A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the possibility of revolutions like those in the Middle East spreading to Central Asia, and others have written about their potential to happen in closed societies elsewhere.
Almost as interesting, however, has been to watch the reactions of autocrats to the same events. As a child I used to wonder what excuse politicians behind the Iron Curtain gave their people about why they were not allowed to leave the country, or to those who were lucky enough to travel elsewhere, about why they were so much poorer than the places they had visited. I admit to some of the same fascination now. How would Ahmadinejad, for instance, spin the protests in Tahrir Square? Ah, yes. He would concoct some notion about Islam as the animating force behind them, drawing a link between them and his own country’s Islamic revolution, of which he claims to be the custodian.
In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov’s reaction, at least as I interpret it through the broadcasts of state-run media, has been less scrutable. According to the independent news website www.ferghana.ru, most media broke from the long-standing practice of not mentioning unrest elsewhere (including the two coups in the past decade in neighboring Kyrgyzstan).
While the protests in Egypt were still relegated to a few paragraphs in newspapers, or to articles that fretted about the possibility of Islamic radicals taking power there, state broadcasters were a different kettle of fish. Radio stations apparently reported on the events in detail, although emphasizing the chaos and losses to the economy without mentioning Mubarak’s 30-year reign.
It’s the treatment by two state television channels that is really intriguing. Ferghana offers summaries of the leading news and information programs’ offerings on 4 February, the day Mubarak resigned. On the Uzbekistan TV channel, viewers hear about, among other things, a helicopter crash in Australia, explosions in Turkey, fourth-quarter results for Shell, and retail sales figures in the euro zone. And that’s the news. Good night.
But over on the (again, state-run) Tashkent TV channel, viewers got a lot more: reports of police using force against demonstrators and journalists, of the demands for Mubarak’s resignation, of the talks between the opposition and the government, and of the international pressure on Mubarak to step up the transfer of power. Uzbeks even heard about the anti-government protests in Yemen and calls for the resignation of that country’s longtime president.
I suppose I think this is interesting because I expect an autocratic regime to keep all such information from its people, under the unstated assumption that they should not see models for revolution. But maybe this permissiveness is a measure of the control that Tashkent feels it has right now. On the other hand, if that’s so, then why the virtual blackout in other media?
Also not quite intelligible to me has been Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s reaction, less than two months after he brutally put down election night protests in Minsk.
In a piece run today by the state-run news agency, Lukashenka said every country, including his own, could learn lessons from the events in the Middle East and North Africa. He links Mubarak with the United States and the ousted Tunisian government with the EU. So far, so party line.
But then he loses me.
“If the whole world,” the article continues, “especially Americans and Europeans, had opposed the Islamization of the Arab East, its radicalization, then that fire could have been extinguished. ‘But they did not. They again had their goals in mind. Here they have outplayed themselves,’ stressed the head of state.”
But, surely, the United States’ long-standing and understandable goal of fighting radicalization in the Middle East (and, admittedly, its support for Israel) was a key reason Washington found itself standing by an unpopular ally when Mubarak came under attack?
From here, Lukashenka finally comes to a point that at least contains its own logic, if not the logic of the wider world, and – surprise! – underscores the wisdom of the very lonely path he has chosen for his country.
“ ‘This once again confirms that this is a lesson for us to learn: we can trust no one, we can rely on no one but ourselves,’ said the president. ‘Nobody needs a strong country. The strong are feared and strongly disliked. The strong are not needed. Therefore, they pressurize us and will continue doing so.’ ”
If I may, one of my favorite readings of Moby Dick has always been the view of Ahab as a crazed Transcendentalist, projecting all manner of agency and malevolence onto the blankest of creatures. I can’t help but think of that now as I see dictators struggle to make the story of Tahrir Square their own.
When this editor’s blog began, back in January, I wrote an introduction that said we would be as likely to raise questions here as to try to answer them. That’s what I’m doing today. Readers, can you account for the mystery of state television coverage in Uzbekistan or even decipher Lukashenka’s comments?