Caravanserai
Human Rights

Backlash to Mirziyoyev's criticism of Soviets reveals Russia's territorial ambitions

By Rustam Temirov

This illustration shows screenshots of two Russian op-eds objecting to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's denunciation of Soviet oppression of Uzbek intellectuals. [Caravanserai]

This illustration shows screenshots of two Russian op-eds objecting to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's denunciation of Soviet oppression of Uzbek intellectuals. [Caravanserai]

TASHKENT -- Recent comments by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev regarding Soviet-era repression in Uzbekistan have brought to the fore growing revanchism in Russia, say observers.

Mirziyoyev visited the Memory of Martyrs Square in Tashkent on August 31, which coincides with the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Political Repression.

Workers built the square at the site of mass executions carried out during the Soviet-era Great Terror. A park and the Museum of Victims of Political Repression opened at the same location in 2000.

Mirziyoyev in a speech highlighted the Soviet Union's crackdown on citizens who sought Uzbekistan's independence.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visits Memory of Martyrs Square on August 31 in Tashkent. [Uzbek presidential website]

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visits Memory of Martyrs Square on August 31 in Tashkent. [Uzbek presidential website]

In the post-Soviet region, only a few of the former republics have taken significant steps to decommunise, sometimes enraging the Kremlin. In the illustration, the yellow former Soviet republics (the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia) did the most to dismantle communism. Orange and red former republics practised moderate and little decommunisation, respectively. [Caravanserai]

In the post-Soviet region, only a few of the former republics have taken significant steps to decommunise, sometimes enraging the Kremlin. In the illustration, the yellow former Soviet republics (the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia) did the most to dismantle communism. Orange and red former republics practised moderate and little decommunisation, respectively. [Caravanserai]

"Although independence was gained 31 years ago, our grandfathers tried to do it more than 100 years ago," he said, according to an Uzbek government statement.

"One hundred thousand of our countrymen were repressed; 13,000 were mercilessly shot. Why? Because they were our greatest heroes, the heritage of the nation."

"The regime [understood] that they were able to liberate our Motherland, bring it to prosperity," Mirziyoyev said.

Mirziyoyev also mentioned the Jadids -- members of the Uzbek intelligentsia who were targeted by Stalin's repression -- and stressed that this period of history has not yet been fully studied.

"The totalitarian regime was not limited only to the destruction of the Jadids. Back in the 1980s, thousands of our compatriots were thrown into prison and persecuted under various slanderous pretexts," he said.

Although Mirziyoyev did not refer to the Soviet Union by name, various Russian news outlets interpreted his remarks as an accusation that it had destroyed the "flower of the Uzbek nation".

Russian lawmakers also jumped into the fray.

Mirziyoyev's comments about "suppression of Uzbeks in the Soviet Union" amounted to speculation, said Russian State Duma member Konstantin Zatulin, who denied that any repression occurred.

Mirziyoyev is not the first post-Soviet leader to "draw inspiration from making accusations against the Soviet Union", he claimed.

Many people are now saying that the "Soviet Union deliberately starved the Ukrainians, annihilated the Baltic peoples and so on", according to Zatulin.

'Populist hysterics'

Uzbek lawmakers and observers responded in kind.

The statements by the Russian media were a "totally inappropriate reaction to a completely evenhanded, rational and very sincere comment by the Uzbek president," Sadyk Safayev, the deputy chairman of the Uzbek Senate, wrote on Twitter on September 2.

Mirziyoyev merely paid respect to the victims of a totalitarian regime's repression, he said.

"What is this dispute about? About whether the totalitarian regime was merciless and brutal? Or that the dead were actually victims of inhumane repression?"

"No one who is in his [or her] right mind or has a clear memory can doubt one or the other," Safayev wrote.

The August 31 ceremony was "intimate, candid and solemn. It was in good faith and humane", and there is no reason to engage in "fussy politicisation and populist hysterics", said Safayev, who attended the event.

Alisher Kadirov, the leader of the Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival) party and deputy speaker of the Legislative Chamber of the Uzbek parliament, also slammed Zatulin's statements.

"The president spoke of the severe injustice perpetrated not only against Uzbeks but also against the members of the intelligentsia of all the ethnic groups who lived in the Soviet state at that time," Kadirov said on Telegram September 1.

'Disloyalty' to Russia

For Russian lawmakers and media, "any display of independence in the former Soviet republics is grounds for making accusations of disloyalty to Russia and the Kremlin," Sergey Abashin, an anthropologist at the European University at St. Petersburg, told Caravanserai.

Such comments reflect the overall political line and ideology of the Russian leadership, which views the former Soviet republics as its natural sphere of influence, he said.

"The Kremlin is obviously inclined to dictate its conditions to these countries more brutally than in the past. But unlike the radicals who tore into Mirziyoyev's speech, the Kremlin is doing it more carefully, with caution and more moderately," said Abashin.

However, Russian authorities are drifting toward a more radical position: what the fringe radicals are saying now could become the Kremlin's mainstream ideology in the near future, according to Abashin.

"That Putin and the Russian governing elite have begun to identify Russia with the Soviet Union demonstrates a fundamental pivot in Moscow's policies."

"They now see the collapse of the Soviet Union as a mistake, and from their perspective, they must channel all their efforts into correcting it," said Alisher Ilkhamov, director of the London-based organisation Central Asia Due Diligence.

This shift occurred a long time ago and is what ultimately led Putin to attempt to drag Ukraine violently back under Moscow's imperial influence, Ilkhamov said.

Control over Central Asia

Such rhetoric has implications for all Central Asian countries.

Central Asia, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus and the Caucasus are countries and regions that, in Moscow's opinion, must reunite with it, Adil Turdukulov, an analyst from Kyrgyzstan, told Caravanserai.

Russian politicians have repeatedly expressed this sentiment, and to a great extent it reflects Kremlin ideology, he added.

"Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are independent states, but these days we are guided by the position of Tashkent and Nur-Sultan [now Astana], meaning that for us it's very important that the Uzbek and Kazakh authorities unambiguously lay down their attitude toward such matters."

"For us that's also a signal of how to set our future foreign policy," Turdukulov said.

If Ukraine had surrendered, by now the far-right Russian nativists would have set themselves to conquering the rest of the former Soviet Union, according to Nigara Khidoyatova, a historian and politician living in the United States.

"At some point during the Afghan war [1979-1989], Russia began to grow weaker and the republics grasped that. That set off centrifugal forces."

"That's what is happening now too: the leaders of the republics have grasped that Putin and his Chekist [KGB] clique are getting weaker, and now they are expressing their own opinion," Khidoyatova said.

Russia's policy toward the sovereign republics is an attempt to restore empire on the slow-burning ruins of the Soviet Union, she said.

"The invasion of Georgia in 2008 was only the first step. Then came Ukraine," she said.

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Russia shouldn't stick its nose into others' business or we will cut it off.

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