Uzbekistan: The Philosopher-King

philosopher kingTASHKENT, Uzbekistan | Here is a pop quiz: Who is the prolific author of the 15 volumes of books and speeches that are required reading for Uzbek students in a course on “The Idea of National Independence: Main Concepts and Principles”?

If you said President Islam Karimov, you pass.

Karimov’s voluminous writings began to enter the curriculum in many Uzbek schools in the early years after independence from the Soviet Union. “In all, young people [study Karimov’s writings] for nearly 10 years, but even university students don’t know the president’s works in detail,” says Farkhad Tolipov, an associate professor of politics at the National University of Uzbekistan.

Tolipov, who like all aspirants for the postgraduate candidate of science degree had to take an examination on Karimov’s writings, says students’ less than enthusiastic reception of the leader’s thoughts speaks to their ironic attitude toward official documents and slogans.

“The course is boring and the books are boring,” one Tashkent undergraduate says. She passed her course on Karimov’s writings in each of her first three years, and this year must take the mandatory exam in the subject.

The Karimov Canon

“Writing books, the publication of collected works are in the tradition of all [Communist] Party bonzes and the nomenklatura bosses of socialist countries … that is their culture,” Uzbek sociologist Bakhodir Musaev says.

Karimov’s first book offers an overall prescription for renewing Uzbek society and the political system. Two others cover economic matters, and the fourth and best-known looks at security concerns and offers more guidance on politics and public life.

“There are at least three effective criteria for defining the degree of democracy in a society,” that work, Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the 21st Century, states, defining the criteria as “the extent to which the public is informed about decision-making processes, the extent to which governmental decisions are under the control of the public, and the extent to which ordinary citizens take part in state management.

“If there is no progress in these three fields,” it continues, “then all discourse about democracy is either mere populism or simply a political game.”

Karimov is not alone in writing about politics and his take on the world – regardless of whether it is viewed as political guff, insightful literature, or pure propaganda. The current Kazakh, Tajik and Turkmen leaders are all published authors, and Saparmurat Niyazov, the long-serving first president of Turkmenistan, notoriously required that students read his spiritual guide, the Ruhnama, and ordered its display in mosques.

But Karimov’s writings have represented the official gospel for years, even if there is disagreement on their merits.

“More than 10 years have passed since these true words were written, but real actions indicate that there are neither guarantees for progress nor any movement,” Musaev believes.

One retired teacher recalls that in the early years of independence students and teachers embraced the leader’s writings.

“In our lessons, we convinced students that national independence would lead to a better life and that life in Uzbekistan would soon improve,” the former Tashkent college teacher says. “At first students sincerely believed that independent Uzbekistan would become a prosperous, highly developed country, citing Karimov’s books. But then they lost interest in the course and in Karimov’s books because life in the country hardly improved.”

In Soviet times, the woman taught university students the history of the Communist Party of the USSR. Just as students in those times prepared written summaries of the classics of Marxism-Leninism, after independence students who wanted a grade of “excellent” summarized Karimov’s books.

When Tolipov defended his dissertation in 1997, he took exams in his specialist field of political science, philosophy, information science, and a foreign language, in addition to the works of Karimov. He passed that test with a good mark, but says that even the university staff who set the exam to postgraduate students did so unwillingly and considered it an unnecessary burden. He calls the exam an anachronism from the Soviet past.

‘Insights on the Man’

But not everyone regards the president’s books as propaganda or self-aggrandizement. S. Frederick Starr, the founder and chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University in the United States, said in an e-mail: “What strikes me above all is his tendency to dwell on problems, or at least on those problems that he perceives, rather than engage in the endless self-congratulation that is natural to the genre.”

Starr contributed the preface to the 1998 English-language edition of Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the 21st Century.

“I did so because it offered insights on the man, and especially on his tendency to seek to manage all change, a tendency which I traced to the years he spent working for the Soviet planning agency, Gosplan. I characterized him as something of a pessimist, for whom the ‘glass is always half empty,’ ” Starr says.

The book was an “important new work” of “remarkable frankness,” Shirin Akiner of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies wrote in a comment for the book jacket.

Is There a Ghost Here?

Karimov has built a reputation as one of the region’s harshest rulers. His government often comes under criticism by human rights defenders for its rough measures against those it considers enemies, often members of Islamic organizations. The press is tightly controlled and civil society groups closely monitored. Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since Soviet days, was re-elected last December for another seven-year term.

Just as Karimov has come to embody the secular, authoritarian Uzbek state, his writings are taken as expressing the thinking of the entire leadership – whether or not he wrote everything under his name.

Musaev claims the books “are the products of the collective thought” of members of a presidential think tank called the Institute of Strategic and Regional Studies and influential presidential advisors.

But the poet and journalist Rakhmatjon Kuldashev believes the authorship of the books doesn’t matter because they reflect the views of Uzbekistan’s leadership.

“The ideology stated in his books, being the ideology of the Uzbek president and government, was necessary to divert the nation’s youth away from Islamic fundamentalism in the early 1990s,” Kuldashev says. “Young people were affected by Islamic fundamentalism and Karimov’s books were aimed against it.”

Starr believes that Karimov is the real author of all or at least much of what is in the books, “and that they therefore are in their way revealing.”

“I suppose it is not a bad thing that these people [Central Asian leaders] consider it important to write, or have someone write, books, but they always reveal more than is intended!” he says.

Numbers are Deceiving

Despite the relatively low price of about 2.5 euros for a volume of the collected works or 0.3 euros for a pamphlet of a speech, there is no obvious demand for the Uzbek president’s writings. Many Uzbeks seem to prefer books or pamphlets on the teachings of Islam.

Booksellers show respect to the author-president. On entering one bookshop in central Tashkent, the first thing the customer sees is a display of his books in a glass case decorated with a vase of flowers, below the flag of Uzbekistan and Karimov’s portrait.

An Uzbek librarian told Radio Free Europe last year that 31 million copies of Karimov’s works had been published, exceeding five-fold the print run of Lenin’s writings issued in the republic under communism.

“I am not aware that any of the many books by leaders of the new states of Central Asia have had much real impact,” Starr says.

“I suppose it is a not a bad thing that all these presidents feel the need to issue books on economics, history, or ancient history … even if they are little read and have a very brief ‘shelf life.’ Perhaps they are like the books that political candidates write in the West.”


Tags: ,


Share this Post