In recent years, nonviolent revolutions have challenged authoritarian rulers around the globe.
In many of the most famous triumphs of “people power,” youth movements have played a key role by providing the hope, energy, and direct action needed to mobilize their societies for change.
The Serbian movement Otpor is a premier example of a successful revolutionary youth organization. Combining discipline, courage, organization, creativity, humor, and a philosophy of nonviolence, Otpor led the charge to overthrow brutal dictator Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 and create a democratic political system in Serbia.
Thus, the revolutionary importance of youth groups such as Otpor was on my mind as I attended the congress of the democratic nonviolent revolutionary movement Birdamlik over the weekend in St. Louis.
At the congress I met three young activists, whose story provides important insights into both the potential political awakening of Uzbek youth and the prospects for the success of opposition movements in Uzbekistan like Birdamlik.
Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri’s Story
Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri, all in their mid-twenties, grew up in Uzbekistan, but now live in the United States. In 2007, they decided to run a summer camp for children back home in Uzbekistan.
The idea to undertake this project came from Dmitri, who wanted to teach young Uzbeks to think more critically and independently, as well as expose them to more information about the world than is easily available in an isolated dictatorship like Uzbekistan.
According to Dmitri, the education system in Uzbekistan actually gives children a decent framework for understanding political and human rights if they can just be pushed past state propaganda in order to think critically about their own country.
When asked how they themselves had learned to think independently about Uzbekistan, Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri all quickly identified their earlier participation in the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program administered by the US State Department as having had a major impact on them.
Aziz described how his “eyes were opened” by his experiences in the FLEX program, which allows students from the Former Soviet Union to spend a year living with a host family and attending high school in the United States.
The summer camp run by Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri in Uzbekistan was staffed by various friends and funded by grants from the US State Department and several other organizations.
At camp each day, the children attended classes about topics such as human rights, environmental conservation, women’s and gay rights, and AIDS awareness. Discussions also directly addressed important political topics in Uzbekistan, such as forced labor in the cotton fields and the Andijan massacre.
The camp also organized Frisbee and baseball games for the children. The members of the winning baseball team were allowed to take home the bats and gloves donated by the State Department as prizes after the camp ended.
In the organizers’ own words, “the most important thing was to give out unbiased information and let the kids think for themselves.” All three proudly remember having seen a dramatic transformation of the campers’ worldviews take place in front of their eyes.
After the success of the 2007 camp, Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri again organized camps in the summers of 2008 and 2009. Forty to sixty children attended the camps each summer.
Ruslan explained that, at first, these camps managed to escape notice, largely “flying under the radar.” However, that all changed following the summer of 2009.
State Intimidation Campaign
As plans were being made to hold the camp for the fourth year in a row, Dmitri received a call from the manager of the facility that they had used for the previous camps. She informed them that they would have to find another venue.
They quickly discovered, however, that no one else was willing to rent them facilities for the camp.
In another ominous sign, officials had confiscated photos from the 2009 camp that Dmitri had been carrying with him when traveling back to the US.
Then, their volunteers started quitting, no longer willing to help out with the summer camps out of fear for their personal safety, as well as the safety of their family and friends.
Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri are all sure that their plans to continue holding summer camps in Uzbekistan were sabotaged by an intimidation campaign from the state security service (SNB) and local police.
Finding themselves unable to continue any activism inside Uzbekistan, Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri have decided to remain indefinitely in the United States and refocus their efforts.
The informal organization they have been building since Dmitri first had the idea to organize a summer camp in 2007 was officially christened Awareness Projects International (API) in 2009.
Based in Seattle, API now focuses on building awareness within the United States about the situation in Uzbekistan, with the hope that this will translate into increased international efforts to promote political reform in Uzbekistan.
To continue their work, Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri have had to fund API entirely out of their own pockets, along with donations from friends.
In total, Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri’s story exemplifies how regimes with totalitarian tendencies such as the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan smother and suffocate any attempts by its citizens to cultivate an independent civil society.
However, the initiative taken by these three young Uzbeks to try and host such camps in the first place, as well as their determination to refocus their efforts in the face of adversity, offers hope for the future.
Revolution in Uzbekistan
Whether or not Birdamlik can connect with, support, and empower young Uzbeks such as Ruslan, Aziz, and Dmitri will be a key determinant of how much of an impact it can ultimately make inside Uzbekistan.
As shown by last weekend’s congress, Birdamlik is working hard to build an opposition organization with experienced leadership, resources, and a vision and plan for how to create a better political, economic, and social system in Uzbekistan.
If a revolutionary youth movement similar to Otpor can emerge inside Uzbekistan, either as part of or working in tandem with opposition movements like Birdamlik, then Karimov may yet be thrown onto the ash heap of history alongside other dictators such as Slobodan Milosevic.
Will Wright, a political science doctoral student at UCLA for Uznews.net.
Visit www.rubcacenter.com to see more of his work & follow him on Twitter at @wi1lwright.