Sergei Yezhkov: Speaking my mind and being heard is all I aspire for
Sergei Yezhkov is a free-lance journalist from Tashkent, once chief of the department of law of the republican Pravda Vostoka newspaper. Yezhkov established Uzmetronom in early 2006. The web site in the Russian language, one providing truthful information on life in Uzbekistan, immediately became popular owing it to speed of the reports, undeniable knowledgeability, and sarcastic style. Access to Uzmetronom in Uzbekistan is blocked because the authorities regard it as one of the "worst harmful". Uzmetronom office in the meantime is located in Tashkent, a fact that raises a lot of questions to its author Yezhkov.
Sergei Yezhkov. Ferghana.Ru photo
Ferghana.Ru: Situation with freedom of expression clearly worsened in Uzbekistan in the last eighteen months. Following the tragic events in Andijan in 2005 when independent and foreign media outlets joined the chorus of condemnation of the Uzbek government, the authorities here grew definitely wrathful and a great deal of foreign media outlets hastily withdrew their personnel from Uzbekistan fearing for their safety. Free-lancers found themselves harassed and prosecuted. Lots of them became silent, others fled Uzbekistan altogether. The Cabinet of Ministers even passed a special resolution in 2006 stipulating criminal liability for citizens of Uzbekistan with the temerity to cooperate with media outlets denied official accreditation by the Uzbek Foreign Ministry. The situation being what it is, you remain one of the few journalists doing their job beyond the framework of tame and censored publications. You are the author and editor of an independent web site that regularly posts reports on the pressing issues of life in Uzbekistan. Moreover, the reports that are not exactly complimentary with regard to the authorities. And yet, Uzmetronom office is located right in central Tashkent, under the very noses of the president and his security structures. How do you manage it?
Sergei Yezhkov: To tell you the truth, I'm frequently asked this question by colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. I do not have what may constitute a satisfactory answer because I do not communicate with the people who monitor Uzbek journalism and journalists. It's just a fact of life. Take it or leave it. I'm doing my job and I cannot even say that there is someone who would try to seriously impede it, much less threaten me or something. I know that very many dislike me. That's another fact that has to be accepted. On the other hand, I also know that I have a lot of readers. I know for a fact that powerful men in security structures and other ministries and departments begin their working days with a visit to Uzmetronom web site to take a look at whatever I've posted there. And my reports are not always complimentary. The way I see it, every country needs its own "village fool" who speaks his mind. Who speaks it to be heard by others, including the authorities. I do not rule out the possibility that this is precisely the capacity the authorities tolerate me in - as the village fool or even clown. I don't mind as long as they do not interfere with what I consider my job.
Ferghana.Ru: You mean you have no "protection" in state power structures?
Sergei Yezhkov: That's what I mean, yes.
Ferghana.Ru: It is whispered that you have been President Islam Karimov's speech-writer or even that you write his public speeches now...
Sergei Yezhkov: Never written one, not to my knowledge. As a matter of fact, I hear a lot of peculiar myths about myself - sometimes ludicrous, sometimes definitely unkind. I know for example that some of the journalists who left Uzbekistan once proliferated the rumor that I was a state security agent. They implied that I was permitted what I was permitted and never interfered with because I had the president's ear. Cannot say he sympathizes with me, as a matter of fact. Neither have I written anything for Karimov. I met with Karimov once, like other journalists. I did write The Political Portrait of the head of state in the book titled Islam Karimov, one that was published for his 65th birthday in 2003. That sums it up. All the rest are wild speculations. I've even heard once that I own two houses and two apartments in Moscow and that my son has a job with some major business. That's rubbish of course. I live on what I earn and I do not have any pipelines into the Uzbek political establishment.
Ferghana.Ru: And what does Uzmetronom exist on?
