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Uzbekistan: Playing Politics on Facebook

Facebook seems to have started playing an important role in Uzbek politics. However, so far it is more a tool for playing games with fake accounts, rather than an instrument of civil protests.

Planted suicide story?

On 6 December, 2011, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on a suicide committed by a young woman in the western Uzbek city of Andijan. After coming home on vacation, Gulsumoi Abdujalilova, a 32-year-old university student in Germany, was allegedly interrogated by police for four days.

According to the Uzbek NGO Human Rights Alliance, Abdujalilova was beaten at the police station and forced to write statements against Muhammad Salih, the self-exiled leader of the opposition People's Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU). The movement was formed in May 2011 from a number of foreign-based Uzbek opposition movements and rights organizations and stated its goal as being the downfall of President Islam Karimov's regime.

Facebook profile picture of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova, which is actually a photo of turkish model Armine Eşarpları

According to her Facebook account, Abdujalilova was a supporter of this movement, and a person with the name Muhammad Salih was among her Facebook friends. That was the reason, some netizens believe, that the young woman came to attention of the Uzbek authorities. However, the PMU website has stated [uz] that Abdujalilova was never a member of the opposition movement.

It’s worth mentioning that Interior Ministry officials in Andijan gave no comment. Abdujalilova’s relatives (according to her Facebook profile she is married, and Human Rights Alliance mentioned Abdujalilova’s sister who allegedly found her suicide note) have also kept silent.

The story became more perplexing when two days later, on 8 December, the opposition site Uzmetronom.com published [ru] an article with the results of a journalistic investigation, carried out by the website. The author of the article, who remained anonymous, concluded that the entire story is provocation prepared by Muhammad Salih to destabilize Uzbek society and gain international attention.

The story has attracted the attention of netizens. One of them comments on the idea that it may have been planted by members of the Uzbek opposition in order to smear the Uzbek government. Other suggest that it was made up by the national security services to show people the dangers of supporting the opposition movement.

It still remains unclear who could benefit from the made-up story and probably this will not be known. Sarah Kendzior from Registan.net sums up:

[...] it reveals a great deal of how rumor operates on the Uzbek political internet. The assumption that all information is unreliable, and all sources biased, has had the perverse effect of ensuring that all rumor is taken seriously.

Prime Minister’s fake Facebook account

Another topic that has sparked controversy among Uzbek bloggers was the Facebook account of Uzbekistan’s Prime-Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev. His Facebook page, created early in May this year, has about 2,000 friends and identifies him as a 100% Muslim with conservative political views, interested in women and married.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick from Eurasianet.org comments:

[…] you can see that Mirziyoyev is inspired by Nicolas Sarkozy, Lee Myung-bak, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and […] Islam Karimov.

His gmail address is provided, so write and ask any questions! Don't expect any cat or dog photos, however.

Others wonder why the Prime Minister doesn’t have a personal page on Uzbekistan’s local social network Muloqot.uz and speculate that the main goal of his Facebook page is to attract a Western audience.

However, after a semi-official statement from the Prime Minister's “offline office” about contacting the Facebook administration with a request to delete the page, it became clear that the account is not authentic.

Dangers of being too public

This is not the first time that high-ranking Uzbek public figures’ names have been used for suspicious accounts in social networks. Early this May the blogosphere discussed two Twitter accounts which were affiliated with President Karimov’s daughter Gulnara Karimova. The first one, @GuliKarimova, does not exist anymore. However the second one, @GulnaraKarimova [ru], is active and has over 1,800 followers

As we see, social networks in Uzbekistan are getting used in some games with political background. Therefore Hugh Raiser from Eurasianet.org warns:

[...] arguments about the dangers of being too public with one's affiliations on public social networking sites remain in force.

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