The nations of Central Asia find themselves walking a tightrope over the war in Ukraine, unhappy over Moscow’s unprovoked attack on another former Soviet republic but economically dependent on Russia and fearful of angering its leader.
The response, in Uzbekistan and elsewhere, has been a carefully guarded policy of neutrality as laid out last month in remarks to the Uzbek Senate by then-Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.
“We recognize the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and consider the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk to be Ukrainian territory, he said. Yet, he added, Tashkent values its deep political and economic ties with Russia.
Kamilov echoed President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s insistence that Uzbekistan will not join military blocs or deploy its forces abroad. Others in Mirziyoyev’s administration say Tashkent’s “stand on the war is firm” and that neutrality is its mantra. Any mention of the war brings a reminder of the nation’s neutrality.
U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan Daniel Rosenblum said Washington understands why Tashkent will not explicitly denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression.
WATCH: Ambassador Daniel Rosenblum speaks with VOA's Navbahor Imamova:
Among the pressures it faces is the nation’s reliance on remittances from citizens who work in Russia, which accounted for 11.6% of Uzbekistan’s gross domestic product in 2020. The figures for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were even higher, at 31% and 27% respectively.
“We deeply respect the fact that due to geography and history, Uzbekistan has to balance a lot of interests and get along with its neighbors, who are also trading partners and important sources of investment,” Rosenblum told VOA.
But, he said, the United States expects real neutrality.
"We understand you're not going to be criticizing the invasion or providing the kind of aid that many countries in Europe are to Ukraine, military aid and things of that nature," he said. "But you're also not going to be cheering on or aiding and abetting the other side.”
Uzbek officials told VOA they hear the American ambassador but fear Moscow.
“We are obviously afraid of Russia,” confessed one policymaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We don’t agree with them, but we see what becomes of a country if you get on the nerves of the Kremlin and President Putin.”
"Who will defend us if we are attacked?” a veteran Uzbek lawmaker pointedly asked. “We must take care of ourselves.”
That fear has led the government to maintain a tight rein on public reporting about the war. State media do not attempt independent coverage but simply repeat official positions. Private outlets in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, meanwhile, have faced official scrutiny when they attempted to analyze the conflict objectively or question the war.
Officials at several major news sites and channels told VOA they prefer self-censorship to dealing with angry authorities. In Uzbekistan, VOA found that nearly a dozen reporters, editors and bloggers were called in by the State Security Service in March because of their coverage of Ukraine.
Government officials say such measures are necessary to combat misinformation and disinformation but deny that independent media are being silenced.
“Uzbek media are covering Ukraine,” said Komil Allamjonov, a former presidential press secretary and head of Uzbekistan’s media regulator. “No one is banned from touching the topic, but we must be neutral and unbiased. This is not ‘our’ war. Uzbekistan has no journalists on the ground. Relying on foreign media requires caution and responsibility.”
Allamjonov, who owns a TV channel in Tashkent, co-chairs the Public Foundation for Support and Development of National Mass Media in Uzbekistan, together with Mirziyoyev’s eldest daughter, Saida Mirziyoyeva.
Talking to VOA from Geneva, where they were meeting U.N. agencies, Allamjonov said Uzbekistan deserves a robust media, capable of representing the public interest at home and abroad.
“Media freedom is key, and the way forward,” said Allamjonov. “We need international assistance in promoting accountability, capacity building and media literacy. Our fund is open for cooperation with development agencies, watchdogs and advocacy groups.”
But one Uzbek TV news director in Tashkent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that most Uzbek outlets shy away from analyzing the conflict in Ukraine.
“It’s not like we are reporting live from Ukraine or Russia,” the news director said. “We pick up international sources like yours. The most we can do is engage the public, experts and officials. But since we can’t control what people say, we choose not to touch the topic.”
That leaves most Central Asians to get their information about the war from digital and foreign media, including Kremlin-funded outlets.
“There's a lot of Russian media penetration here,” Rosenblum said. He said Uzbeks value media in their own language but find it hard to avoid Russia’s “false and distorted picture of Ukraine and the rest of the world.”
“The volume of voices we're hearing from the Russian media drowns out others. It's so loud, so vehement, so aggressive that it makes it seem that's what everyone is thinking and saying,” he said.
Rosenblum is sympathetic to the Uzbek fear of provoking Russia but worries this will yield an information blockade and promote misleading content.
“I'm unaware of any effort to block the falsehoods that are coming out of the Russian media. … That's also not ‘neutral’ and ‘balanced,’ right? So, if you're going to be balanced and neutral, it must be on both sides,” he said. “It helps to give a fully rounded picture of what's happening, so the media should be allowed to do its job.”
It is hard to verify reports about the war, the diplomat admitted. “But at the end, there is truth and there are facts. And I deeply believe that the facts of what is happening in Ukraine are coming out to the world. And it's revealing a tragedy, a human tragedy.”
Noting that Mirziyoyev has repeatedly cited the need for vocal and critical media as a watchdog, he said, “If you're going to have a principle that professional, truthful, aggressive reporting is important to the health of a society, then that should apply all the time. It shouldn't just be, you know, when it's convenient.”