Sergei Yezhkov: On enthusiasm, pure and simple. Call it altruism if you want. There were no grants or donations, systematic or sporadic. Google is an advertiser and what it pays helps us cover the hosting costs. It is insufficient, of course. In fact, we never seem to have enough money and nobody volunteers to raise funds - neither those who are fighting "to promote democracy", nor those who are fighting "democrats". Well, I've been doing my job and will keep doing it because that's what I like. I've always been a maverick, you know.
Ferghana.Ru: Does it make Uzmetronom a kind of one-man show, say, your personal blog or on-line journal?
Sergei Yezhkov: No, it doesn't. We have a system administrator and we have non-staff workers who forward information to us. It's just that what I make elsewhere is always poured into Uzmetronom.
Ferghana.Ru: But why bother?
Sergei Yezhkov: Personal ambitions are the principal locomotive force, or so I think. As things stand, only a few can afford to do what they would really like to be doing. Uzmetronom is my chance to realize myself and tax my capacities. Speaking my mind and being heard is all I aspire for.
Ferghana.Ru: This lack of sponsors... is it perhaps because you do not like anybody or support anybody? Your materials are quite hair-splitting - both with regard to the authorities and their opponents. Are you following the principle "kick them all"? Or do you have some sort of political platform of your own?
Sergei Yezhkov: I'm frequently told that I condemn everyone - the authorities, so called democrats, opposition, and human rights activists. I do not. It's just my mentality or something because in everything the regime or its opponents are doing at any given moment I look for the ulterior motives they would rather not comment on. I draw attention to the absurdity and mistakes that I'm firmly convinced must be plain. I'm stone-cold confident that the people who run the country and those who oppose them must be responsible for their every act and deed. As opposed to be bent on self-promotion, that is. It is common knowledge after all that a substantial part of the materials compiled and provided by human rights organizations are actually calculated to promote political activity of certain individuals and organizations even though their activity is quite specific and ambivalently regarded. The same goes for the so called opposition be it the late Sunny Coalition or the Erk party that is trying to convince everyone how great it is while remaining safely abroad. Or even this Birdamlik movement that I do not even know represents whom. All of that is quite apparent to me.
I do not think that the people who became prominent in the United States or elsewhere should aspire for the role of umpires here in Uzbekistan. They do not know the actual state of affairs here, they make use of the information filtered to them through lots of hands. I do not think we have an opposition in Uzbekistan that could be sympathized with. Can't say I sympathize with Muhammad Solih or the Sunny Coalition, Ozod Dehkonlar or anyone else. I do not see any persons in the opposition with the IQ or professional experience sufficient to make them deserving of state power they all salivate for. I do not doubt that the people running the show in Uzbekistan these days are better - and will remain better - than these opposition leaders. Disliking our ministers and lawmakers the way I do, I nevertheless recognize them as professionals - unlike those who claim readiness to replace them.
Ferghana.Ru: But where can the opposition get these professional politicians if a one-party system has been operating in the country for over a decade already?
Sergei Yezhkov: As a matter of fact, I do not think that open opposition to the regime is possible in Uzbekistan. It is not even the heritage of the Soviet past - it is our past, present, and future rolled into one. Much as I regret it. There is this stiff no-nonsense system of government that has always existed in Central Asia. Do not think it is any different in the neighbor countries. Discounting some minor differences in Kazakhstan, that is. There are only two things Uzbekistan needs - abidance by the law in deed and not in word, and some limitations on the power of the state to meddle with individual initiative. Make some progress in these matters, and the country will develop regardless of who is on the pinnacle of political power.
Ferghana.Ru: Your personal opinion of President Karimov?
