Uzbekistan, like other former Soviet republics, is preparing to mark 20 years of independence, and media in the country are focusing on the role President Islam Karimov played — or allegedly played — in securing Uzbekistan’s freedom from the Soviet Union.
Uzbek television is airing a series devoted to Karimov and the leadership he showed before, during, and after those critical days in August 1991 that preceded the fall of the USSR. One that aired last week is titled “On The Eve Of Independence, Or The Last Agony Of The Soviets” and is mostly based on Karimov’s recently published book, “On The Threshold Of Independence.”
The program starts with women picking cotton in the snow, while the narrator speaks about the burdens on the Uzbek people under Soviet rule.
“It was one of the coldest days of the year,” the narrator says, “but no one was complaining as [complaining] was useless. Everybody knew that picking frozen cotton was meaningless. There was no hope. Everybody was depressed. The muddy fields meant an endless path for us, as if we would remain in the dead field forever.”
Enter Islam Karimov, man of action.
The program boasts that when there was violence against Meskhetian Turks in Tashkent Region’s central Boka District in 1990, “the president went on horseback to try to stop the violence.” History failed to record that act of heroism until just now, apparently.
Also unmentioned in the annals of history was that later in 1990, when riots in Osh took place, and “rioters attacking Uzbeks were supplied with arms from helicopters…Islam Abduganievich arrived at the scene immediately.” The program credits Karimov with calming the feuding Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, and concluded that “a great victory was scored thanks to his painstaking efforts.”
Those of us studying at Tashkent State that summer heard it was the famous Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov who calmed the rioters in Osh. Karimov also showed up after thousands of Soviet troops poured into the Osh area.
Then there is the infamous day in Namangan in December 1991 when Karimov was made to kneel down in a hall and listen to Tohir Yuldash, the future leader of the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, lecture him on government and Islam. The video of those moments has made the rounds for years now.
Uzbek television now offers a very different interpretation of what happened that day.
Karimov went to meet a group of people in eastern Namangan region who had seized local government offices to demand Uzbekistan be declared an Islamic state, the program says.
“Karimov arrived at the scene of the riot. It was a tragic scene,” viewers are told. “There were a lot of youths whose minds were poisoned with religious extremism.”
Karimov then takes a microphone from the leader of the crowd – Tohir Yuldash. As in Osh, according to the program, Karimov’s words were enough to defuse the volatile situation. There is no mention of Birlik activist Nosir Zokir, who actually took the microphone from Karimov and demanded that freedom of assembly be restored in the country.
Karimov, again according to Uzbek television, championed his nation’s independence from the very beginning and seized the opportunity when the “putchisti” were downed in Moscow. He is portrayed as a leader who cut short his visit to India in order to take matters into his own hands once he heard about the coup.
Some remember it was Karimov who sent a telegram in support of the coup plotters on August 19, while on board his plane while returning from India. Interfax on August 20, 1991, records Karimov as saying the people “are tired of empty talk” and saying he had always supported firm discipline and order.
The program did not mention that in March 1991 Karimov led the campaign to maintain the Soviet Union. In those days he told the people of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic that “our rivers will run with milk if we stay within the Soviet Union,” but “if we leave it, our rivers will fill with blood.”
So it appears they left a few details out of the Uzbek television program. We can’t wait for the next episode in the series.
— Farruh Yusupov and Bruce Pannier