The day the Uzbek poet lost his freedom

The hours pass on this day of Ramadan. Muhammad Salikh has a dry throat from talking without touching a glass of water. The famous poet, figure of the independence of Uzbekistan, has a lot to say about the death of the USSR in 1991 and the first years of his country’s existence. It is about summarizing a life of opponent, between bitterness and the desire to explain. Its history marries the drama of the democrats in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia who, too naive or too idealistic, have been swept from the political landscape.

Muhammad Salikh is a dissident in the post-Soviet world. Refugee in Turkey since 1993, the man remains prosecuted in his country for “Treason and terrorism”. Thousands of kilometers from home, he observed for three decades the evolutions of an authoritarian government, far from the hopes born of the glasnost (transparency policy) driven by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR. “In 1991, we exchanged the yoke of Moscow for a dictatorship of our own, but it remains a good year from a historical point of view”, he tempers, scratching his white goatee.

At 71, the poet with the narrowed eyes looks like a wise old man who refuses to give in to nostalgia for the USSR. The Soviet citizen died in him a long time ago, during his military service. “It was in August 1968”, he begins. The young soldier was incorporated into the contingents sent to Czechoslovakia to stifle the Prague Spring. He is barely 18 years old, and his conscience as a good Communist collapses at the sight of local populations repressed for having defended the democratization of the regime. “I saw that we were not liberators but occupiers, and I began to reflect on the history of my own people”, he continues.

Under Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), such subjects were banned. The KGB is omnipresent, the censorship vigilant. “Separatists” and others “Nationalists” fill the labor camps. Muhammad Salikh then finds his “Inner freedom” through art, thanks to writers and filmmakers who use fables and allegories to express their convictions. The poet translates Paul Éluard with the history of his people in mind. One of his essays tells of the awakening of the statues of Lenin, lost in a territory of Central Asia where the Russians would have left, a futuristic vision of Uzbekistan today. The work will be reviewed by the censors.

Everything changed radically when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. The leader, who naively thought that Bolshevism had erased the problem of nationalities inherited from the tsarist empire, eased the police pressure on the small Soviet peoples. Freed from the regime’s iron fist, national demands immediately arose among Caucasians, Balts, Armenians, Ukrainians. The Kremlin has opened Pandora’s box: it will no longer be able to close it.

Muhammad Salikh does not remember the first time he said the word long taboo: ” independence “. Things came gradually, testing the new freedoms. In 1985, he and 52 young poets wrote a manifesto calling for access to Uzbek history and an end to discrimination. To their surprise, they are not stopped, and the text is even discussed by the politburo from Uzbekistan. He took a further step in 1988. During a speech delivered at the Institute of Physics, which will be repeated by the New York Times and the Pravda, the intellectual demands the freedom of Uzbekistan, which he describes as “Colony”.

In Tashkent, capital of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, a wind of freedom is blowing in the streets. We discuss the future of the country, we immerse ourselves in the Muslim past. Charismatic and ambitious, the poet became the standard bearer of the Uzbek patriots who loudly demanded independence. In 1989, he launched his own party, Erk (“Freedom”), and the newspaper of the same name, which sold tens of thousands of copies. “I felt with all my being that the USSR was going to collapse, he assures. It was in the air. “

The communist elite, led by the future president of independent Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, at first seems to be swimming against the tide of history. When the Moscow putsch broke out in August 1991, Islam Karimov even sent a telegram of support to the plotters who wanted to put an end to the reforms, claiming to save the USSR. The Uzbek apparatchik finally escapes the wave that swept away the perpetrators of the failed coup and their allies. In a clever about-face, he declared the independence of the Soviet republic on August 31, then unexpectedly transformed the local Communist Party into the “People’s Party” on September 14. Supported by a socialist orthodoxy shaken elsewhere, the local nomenklatura is putting itself in order of battle in view of the presidential election of 1er December 1991. The Birlik (“Unity”) democratic movement is suppressed. Only Muhammad Salikh’s, Erk, is allowed to participate.

