to the creation of a virtual space that self-organizes mutual assistance. This began quickly after the first lockdown in March 2019. Despite strict quarantine measures, volunteers used online platforms to distribute food and medicine to socially vulnerable groups. These volunteer groups organized on Telegram channels and Facebook pages. For example, well-known social entrepreneur Aziza Umarova organized humanitarian assistance through a volunteer group called Covid-arnost’ (a play on the term solidarnost’ meaning “solidarity” in Russian).
Such humanitarian aid reached a pinnacle during the reaction to the collapse of the Sardoba Dam, south of Tashkent, in May 2020. Rather than waiting for the state to respond, citizens took things into their own hands and formed online charity groups, gathered clothing, building materials, and even raising funds for survivors. This tragedy also prompted these same groups to ask questions about the cause of the dam collapse, raising questions about potential corruption and the lack of transparency during the dam’s construction.
In July, the government instituted a second lockdown as infection rates soared. The country weathered the first wave well, as hospitalization rates were low. This second wave overwhelmed health systems and led to another push of civil society activism to help fill gaps in the public health system. On Facebook, individuals offered oxygen to those who could not access hospitals. Medical students formed an association called, “Breathe, Uzbekistan!” to help people access oxygen. The leader of this group, Munira Hojahanova wrote, “Whether we like it or not, the news of deaths is starting to grow. It’s time for us to act on our own and there is no one we can rely on. Do not say negative things, as everyone is tired of discussing the problems of the Ministry of Health and who is to blame.” A new Telegram channel, quarantineaid, is one of several new channels that allow people in every corner of the country to contact doctors and receive a free consultation.
Umid Gafurov, author of the blog troll.uz, took things into his own hands and organized a Telegram-based bot Yaqinlar (“close ones”) without any government support. Relying on geolocations from cell phones, the bot connects those in close proximity to those in need and those who can help with food, medicine, money, or even simply help do small errands.
The Tashkent Spring on Ice?
There are increasing signs that Uzbekistan’s flourishing civil society may be in jeopardy. After the second lockdown was announced in July, many reported trouble accessing Facebook, which along with YouTube, was unblocked by authorities in 2020. This led to a revival of VPN usage. Some suspected that the potential block resulted from growing discontent with tightening quarantine measures as well as dissatisfaction with the health care system.
Human rights organizations expressed concern about persecution of local bloggers and journalists. Over the past year, authorities detained at least six bloggers after their critical coverage of social and political events. The Agency of Information and Mass Communications prepared a draft law, which would make hold bloggers criminally liable for user comments that contradict the law on their platforms.
Finally, the last month featured unprecedented pressure on this blossoming Miriziyoyev-era civil society. In August, journalist Bobomurad Abudullaev was arrested in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. He is awaiting extradition to Tashkent. A blogger from Tashkent, Miraziz Bazarov, was summoned by the State Security Service after he posted an open letter on Facebook where he called on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Asian Development Bank (ADB) to launch an investigation into the expenditure of loans by the Uzbek authorities. Similarly, editors of three local media outlets in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan were summoned to the prosecutor’s office after re-posting news about the alleged death of the chairman of Jokargy Kenes (Supreme Assembly) of Karakalpakstan. Authorities seized the phones and laptops of three other bloggers.
The Civil Society Paradox
The government appears to be taking a two-pronged approach to reform. It retains tight control on formal organizations, effectively limiting the kinds of foreign assistance organizations can receive. By doing this, the state has emboldened a completely indigenous civil society that is not dependent upon donor assistance. By growing without such aid, this advocacy may be more sustainable in the long run and advocate for local issues, rather than donor priorities.
The growing civic square in Uzbekistan is a paradox. On paper, very little has changed with regard to the regulatory environment governing civil society. It is still burdensome for groups to register as official entities.
Yet, formal rules tell an incomplete story. Despite these challenges, civil society is more active than at any time in the country’s history. The dynamism found in Uzbekistani society has become an engine of ingenuity and creativity that is vital for the success of future reforms. This force for change, however, is entirely dependent upon the willingness of the government to restrain old habits of control and censorship. Thus, the biggest changes in Uzbekistan are not measured by government action, but by its inaction.
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili is director of the Center for Governance and Markets and associate professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to this, she served as Peace Corps volunteer in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and managed the Democracy and Governance portfolio for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Tashkent.
Bakhrom Mirakilov is an independent analyst based in Uzbekistan. He graduated from the Management Development Institute of Singapore in Tashkent.