Sergei Yezhkov: I have never concealed my conviction that Karimov and probably Nursultan Nazarbayev as well were the only politicians in the post-Soviet zone once who were earnest in their desire to make their countries happy and prosperous. Karimov is a sincere man. The way I see it, he did have faith in what he was doing - and he may have even retained this faith even now. As a person, Islam Abduganiyevich has my deep respect. Unfortunately, there is often a difference between the intentions and the results. Once he convinced himself that he was doing the job in the manner it was supposed to be done and to everyone's benefit to boot, Karimov must have stopped noticing his own mistakes and failures. In fact, he stopped believing that he could err in the first place. Unfortunately, I do not see any people close to Karimov with the guts to object. It is common knowledge meanwhile that only whatever offers resistance can be leaned on or actually trusted. Karimov has been living in savage denouncement of everything Russian and connected with Russia since the early 1990s - and everything American since 2005. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is a country that is doomed to stay in touch and develop relations with Russia, Moslem countries, and the West. Forget this stupid practice of bridge-burning. Forget being overly categorical in domestic or foreign policy. If you ask me, this is precisely where his problem is rooted. A sincere man, a man of firm convictions, Karimov becomes too emotional every now and then. He makes critical decisions on the spur of the moment and when he himself is emotionally worked-up. And there is nobody in his inner circle who could tell him simple words, "Islam Abduganiyevich, what do you say if we sleep on it?"
Ferghana.Ru: It often happens in other countries that public opinion, including that made known through the media, prevents the rulers from going too far or making devastating mistakes. There is no freedom of expression in Uzbekistan to speak of precisely because the authorities discourage it, right?
Sergei Yezhkov: Not just because of it. Journalists from Uzbek newspapers approach me regularly with the request that I bring up this or that issue as pressing, burning, and whatever else. I always respond with the traditional question, "How come you are not bringing it up? You're journalists, aren't you?" They say they are not permitted to. It means that people believe from the very start that they are not permitted anything. But they are not even trying!
Ferghana.Ru: But there were attempts such as these! Even when some newspapers were officially permitted to bring up some matter (i.e. when they were ordered to summon the guts), they were closed afterwards.
Sergei Yezhkov: So what? The authorities closed a newspaper? Establish another one. Journalists are not even trying to do what they are supposed to be doing. They are quite comfortable with the status quo. Being close to the authorities, being associated with them somehow, even indirectly, is of paramount importance in Uzbekistan. It's probably nice, feeling that you "belong". But that's just what journalism is about: it is about being able and being eager to deliberately disassociate oneself from the powers-that-be. This is not what our journalists in Uzbekistan are after. On the contrary, they are after closing the gap between themselves and the authorities as much as possible. After all, this closing of the gap spells prosperity and certain social status... People accept the rules of the game and do not even try to change them. As a result, we have propagandists alone. The difference is in what people are paid: "democratic" propagandists are paid much better than the propagandists who are associated with the powers-that-be. Journalists of servile media outlets in their turn like it that they have jobs, offices, IDs that help them cope with minor everyday problems just a bit better than what ordinary people can count on. They adore being respected in their mahalljas (localities). They believe that it shows them as men of the people. In the meantime, they never have the courage to speak their mind. Or they even prefer not to think at all.
Ferghana.Ru: Where do you get information for Uzmetronom which is often exclusive, something nobody else is privy to?
Sergei Yezhkov: I have my sources. I've been a journalist for 30 years plus, most of them spent in official media outlets. Sure, I have a lot of contacts in all sorts of places. Besides, my personal position may be playing a part. People trust me to publish a report nobody else will touch with a ten-foot pole, and they approach me with what information they want known to general public.
Ferghana.Ru: Like other Internet sources, Uzmetronom is blocked inside of Uzbekistan. Who do you think your readers are?
Sergei Yezhkov: Blocks can be bypassed, you know. A lot of Internet users in Uzbekistan are sufficiently advanced to work with proxy-servers and bypass blocks. My readers or audience are the people who think the way I do, who are interested in the problems and matters I find interesting, but who cannot make their opinion known. So far as I know, over 70% of Uzmetronom visitors live in Uzbekistan.
Ferghana.Ru: You even publish disclaimers...
