Central Asia’s autocrats were no doubt watching askance as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fell from power this weekend. But regional media coverage of the dramatic developments in that other volatile former Soviet republic, while generally cautious, has presented a few surprises.
Of course, given the unpleasant parallels between Yanukovich’s governing style and the rule of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan, those countries’ tightly controlled media have maintained a studied silence on popular protests that overthrew an entrenched leader.
However, one Uzbek website that sometimes takes a maverick stance did broach the topic – pooh-poohing the idea of a Ukraine-style scenario playing out in Uzbekistan.
The circumstances in the two countries do not bear comparison, argued a commentary published February 25 on Uzmetronom, a site believed to have links to the powerful SNB domestic intelligence agency. Karimov is not susceptible to Western pressure, said editor-in-chief Sergey Yezhkov, and it is more in his nature to make a last stand than to give up power.
Officials also know where their bread is buttered, Yezhkov continued, and take the view that “better a bit of bread and butter today (being in power guarantees this) than uncertainty in the future.” Finally, ordinary people have something to lose: “It is paradoxical, but [even] with serious restrictions on political and civil liberties [and] a difficult economic situation… [still] no harbingers or signs of a rebellion are observed in Uzbekistan.”
The commentary thus talked up Karimov’s chances of maintaining his grip over Uzbekistan, where the next presidential election is due in March 2015 (Karimov, who has been in power since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, has not indicated if he will stand). But even raising the topic is sensitive, and the publication could equally be interpreted as a backhanded swipe to undermine the president amid an ongoing power struggle involving his daughter, Gulnara Karimova, and the SNB.
Over in Kazakhstan, where the media have a little more leeway, state outlets reported Ukraine’s unfolding drama, but took a cautious line on political developments and tended to emphasize uncertainty over the future and economic damage.
Private outlets have been bolder. Megapolis, a respected weekly, published an interesting – albeit unscientific – poll on February 24 showing that 47 percent of respondents believe that “events similar to the Ukrainian maidan” (the square synonymous with the protests) could take place in Kazakhstan, against 41 percent who do not. The online poll was conducted before Yanukovich fell, but nevertheless implies that people do not rule out major political unrest in Kazakhstan.
In Tajikistan, which regularly blocks independent websites and social media, the authorities apparently pulled out the stops to control the message reaching the ears of the public. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, was blocked on February 22 as Yanukovich fled Kiev. “The blockage, which has stopped traffic to the website from four of the country's six main Internet service providers, coincides with Radio Ozodi's coverage of events in Ukraine, which includes live streaming that is unavailable to local audiences on state-run Tajik and Russian-language media,” RFE/RL said on February 24.
The media in Kyrgyzstan, where protestors have ousted two presidents in the past ten years, offers a much more nuanced and open take on events in Ukraine. In fact, it’s hard not to detect a little pride sometimes, the feeling that Kyrgyzstan may have helped inspire the maidan.