A real-fake campaign then opens, under the tight control of the local KGB. The poet is entitled to fifteen minutes of air on local television to defend his candidacy. He can hold meetings, but places that are intended to accommodate crowds are closed overnight for mysterious security work, a common practice in Russia today. “We campaigned in the street”, he recalls. Opposite, his opponent presents himself as a guarantor of stability and a bulwark against the growing influence of Islam in Central Asia, a region marked by Wahhabi proselytism.

On the evening of December 29, the first results fell. On national radio, an imprudent presenter announces the former chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan in the lead ahead of the poet, who would win 33% of the vote. The following days, we learned of the dismissal of the journalist from the radio while the opponent’s result fell to 12%. “THE ELECTION HAS BEEN STOLEN”, insists Muhammad Salikh thirty years later; which takes as proof the statements a posteriori of a former adviser of Islam Karimov.

Barely elected, the ex-communist apparatchik nipped the nascent protest in the bud. A student demonstration is brutally repressed. Opposition newspapers are banned. Soon, it is the parties’ turn to be declared illegal. The population, occupied in surviving in the economic collapse which accompanied the fall of the USSR, does not flinch. Muhammad Salikh, who refused his rival’s offer to join the government, ends up being arrested “For high treason” in April 1993. Taking advantage of a conditional release, he managed to flee to the Caucasus and then to Turkey. He won’t be coming home anymore.

Independent Uzbekistan therefore takes the path of the countries of Central Asia whose name ends with “stan”. These republics born after the breakup of the USSR perpetuate, at the dawn of their existence, the Soviet tradition of the single party, the cult of the leader, the media under control and the hunt for dissenting voices. Their leaders go without flinching from secretary general of the local party to president of the independent states of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, while Tajikistan plunges into civil war (1992-1997).

The defeat of the Democrats at the fall of the Soviet empire was ultimately inevitable, thinks Muhammad Salikh. The Communist leaders controlled the police, the powerful secret services, the army, public television, the administration. “How could one imagine that officials from totalitarian structures would hand over power to the people? “, he wonders. Not without envy, he notes that the Baltic States have known a different fate by joining the democracies of the European Union.

In Uzbekistan, his image as a poet and the first fighter for independence has gradually faded behind that of a dangerous opponent, of an exile who would have espoused the theses of the radical Islamists, whose ideology is gaining ground in Central Asia. The powerful propaganda of the regime of Islam Karimov even accused him, without solid evidence, of being behind the wave of terrorist attacks that killed 19 people and targeted the president in person in 1999. From then on , the regime will make a habit of condemning opponents under pretexts of religious extremism.

Muhammad Salikh defends himself with a sigh: “Islamist? Terrorist? These are old accusations that go back to the days of the KGB. “ If he had become president, he would have established a secular state, he argues, based on law and justice. His detractors, who are even recruited from the secular opposition and human rights defenders, suspect him of having wanted to surf on the Islamization of society through very conservative statements. More often, he is criticized for being the leader of the opposition without taking into account the new realities.

On the death of the omnipotent Uzbek President Islam Karimov in 2016, the poet loses his nemesis, who had tried to assassinate him three times. He immediately contested the seizure of power by Chavkat Mirzioïev, the former prime minister, who established an authoritarian government with a democratic veneer, like Vladimir Putin in Russia. The regime is undertaking unprecedented reforms, notably by opening prisons and liberalizing the economy, but without going so far as to integrate the opposition parties into the electoral process. Only the formations which pledge allegiance to the leader obtain the right to participate in the legislative elections of 2019.

Muhammad Salikh seems more marginalized than ever in this Uzbekistan which has turned the page on the Karimov era. He seems to have heard the message. For the first time, the septuagenarian says he wants to pass the reins of his movement, Erk, to young people who will try to obtain the right to compete in the presidential election this fall. “I want to devote the rest of my life to literature”, he swears. This staunch opponent refuses to trade a life of combat for an amnesty. “My children may have the chance one day to experience democratic Uzbekistan”, he hopes. He doesn’t think he’ll live until then.


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