Sergei Yezhkov: Yes, I do. I do not find it shameful, you know. All information in Uzbekistan is kept under the lid. State officials often keep under the lid the facts there is no need or any conceivable reason to conceal. The situation being what it is when information is obtained from every available source, the journalists who mean business should forget their fears to misinform the population on something. I do not hesitate to apologize whenever I'm wrong about anything. When the disclaimer makes the initial report even more exact and correct, it does the world of good to the repute of the publication. And readers are not any worse for it. Whenever, however, I know I'm correct but someone is trying to convince me otherwise, the second text may end up even more acerbic. That's the golden rule of journalism I abide by - always have particularly important news and arguments up a sleeve. A trump card, if you prefer. Very many know I do, and that's what makes them think twice before trying to accuse me of misinformation. As for banal glitches, they are inevitable as long as the authorities are non-transparent for society and media.
Ferghana.Ru: And what about when the authorities are more transparent? Consider Russia for instance where the regime permits relative freedom of expression. It does not prevent the authorities from using their capacities and advantages (financial ones included) to vie with independent media outlets for public opinion moulding. Why are the Uzbek authorities so afraid of informing society on anything?
Sergei Yezhkov: First, the matter concerns extremely low professionalism of the people in the corridors of power who make decisions on what information is to be disclosed and what kept under the lid. There is also the multi-layered system of state structures to consider. State officials are often afraid to say anything because they think their superiors will frown at it.
Ferghana.Ru: Aren't you afraid of making bold forecasts, say, on development of the political situation in Uzbekistan?
Sergei Yezhkov: They are not forecasts. They are hypotheses or possible options. As a publicist, I certainly have the right to make suggestions, right?
Ferghana.Ru: What do you expect from election of the president scheduled for December? What possible options do you foresee?
Sergei Yezhkov: For starters, I'm not at all confident we will have the election in the first place. Kazakhstan nearby is a vivid example of how it is not necessary. But if election it is and Karimov decides to run for president, he will certainly come in first. No two ways about it.
Ferghana.Ru: You say there may be no election at all. But the deadline permitting amendment of the Constitution was passed long ago.
Sergei Yezhkov: Who need any new amendments? The already adopted ones will do. Uzbekistan has never elected presidents for seven year terms yet. Karimov was elected for a five year term, his third one, in the previous campaign in 2000. The referendum in 2002 extended his term of office by two years. The first election of the president for the next seven year period may take place this year, and Karimov has never been elected for seven years before.
Ferghana.Ru: Reading some of your articles, one gets the impression that you are trying to convey some personal drama in Karimov's life...
Sergei Yezhkov: Karimov undertook to modify the century-old mentality. All his initial ideas of Uzbekistan as a country with a great past and great future were based on the hope that common folk would start thinking, feeling, and acting differently, contrary to how they had used to. That they would stop kneeling and groveling before everyone from policeman to tax collector to hokim (the head of administration). In short, Karimov did everything to help the people rise from their knees but they never did. Not once in all sixteen years of independence. Islam Abduganiyevich probably sees it as the end of his hopes.
Ferghana.Ru: What now? What if Karimov refuses to stay on? If there a point to talk hypothetical successors and their policies?
Sergei Yezhkov: Can't say. I suspect there are lots of smart professionals in Uzbekistan, even in the corridors of power. It's a different matter that there are no politicians of Karimov's scope in the country.
Ferghana.Ru: I hear that whenever you visit your out-of-town cottage you hoist the Soviet flag above it and play the Soviet hymn on your acoustic system...
Sergei Yezhkov: That's rubbish. Why would I do it? I played with the idea once but never got down to making the flagpole. As for the Soviet hymn, I have it on my cell phone instead of the buzzer. Besides, I do not have any acoustic systems there. Had it been otherwise, it would have been different... Seriously, I'd like to see Uzbekistan as a part of some vast and major power and I even think that Uzbekistan itself would have benefited from it. I'm a realist, however, and I know that it is not going to happen in any foreseeable future. Integration on the low level is the only means of bringing this possible future closer - the kind of integration that is happening when millions of Uzbeks work in Russia and some Russians come here to make money. I can only hope that one fine day, say 20 years from now, this integration will make the leap to the state level.